STEPHEN ''Stiffy'' Cooper should have kept his hands to himself. Boy, does he know that now.
But he couldn't help himself.
In the lunchtime and recess bearpit of his high school 20 or more years ago, there was a feather-light, nerdish kid with a weird, sort-of-pommy accent called Tim Ferguson. It was as if Tim had a ''Hit me'' sign on his back for the school bullies - and ''Stiffy'' was one of them.
But Ferguson grew up to be a comedian, joined a lacerating comic trio called the Doug Anthony All Stars and got a TV show on the ABC. When he'd tell a gag it wasn't just ''a man walks into a bar …'' It was ''a man, and let's call him Stephen Cooper …''
It wasn't always Stiffy because Ferguson, a serial victim, would roster in the names of others who had made his life a misery at most of the nine schools he attended.
Years later, at a reunion, Cooper asked if he was the one being named on national TV. Told he was, he asked if Ferguson would please mind not doing it again.
''I said, 'Well Stephen, I don't know if that's going to happen. I might stop and I might not','' says Ferguson, eyes malevolently twinkling. ''And, oops, here I am talking to The Sunday Age and doing it again.
''From my end that was a kind of bullying and it was quite conscious: 'This will hurt him, this is on a level where he can't fight back'. And it was quite cruel to a guy who's actually turned out to be quite a decent bloke now. But it was revenge.''
For Tim Ferguson, the rot set in early. His father, a journalist, moved often, which meant the kids kept changing schools.
At his first school, in Singapore, Ferguson picked up a slightly plummy ''last gasp of the Raj'' accent that became shark chum for a succession of tormenters.
And he was lousy at sport, so he usually spent rugby matches carrying oranges - and talking to girls. ''It's actually far more heterosexual to sit and talk to women rather than run around trying to grapple with men's arses,'' he says in the book.
Problem was, when the game ended the girls abandoned him for the jocks, he told The Sunday Age. ''Out on the field it was always 'Don't give it to Ferg!' Which the girls all heard loud and clear because they never gave it to Ferg either.''
Eventually he found a sort of respite in being funny. ''It's the one thing that will make girls tolerate you and the one thing where if you can't catch or kick, the blokes who can will say 'He's all right. He's funny.'''
It also allowed Ferguson to turn the aggression around. The Doug Anthony All Stars were one of the cruelest acts in Australian comedy.
''When you're a comedian, even the biggest footballer in the room has no power. You've got him by the goolies,'' he says.
And how does that feel now, Stiffy Cooper?
A slight kid with a posh accent, bullied at each ofthe nine schools he attended: "I was punched at every school I went to. Being skinny and smart,well, that's immediately daunting to the guys with big frames. The only weapon I ever had was my sense of humour."
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