Interview: Doug Anthony All Stars – ‘Some people do very fine, clever and witty political comedy, we just go for the sledgehammer’
Boisterous Aussies and musical comedy Fringe favourites Doug Anthony All Stars are back with a bang
They’re back. The Australians who blazed a (literally) riotous trail through the Fringe in the mid to late 80s. The trio of all-singing, all-swearing, all-scabrous stand-ups with a not-so-fine line in political and sexual comedy. The comedy troupe who could stop the laughter dead in its tracks with a perfectly soulful, utterly ‘straight’ version of ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’. They are the Doug Anthony All Stars, an act fast-tracked to global success by the Fringe – they were nominated for the Perrier Award in 1988 – and they’re returning to Edinburgh 12 years after a ‘farewell’ tour of their homeland.
‘Before we came to Scotland in ’87, we were not thinking in festival terms at all until we got to the Adelaide Fringe, and that was so damn enjoyable,’ remembers golden-voiced Paul McDermott of the DAAS’ early days. ‘Then someone said, “have you heard of Edinburgh?” “No, where’s that?” So that was instantly the next thing we wanted to do because the Adelaide Fringe had just given us a taste for that instantaneous connections with a great number of people. And we thought, “if Edinburgh is bigger and brighter and brassier than Adelaide, let’s go for it.”’
‘We were very much into the mob dynamic and there were beer fights, actual fights,’ says Tim Ferguson with a wistful air. ‘The locals want to cut loose; they don’t just want to go to comedy and have a laugh. They want someone to walk on and go, “well, you’re all drunk, do what thou wilt!”’
In 1987, the unknown DAAS were booked into the Pleasance for the Fringe’s final week only. But such was their anarchic brilliance (and their willingness to dive armpit-deep into the Edinburgh ‘experience’) that they quickly became a word-of-mouth sensation. Returning annually, for eight years they were reportedly the Fringe’s best-selling act. ‘That first year, we were busking for the opening two weeks because we didn’t have a whole run,’ recalls McDermott. ‘We didn’t even have a place to stay when we arrived. We eventually got a place in a flat because another group didn’t turn up. And because they didn’t turn up we got their slot in the first week. It was all just incredibly fortuitous.’
Now, after several years working apart in Australia, they’re here again. Well, to clarify: most of them are back. Richard Fidler, who played the role of oft-bullied milksop guitarist, has not joined the DAAS reunion, a rebirth that began as a 30th anniversary one-off in Australia in 2014. ‘Richard’s got a nationally syndicated radio show,’ explains McDermott. ‘So just for one hour every day he gets to talk to whoever is the most interesting person around, and he didn’t want to give that up to come on tour and be funny and adored.’
‘And also some of the material we do could put him in a very awkward position with the government broadcaster ABC,’ says Ferguson.
‘We had a song back in the day called “Maria”, with rambling, absurdist lyrics,’ begins McDermott. ‘But under the Abbott government we brought that back with new lyrics: “I know a guy whose name is Tony Abbott, and he is a cock, a cock, a motherfucking cock”. And we’d sing that about every member of the front bench of the Liberal Party (and throw in a couple of Labour people), then we’d throw it wide to the audience to allow them to express their hatred of someone in particular. So some nights we’d go for 15 minutes with people venting about the government, governments in general, issues around the planet.’
‘Some people do very fine, clever and witty political comedy,’ acknowledges Ferguson. ‘We just go for the sledgehammer.’
So, completing the trio this time round is comedian / guitarist and old DAAS pal Paul ‘Flacco’ Livingston, himself an Edinburgh veteran. When I speak to the DAAS via Skype from the midst of an Australian tour, he enters the hotel room by crawling on the floor then adopts a largely gnomic silence. When asked what he brings to the rebooted troupe, Livingston replies, ‘age, wisdom and charm’.
He also brings a much-needed extra pair of (working) legs. Ferguson suffers from multiple sclerosis and is now wheelchair-bound. As fans might expect, the Dougs are hilariously upfront about his illness in their new show.
‘A lot of the stuff that we’re talking about is who we are now,’ says Ferguson. ‘So, the unstoppable approach of death is now a real thing. And we have people like me with disabilities, and the taking care of parents or relatives whose wheels have come off: that’s a very rich vein. Of course it’s scary and it’s tragic and it’s sad, but that’s where our comedy tends to live.’
‘Then of course there’s still sex,’ McDermott chips in. ‘I’ve written a song about porn exhaustion.’ How high generally is the sex quotient? ‘With Tim? Oh, it’s high,’ shoots back McDermott. ‘He doesn’t get a lot of say in it. Get him on the right pills, he has no idea.’
In similar niceties-ignoring vein, Ferguson insists he didn’t have to think hard about the logistical practicalities of going back on the road. ‘Nah, I’ve got an entire team doing whatever I say! l’m on really strong pills, so I don’t think for more than ten seconds!’ he laughs.
‘Yeah, he never had to think about it!’ shouts McDermott. ‘It’s just the rest of us have to every moment of the day and night. What I’m not looking forward to at all are the cobbled streets of Edinburgh. That’s gonna be fun with the wheelchair.’
On stage, or on the streets, the reborn DAAS are on a roll.
Doug Anthony All Stars, Pleasance Courtyard, Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 4–14 Aug (not 8 & 9), 10pm, £15 (£14). Preview 3 Aug, £10.