'Once I embraced my gene pool I found life much more bearable'
He can't stand panel shows and wants all his shows to be uplifting - comedian Sean Hughes might be getting older but compromise doesn't seem to have entered his vocabulary
‘What age are you?” Sean Hughes is talking about getting older – I’m 30 in March. “Is that a big milestone for you? Don’t worry about it – 31 is the weird one. You’ll get a bit of sympathy when you hit 30, then 31, no one gives a f**k. That’s my little tip for you.”
Hughes’s knack for dispensing unsettling consolations is an off-hand one. The sympathy the comedian received for his 30th was Channel 4 broadcasting the Sean Hughes Is Thirty Somehow tour. That was 17 years ago. Three years previous to that, Sean’s Show on Channel 4 was on its way to being nominated for the British Comedy Awards. A sitcom that in many ways encapsulated the surrealism and fecklessness of 1990s comedy, it was broadcast at a time when the comics who broke through the clubs and then on to television were actually alternative. (Hughes’s breakthrough came at the dawn of that decade, when he became the first Irish winner of the Perrier Comedy Award.)
There are bigger sympathies though, namely those offered when his father died, a death which forms the basis of his latest show, Life Becomes Noises. This is a two-hour narrative piece, addressing Hughes’s relationship with his father – an alcoholic – his death, Hughes’s childhood, and his mother, with observational comedy giving way to a script. He did two different shows at the last Edinburgh Fringe because he didn’t want to become the go-to guy for death. But it’s Life Becomes Noises that has altered his outlook. “All of my shows have to be uplifting now. That’s my big change . . . I want people to go out feeling better about themselves.”
The disillusionment Hughes channels into comedy now seems to have a greater purpose: “There’s so much s**t going on in the world, but there’s so much kindness in the world, and I just think I’d rather add to that . . . I think it’s an age thing as well.
“There’s a line from the show, it’s not a funny line, but it’s this thing about once I embraced my gene pool I found my life much more bearable. Before that, I expected too much from things. I wanted more from life. That can be read as giving up, but it’s not. It’s about being much more realistic.” He mentions one of his happiest recent moments: seeing his mother’s joy when he brought her to the church she got married in.
Hughes describes himself as an outsider, a disposition that suits, given its “lone wolf” element. As his achievements clocked up, he never stopped feeling he would get “caught out”. He wrote two novels when “I could have just done an ad and got twice as much money”.
Yet his accomplishments are gauzed with insecurity. “You always feel you’re a bit of a chancer as well,” he says, fiddling with the spoon of his decaf skinny latte. “I guess it’s a working-class thing, where I always feel I don’t fit in.”
Ambition wasn’t hereditary
Hughes grew up in Firhouse in Dublin to traffic warden and driving instructor parents. Ambition wasn’t hereditary, but he was driven, deciding at around 12 years old that he wanted to be a comedian. “They [his parents] would just go ‘stop talking nonsense’ and wanted me to work in Superquinn. I’ve got two brothers. One of them won a race, so he was going to be the athlete. My other brother went to business school so he was the brains. They didn’t know where to put me. I had the arrogance to go ‘I’m going to do this’.”
When celebrity followed success, he withdrew, and he also dipped in and out of acting (Coronation Street, The Last Detective). “I was never into being a celebrity, but you get dragged in and find yourself at a do with Dale Winton and think, What the f**k is going on with my life? This isn’t why I did comedy.”
It’s not the best time to be making unconventional comedy. What Hughes describes as “cosy” comedy is booming. Michael McIntyre made €25 million on his last tour. Seven million people watch Mrs Brown’s Boys in the UK. “I completely understand it. I hate this bull***t of ‘in a recession people need to laugh’, that’s nonsense, but it’s like the same reason people watch soap operas: they like to watch the likes of Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys, and stand-up from John Bishop because it’s cosy, it’s not going to take them anywhere they don’t want to go, and they can really relax within that. It’s a very narrow-minded look at life, but I can appreciate people really soaking that up.”
Hughes doesn’t say this through gritted teeth. He accepts that mass-market entertainment is consumed at its most diluted, but there is a tone of disappointment in his voice regarding younger comics. He thinks most of the interesting stuff is being done by his generation; Stewart Lee, Mark Thomas, Richard Herring.
“We went into comedy not to make money. The next generation went in to make money.” He stresses the word money. “We’re aware that the connection is much more important. For me, people have lost sight of the fact that comedy is supposed to make people feel good about themselves, not just ‘ha-ha, next one’.”
Hughes did Never Mind the Buzzcocks for six years, but ditched panel shows when he left it in 2002. They’re part of the problem with modern comedy, Hughes says, creating an ugly atmosphere of competition and a ladder-climbing blueprint for young comics. “I love all the guys involved in it, but I cannot stand Mock The Week. I just think it’s disgusting.”
He views 20-minute club sets as conveyor-belt comedy. “A lot of comedy has become like speed dating. On the television it’s like ‘hi, my name’s such and such, here’s a couple of things about me, love me, love me’. Then someone else comes on and pretty much says the exact same thing. I’m not blaming the comics, there are some brilliant comics out there, but we’ve all bought into this comedy; do five minutes on stage, panel show, do a bit of that, and then you’ll get your own slot.”
“I’m just not going to do it”
He references a conversation with a young comic searching for a theme for his Edinburgh show. “And his agent says, ‘F**king theme? If you want to do arts centres for the rest of your life, think of a theme. Just give me six good 10-minute chunks.’ That’s the way it is. But all of the young comics are really ambitious, and they’re happy to fall into that.”
The result? Hughes is an outsider within comedy. “I’m not going to go out smiling and do a five-minute set at the Apollo. I’m just not going to do it.” What if you did it and totally sabotaged it? “Well, then I’d just be a dick.”
Inspiration comes from elsewhere. He mentions TOY, a psychedelic rock band from London. He thinks a reaction to conservatism will happen in music first – “it needs a bunch of punks basically to start a cultural revolution” – and he sees the art world as being increasingly vibrant. But the real praise is reserved for a particular piece of theatre.
His favourite play is Tom Murphy’s A Whistle In The Dark. He saw it for the first time 10 years ago, when he related to the younger son, and again recently, when he related more to the father. He meditates on Murphy for a beat. “Tom Murphy is just, well, we don’t really call people national treasures, do we? That’s a very British thing.” The queen of hearts? “Ha! Yeah. You know, that Tom Murphy? He’s the queen of hearts.”
Sean Hughes appears at Vicar Street, Dublin, on February 21st