Interview: Sean Hughes, comedian

Sean Hughes by Debra Hurford Brown
Sean Hughes by Debra Hurford Brown
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COMEDIAN Sean Hughes asks as many questions as he answers, but with two shows on at the Fringe, he probably needs the material

As we walk into the first gallery of the Royal Academy’s summer show, my heart sinks. It’s mobbed. The crowds are three deep round the edge of the room, staring at walls plastered with artworks that stretch up towards the ceiling. This is 
a nightmare.

I’m not squeamish about exhibitions, it’s just that I’m supposed to interview Sean Hughes as we walk round this one. It was his choice. He’s funny, but this is not.

Hughes likes art. He collects it. The last pieces he bought were some pencil sketches of Glasgow tenements. We stop in front of a small, square canvas of dark red rectangles.

“I like the shapes and the colours of that,” he says. “It’s probably just a pile of books isn’t it?”

That might be why you like it, I say.

“You never know.” He sounds unconvinced. “Let me know when you pick out something that you like.”

This is what it’s like to interview Sean Hughes. For every question I ask, he asks three. The gallery visit isn’t about him showing me the art he likes, it’s about him ascertaining what I like. I’m not entirely sure why he’s interested but I feel the pressure just the same. I glance around the gallery walls cluttered with canvases. I can’t really take anything in and I want to choose the right thing. I quite like that, I say, pointing to a small canvas that’s neatly filled with lines. It looks a bit like a sheet of badly drawn graph paper set at a jaunty angle.

“What, this?” he says in not-quite-a-sneer. “Did you take a lot of LSD when you were younger?” That’s not good coming from the man who took one acid tab when he was 17 and suffered panic attacks for a year. Not long after, on the day before he was due to head from his home in Dublin to London to launch his comedy career, he saw a psychiatrist because of the anxiety attacks and was advised not to travel and to get some help instead. He went anyway. Three years later, in 1990, he was the youngest ever winner of the Perrier Award at the Fringe.

“I like this,” he says, pointing to another abstract canvas of squares painted on what looks like ceramic. “Maybe I just like boxes.”

Hughes does seem to like art featuring boxes. He’s a huge fan of the abstract expressionism of Mark Rothko. We stop in the middle of the gallery as he fishes his phone out of his pocket. He wants to show me a picture of him standing in front of two massive Rothko canvases in a museum in Washington, where he’d gone specifically to see them, part of his mission to see everything Rothko ever painted. “This is me in heaven,” he says, genuinely beaming. “That is beautiful, isn’t it? If there was a heaven I wish it was that.”

Hughes is 46. He’s got a reputation for edgy comedy, humour dug from close to the bone, but he’s more curmudgeonly, and not entirely convincing at that. He’s really quite sweet, an idealist trapped in a cynical, middle-aged man’s body.

Hughes was 13 when he saw Richard Pryor’s Live at the Sunset Strip on TV and realised that comedy was something you could do, something that he could do.

His parents had moved from London to Dublin with their three sons when Sean was four. He went to school at the height of the Troubles “sounding like Tommy Steele”. It wasn’t exactly easy. He was bullied and being funny became the way that he got himself out of harm’s way.

He was a teenager when he left and went to London to play the clubs. He hated it. His comedy never really worked in a 20-minute slot. He’s always been interested in something edgier, more surreal and smarter. As well as the comedy, there have been acting jobs, two novels and two collections of short stories.

He doesn’t want fame or celebrity – he quit Never Mind the Buzzcocks when it got “boring” doing the same thing every week and jacked in stadium gigs when the audience was full of “14-year-old girls screaming at me”. He’s played opposite Sienna Miller in the West End and been a “love rat” in Coronation Street, but he’s refused plenty of other mainstream gigs. He never does the same show because that would be “like working in an office”. And now he’s coming back to Edinburgh with two shows, a narrative piece, Life Becomes Noises, based on his experience of the death of his father in 2010 and a stand-up show, Sean Hughes Stands Up. That’s two shows a day, a couple of hours apart, for the entire Fringe run.

“Put this interview in early,” he says, “because there is a chance I’ll have a stroke three days in.”

As we wander through the sculpture rooms of the exhibition, he tells me about going to a gallery in Australia recently. There was a Ron Mueck sculpture, one of his enormous, hyper-real, oversize figures, in this instance of a middle-aged man. A group of school kids were visiting the gallery at the same time as Hughes.

“One boy asked his teacher ‘Why is he so ugly? I don’t mean ugly, I mean old?’” he says. “And that tells you exactly what children think – old is ugly.” But getting older seems to be something that Hughes is taking to. It suits his grumpy side. He’s more comfortable in his skin, he says, he cares less about what other people think. Not that it ever seemed like he cared that much.

“I think comedy is a special thing and I love doing it. I hate it being wasted,” he says.

He describes being on stage as letting the voice in his head just go, so in a way things come out of his mouth that he never quite realised would. It’s why he likes coming to Edinburgh so much – “vitally important” is how he describes it – because it gives him a chance to experiment, to try stuff out with an audience willing to go along with him.

One of the favourite ideas he has for his new show is an imaginary conversation with Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers. Another is about wanting to be the Six Million Dollar Man.

“It’s not scripted but it comes from an idea,” he says. “I don’t know where they come from, but I really like those ideas. That’s why I’ve never been a club comic – you can’t do that kind of stuff in the clubs. That’s why I feel really privileged to do it. Being able to say these things, it’s amazing.”

Life Becomes Noises – the father show as he calls it – is different. He’s been working on it for two years and although it’s about death, he reckons it’s uplifting rather than depressing. He’s obviously pleased with it.

“It’s not a dissertation on death, it’s more about the way we deal with death, which is something we tend not to talk about,” he says. “It’s playful really. I talk about cancer but not in a bitter way. It’s a feel good show, which is quite unusual for me. I think it’s an age thing really. The thing that my father’s death really made me realise was that you should really lower your expectations and once you do that, it’s really not that bad.”

Hughes’ dad was ill for 18 months. He went into hospital for a minor operation and they discovered he had leukaemia.

“The thing that really upset me about my dad was that he didn’t really know he was dying. It’s like trickery, sleight of hand, he was given morphine so he was befuddled. I don’t like that. I wish my dad had accepted it.”

Hughes wants more honesty, more clarity. Or maybe what he’s after is just a bit more joy. He tells me about a friend of his who visited her father in a hospice and heard him announce, from his morphine haze, “this is the best hotel I’ve ever been in.” Hughes laughs. “I love that.”

He says he didn’t cry when his dad died. Did he want to? He shrugs.

“I don’t feel like I was holding anything back,” he says. “In the show I talk about the five stages you’ve got to go through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’m sure that works, but my spin on that is that I go through those five emotions every morning anyway so what am I supposed to do when someone actually dies?”

There’s nothing sugary or sentimental in his show, he says. It’s not a tribute.

“I loved my parents but I’ve never really liked them. But I loved them and that’s good enough for me.”

Hughes was always different. He always felt different. Maybe that’s what gave him the knack for looking at things in his own way, from his own perspective, which is what has become his comedy.

“They didn’t really read and they weren’t that well educated so they had no interest in any of that,” he says. “I’m not knocking it. They gave me life and a head start in the f*cked up stakes which is great for comedy, which was really sweet of them.”

The thing about Hughes is that he’s brutally honest. Whether it’s my “stupid hat” or describing his family life as “unbearable” as he has in the past, he tells it exactly like it is. Not with added brutality as some of the comics who’re squirrelling their money into tax free saving schemes do, but straight and with a total appreciation of what it is to be what we are and what we do, which, let’s face it, is not exactly neat and tidy. He’s not mean or malicious; he wants to tell the truth and he wants to be listened to.

I’d be lying if I said that interviewing Hughes is easy; it’s not and not just because it involves chasing him around a gallery or along a rain spattered street, or around a street market, all of which we do. It’s because he asks at least as many questions as he answers: why don’t you go to the theatre tonight? Have you got a Café Nero loyalty card? Why not? Who is your favourite painter? I can’t answer any of them – knowing how to ask interview questions does not, it becomes painfully apparent, mean that you know how to respond to them. As I flail, trying this time to name my favourite band he chips in.

“God, your internet dating must take forever. What have you bought lately?”

I come up with Grimes. She’s great I tell him, you should listen to her.

“Yeah, but I probably won’t though.”

There are more personal questions too – What age are you? Are you thinking of having kids? Has that been a big decision for you? The last one I just manage to aim back at him.

“I never wanted kids,” he says. “I don’t understand that whole ‘makes my life complete’ thing. It was never really a decision. But it’s different for men, I mean I could change my mind at 72 and bang one out.”

And with that he orders his large decaf latte with soya milk. I stand beside him a bit stupefied. It’s a little like being that poor sod who makes eye contact with the stand-up five minutes into the hour-long show and is used mercilessly until the end. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s exhausting.

Hughes doesn’t drink caffeine, he’s vegetarian, he stopped smoking a few years ago and now he’s stopped drinking too. It’s not quite what I expected. When did he stop drinking? And why?

“I just wasn’t drinking enough.” He laughs. He thinks my question is daft. I meant did he have a drink problem, but Hughes is enjoying himself. He gets his notebook out. “I might use that line. Sorry,” he says, excusing himself as he scribbles on the page.

“I think it was about a year ago. I was bored with drink, I just wasn’t getting anything new out of it.” He explains that he’s got a friend who’s in AA and although he “loves him to bits”, the AA chat leaves him cold. “Oh f**k off. I don’t need that shit. I’m not in a programme or anything. Not that I’m knocking it.

“If I wanted to have a drink I would. But I see it as a fun thing to have stopped. I feel quite liberated. I don’t like people who get really po-faced and Christian about drinking. People should drink as much as they want.”

So you were drinking too much?

“Yeah,” he laughs. “But also I was doing it for no reason. I liken my drinking to the kid who opens all his presents too early on Christmas morning. My body was just like ‘you’ve had enough drink’. I think I had all my drink and sex on one afternoon in 1982.”

I’ve never met Hughes before, so this is a hunch not a fact, but I reckon he’s a changed man. Maybe it’s that he’s been softened a bit by the death of his father. Maybe it’s that he’s able to be a bit softer on himself. Looking at his career it strikes me that things have always fallen short for him. How else would he explain walking away from his telly and stand-up, usually when he’s just where everyone else is trying to get to. Does he always want things to be better than they are?

“What? Life?” he says, looking nonplussed. “I’ve no patience, I’m trying to learn that. That doesn’t help in my private life because I can be very dismissive. I don’t suffer fools and I never have done. I can’t do that small-talk thing, it just doesn’t interest me. I just don’t have those people around me. I quite like my own company.” He smiles. “I’ve probably got enough DVDs to last me for the rest of my life. That’s the worst-case scenario.”

Not that bad then.

“Exactly,” he chuckles. “They’re good ones too.”

Sean Hughes is in Life Becomes Noises at The Pleasance Courtyard, 5:30pm, Aug 1-27, tickets £14 (£13), and Sean Hughes Stands Up, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 8:15pm, Aug 1-27, tickets £7-£14. Tickets can be booked at www.edfringe.com