Oh woe is me! Having had the utter joy of blowing all my savings (and a fair whack of those of other family members) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, I’m kind of distraught that I can’t be at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year. Despite this, it’s still nice to do the odd interview. However, as my only outlet is ABC NewsRadio at the moment, it’s a matter of choosing someone who’ll appeal to a demographic of adult professionals, who is available – while the studio’s being refurbished – for a face-to-face chat, with (until I can do this fulltime for money) flexibility. The choice came down to Charlie Pickering, late of Triple J, and Adam Hills, an ex-pat Aussie who tends to return from the UK come Festival time. Hillsy, who is presenting his new show Go You Big Red Fire Engine II, was the perfect choice.
Adam came and met me at Egg Records on a Saturday, and was as happy as a kid in a toyshop: marveling at the badges, the Japanese pressings of Kiss CDs in miniature album-replica sleeves, the other various collectible knick-knacks. Before we got down to business, I put on James Taylor’s first and self-titled album (released by Apple Records all those years ago), preceding it with a suitable lecture – (“note the song ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, the inspiration, as well as the first line, to George Harrison’s ‘Something’”) – to whet the man’s cultural appetite. Then I left him to listen, and browse, while I went about my business closing the shop.
We still couldn’t get down to the business of doing an interview until I’d played Adam a bit of the Grey Album (a remix of the Beatles’ so-called White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album, perpetrated by one ‘Danger Mouse’) and a couple of tracks from Dsico that No-Talent Hack’s album of mash-ups, Booty of Choice. The interview itself flowed easily.
I’ve been accused of ‘liking’ the comic Adam Hills – by someone who has never actually gotten around to seeing him live, of course. See Adam Hills and tell me whether or not you also like him: Hills has a broad appeal without pandering to the lowest common denominator; he entertains whole families without being innocuous. His observations are mostly spot-on, and when they aren’t the generalisations lead to such good laughs that you don’t nitpick. That’s the most important thing, of course: Adam Hills is funny. This is not merely the best, but the only reason, really, to ‘like’ any comic.
This interview was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio on Saturday 27 March 2004 (the first weekend of the 2004 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, at which Adam Hills is performing his latest show, Go You Big Red Fire Engine II) and is podcast right here.
Soundbite: ‘Feed the World’ – Adam Hills (from the CD single Working Class Anthem)
I grew up in the 80s. I grew up in an era when you could take a positive message to the world. I grew up in Australia wearing a shirt that said, ‘Relax’. ‘Choose life’. ‘Don't worry, be happy’. I grew up in an era when you were told that you could not only ‘feed the world’, but you could ‘let them know it’s Christmas time’. And I have a slight theory as to why there's such a high percentage of obesity in America as compared to the rest of the world. I think it’s because in 1985, a group of English musicians got together and put out a song that told us to ‘feed the world’. And then a year later, a group of American singers told us, ‘we are the world!’
C Adam Hills
Demetrius Romeo: Adam, you’re one of several Australian comics who base their careers in the UK. Why is this?
ADAM HILLS: There’s just so much work over there. There are at least 120 different comedy nights in London alone and I’ve done four or five gigs a night in London. You turn up at the first venue, you go on stage, and as you walk on, the club owner calls a taxi. It arrives as you walk offstage, you get in the taxi, you go to your next venue, you arrive and the MC sees you and says, “right, I'm gonna do five minutes and put you straight on”.
Demetrius Romeo: So how does that compare to Australia?
ADAM HILLS: There isn’t really a comedy club circuit here. For someone who loves doing stand-up, which I do, to be able to work five or six nights a week and in those five or six nights, maybe do up to ten gigs... that’s why I’m there. I mean, you can spend two weeks doing club gigs in Sydney. You can actually spend three weeks now, and pretty much gig every night, but then you don’t do those clubs for another six months or something because the audiences see you doing the same gear. So basically, I come back now to do the Adelaide Fringe, the Melbourne Comedy Festival and then maybe three or four weeks of the year, touring around Australia.
Demetrius Romeo: Surely when you come back, you notice differences in the comedy industry. For example, at the moment there are more comedians and locally produced comedy shows on television than there have been for possibly a decade-and-a-half. Do you ever feel that you should have been here to get one of those gigs?
ADAM HILLS: [Laughs] Well, yeah, but to be fair, I’ve been offered a lot of those gigs as well. I’ve had a fair few offers to do various bits and pieces in Australia, one of which was, the host of a re-vamped version of Sale of the Century. Oh yes, I could have been the new Glenn Ridge. But also, with a lot of the other TV shows that are on at the moment, I was approached to be on a fair few, and I kind of went, “well, no, because then that just ties me to Australia”, and at that stage I was starting to get a bit of a career going in the UK. Now I just want global domination, basically.
Demetrius Romeo: Now, you do very well in the UK: for the last three years, you’ve been nominated for a Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival, which is for the best show of the Festival. Unfortunately, you haven’t quite cracked it – ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’. How do you feel about it?
ADAM HILLS: You know what, after being nominated twice, a lot of people in interviews said, “do you think you’ll be nominated for the third time?” and each time, my stock answer was, “You know what? I’d love to be nominated for the third time and still not win it ’cause I reckon that would be really funny”. And then when it actually happened, I thought, “you know what, I really shouldn’t have said that!”
The thing about being nominated for an award in something like the Edinburgh Festival is that suddenly there’s a lot of pressure on you; every night that I’ve been nominated, I’ve had a terrible show, just through nerves, and through the audience being weird but mainly through me. I’ve just panicked and walked out on stage and gone, “um, I’m supposed to be really funny… and now… I don’t know… ahhh” and just completely capitulated. I’ve since found out that every comic goes through that. It’s all par for the course. And to be nominated for anything three times is a pretty big compliment.
Demetrius Romeo: Okay. The hard question: would you prefer to be nominated a fourth time, or would you prefer that they just leave you alone next time?
ADAM HILLS: Oooh, that’s the big question, and I don’t know the answer to it. It’s a weird one.
Soundbite: ‘Oh Yeah’ [excerpt] – Adam Hills (from the album Go You Big Red Fire Engine)
You go anywhere in Australia and you ask an Aussie to do something, and he’ll do it. Doesn’t matter where you are. You go,
“Mate, you wanna go backpacking through Europe?”
“Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ll give it a shot.”
“Do you want to bungee jump off a bridge in New Zealand?”
“Yeah, that sounds all right.”
“Do you wanna fly a paraglider into Buckingham Palace?”
“Yeah! Come on! Let’s go!”
In fact, I reckon the Australian motto on the coat of arms should just say, “Australia – Oh Yeah!”
I think this positivity came about because we were sent there as convicts. White Australians were sent there as convicts. On the worst ships you could find. The whole way, there must have been blokes in manacles going [with English accent] “It’s gonna be horrible. It’s gonna be awful. I’m gonna hate it.” And then the boats docked at Bondi Beach. Every convict looked up and went, [in Aussie accent] “Oh yeah!” And a nation was born!
C Adam Hills
Demetrius Romeo: ‘Go you big red fire engine’ has been a catchphrase for you for a few years now. How did that all begin?
ADAM HILLS: I was doing this thing where I would get an audience member up on stage and turn them into a rock star, and get them to yell their name to the audience. The audience would yell it back and they’d get a big round of applause. I was playing a thirty-seat venue, so I was trying to get some energy into the room. And this guy, instead of yelling his name, told me that he was a fireman. And I said, “come up here and we’ll do the whole thing”, and when I said, “right, yell you're name”, for no reason he yelled, “Go, you big red fire engine!” And then the crowd yelled it back, and he kept going for five minutes and I just said, “that’s the most up-lifting and pointless thing I’ve seen in my whole life”. There's no reason for it, it’s completely stupid, and yet everyone in the room had a smile on their face. And I said, “that’s it; I’m gonna name my next show Go, You Big Red Fire Engine”, partly because in Edinburgh in 2000 I was long listed for the Perrier Award and I was getting really stressed out. I decided then that I was gonna call the next show Go, You Big Red Fire Engine because there’s no way that I could get that stressed about a show with a name that stupid. And then what happened was it was nominated for a Perrier Award. But then it became a catch-phrase. Natasha Stott Despoja yelled it in Parliament at one point when she was Leader of the Democrats, as my crowning achievement. And I was gonna leave it at that, but audience members kept coming up to me after the show saying, “we were hoping you were gonna say, ‘go, you big red fire engine!’ again. We really like it when you yell that”. And I just thought, I really have to reprise it because people seem to want me to say it. And being that it came about from a mad audience member, I figured that if audience members want me to say it again, I’ll say it again.
Demetrius Romeo: Now, that title also appears on a CD!
ADAM HILLS: Yes, yes, I released a CD version of the original show, Go You Big Red Fire Engine.
Demetrius Romeo: You’ve also had another CD, which was a fundraiser for the fire brigade. It was the Australian National Anthem done in a very particular way. Tell us a bit about that single.
ADAM HILLS: When I went to Edinburgh I had an idea to play around with the Australian National Anthem and I had seen a band in Sydney do… I think it was the music of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and the lyrics of ‘Gilligan’s Island’. They combined the two, and that really stuck in my head. ‘Gilligan’s Island’ was playing around in my head and then I went, “what if you put ‘Advance Australia Fair’ in there?” And then came up with [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to tune of the theme to Gilligan’s Island]
Australian’s all, let us rejoice
For we are young and free,
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea.
Our home is girt by sea.
And then I kind of played around with more. ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ worked as well. [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of the theme to Beverly Hillbillies]. All of these started coming together and then they just rattled around in my head. I was actually in a shopping centre one day, listening to ‘Working Class Man’. As it was playing, over the top of the music I was just going [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of ‘Working Class Man’] and started going, “Oh my God, it works for ‘Working Class Man’!”
Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’ (‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of ‘Working Class Man’) - Adam Hills and the Comedy Brig-Aid (from the CD single)
ADAM HILLS: So then I got permission and put this single out with myself, the Scared Weird Little Guys, Mark Trevorrow, Paul McDermott, Libbi Gore, Tripod and then a whole chorus of people including Greg Fleet and Steady Eddie bangin’ it out like a ‘Band Aid’-type thing.
Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’
Demetrius Romeo: Adam, what can I say but ‘Go, you big red fire engine!’
ADAM HILLS: ‘Go, you big red fire engine!’ indeed.
Demetrius Romeo: Thanks very much.
ADAM HILLS: Pleasure.
Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’
Like to know a bit more about Adam Hills? Here's a bunch of other interviews – although, in hindsight, they really are three variations of the same story, more-or-less.
The following article originally appeared in the May 6 2002 issue of Revolver.
Some time in the late ’60s, the Beach Boys’ in-house acid casualty and resident genius, Brian Wilson, chose to abandon the now legendary concept album Smile. Ever the perfectionist, Wilson had been ensconced in the studio recording infinite takes of various parts of songs, with the ‘Fire’ section of the so-called ‘Elements Suite’ proving particularly elusive. It was this section that broke him: a particularly intense recording session happened to coincide with a devastating blaze that destroyed a fair chunk of (depending which myth you choose to believe) either California, or his studio. Convinced that the Fire sessions had been responsible for invoking the flames, Wilson apparently aborted the album and binned the mastertapes, the odd song from sessions cropping up in simpler form on subsequent Beach Boys releases.
Aussie comic Adam Hills may be able to identify somewhat with Brian Wilson. On the night that he first unveiled his show Go You Big Red Fire Engine, Hills and his mates decided to adjourn for a couple of post-show bevies at a local watering hole known as Q Bar. They got there just in time to see it go up in flames. In fact, it was Adam and his mates who first spotted the fire. “We grabbed as many people as we could and went straight out the door,” he explains. “The whole place was evacuated and three people were taken to hospital with smoke inhalation. The building was completely gutted.”
Watching those big, red fire engines come and go was all too much of a coincidence, and Adam’s agent agreed. It turned out that Adam’s next gig, at the Fringe Bar, would most likely also be cancelled because that venue caught fire on the same night. “Two different clubs in one night,” Adam acknowledges, laughing off my suggestion of a ‘curse’. “It was only two; I don’t think it’s technically a ‘curse’ until there’s three.”
Ah, but there was a third. Well, almost. When Sydney’s Comedy Store relocated to Fox Studios, Adam Hills was acting as MC at its gala opening. He happened to be on stage when the smoke alarm went off. Thankfully, that time at least, it was a false alarm: a combination of too many cigarette smokers in the audience and not enough ventilation in the venue had set off the smoke alarms. So it doesn’t really count.
Despite the freakish coincidence of two fires, the show certainly went on for ‘Go You Big Red Fire Engine’: in addition to being recorded and released as a comedy CD, the show earned a Perrier Nomination for Adam at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As is the custom, nominated shows get to play at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London.
“That was about mid-October,” Adam explains, “so I decided to donate all funds from that performance to the New York Fire Department.” That should have dissipated any remnants of a curse.
But if it didn’t, Adam’s next project will. He has just recorded ‘Working Class Anthem’, a song consisting of the words of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ sung to the tune of Jimmy Barnes’s ‘Working Class Man’. It has been in Hills’s repertoire for a while and Adam has wanted to release it for almost as long, but has been unable to obtain permission to do so until now.
“When I got back to Australia this year, Triple M asked me to sing ‘Working Class Anthem’ at the Fire Fighters concert and I thought it’d be great if we could release the single for them. Without a word of a lie, that day I got the call saying, ‘guess what, we’ve got permission!’”
Joining Adam on the song is the Comedy Brig-Aid – a horde of comedians featuring, amongst its ranks, the likes of the Scared Weird Little Guys, Bob Downe, Paul McDermott and Tripod. In addition to the single being very funny, all proceeds will be donated to the Australian Fire Authority Council. “On a selfish note,” Adam admits, “I’d love a number one song. But on an altruistic note, I’d like it to raise lots of money.”
The following interview originally appeared in Revolver in the first week of February 2002.
“At the risk of sounding cheesy, September 11 made me question what I do for a living and whether I really help people,” explains comedian Adam Hills. “Three days after the attacks I was gigging in Paris, and there was an American guy in the audience. I started to do some material about how Americans are an optimistic people, and that if any country could get through this it would be America. He laughed harder than anyone in the room and I realised that he really needed to laugh about America again. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of material about the ‘War on Terror’ and how it affects us all, especially ’cos I’ve been spending time in the UK. I was on a flight five weeks ago when someone stood up and yelled that there was a bomb on board and we were all going to die. He was bluffing, and was eventually offloaded, but it was very scary. The more I talk about that flight, and laugh about it, the less scary it becomes.”
Although he should be packing for his flight back to Australia, Adam has taken time out for an e-mail interview to discuss what, at this stage, will be his next show, tentatively entitled Happy Feet. It takes its name from a song that was popular during the Great Depression. “It was a very tough time, and yet some really up-lifting songs were written to buoy the spirits,” Adam explains. “In fact, entertainment was about the only business that improved during the ’30s. When people are down or scared, they want to laugh, and that’s where I come in.”
Adam Hills is not only one of the most optimistic, happy people you will ever meet, he is also quite possibly the ‘nicest’ comic this side of Michael Palin “I love comedy, and I love comics,” he insists when pressed. “We are a breed apart, and I think we should support each other whenever we can, ’cos it can be a harsh industry. But I’ve met so many brilliant and supportive people along the way that I don’t really know why I’m supposedly the ‘nice guy’ of comedy. I don’t mind it, as long as I’m also considered to be one of the funniest.”
Hills is one of the funniest. He is utterly and irrefutably hilarious, as his 2001 Edinburgh Festival show Go You Big Red Fire Engine proved: it received a Perrier nomination for ‘most outstanding up-and-coming stand-up comedy or comedy cabaret’. Not that this has changed Adam: such an accolade “does more for your self-belief” than anything else, he says. “You’re still only as good as your next gig, and an audience will heckle you regardless of what you’ve been nominated for.”
Despite a bunch of television offers that came after the nomination, Hills is adamantly dedicated to developing his stand-up rather than using it as a stepping-stone to other show-biz gigs. “I believe that stand-up is a legitimate art form,” he says. “Television can’t really capture it; there is something magical about the live experience”
A live CD, however, is not out of the question. For those who missed last year’s Australian run of Go You Big Red Fire Engine the show was recorded for posterity. “The idea of Go You Big Red Fire Engine is to take the phrase as far as I can, so if it makes it onto the charts I’ve achieved another goal. Plus, I grew up listening to Bill Cosby, Billy Connolly and Robin Williams albums, and I love the idea of being in the same category of the record store as them.”
Although, like everyone, Hills does have “a few ideas” for film and television, and even a book, kicking around in the back of his mind, he can’t “give away too many secrets” just yet. The next big project is a “major world tour” for later this year. After that, Adam is “very keen” to break into the US circuit. In short, he sums up his plan as “world domination, my friend, and nothing less!”
The following interview originally appeared in the 2 October 2000 issue of Revolver.
“I wanted to be doing something in Sydney during the Olympics,” nice-guy comic Adam Hills offers as the reason for his current spate of appearances on the Sydney comedy circuit. He claims that the week of Comedy Store gigs he recently completed was “partly an excuse to be here for the Olympics, and partly to enable me to do my little bit for Sydney.” That, of course, is only partly true. Following his success at the Edinburgh Festival last month, Adam is breaking out of his standard Sydney mode – serving as MC or the twenty-minute feature act – by road-testing an hour-long show he calls My Own Little World. If ever a successful Edinburgh act would go down a treat it would be this one; providing, as it does, a kind of international humour, it can’t help but appeal to a multicultural metropolis undergoing ‘welcome, valued guest’ mode as Sydney is at present. And if ever a traveled comic felt happy to be back home, it is Adam. After four months of international success, he returned triumphant to play his first gig – in a beer garden in Bundaberg – and was chuffed. Looking skyward from the stage of the partially covered garden and being able to see the Southern Cross, he says, forced “pangs of Australian nationalism” to flood over Hills. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! And furthermore, oi, oi, oi!
Adam Hills has been dedicated to comedy for most of his life. As a kid, he listened to Bill Cosby and Billy Connolly albums while his mates were listening to music. A high school career as a debater, public speaker and valedictorian taught him that being able to make a speech that “purely existed just to be funny” constituted just about “the best feeling ever”. After beginning a journalism degree, Hills got wise to his true vocation after a mate dragged him down to the Comedy Store’s open mic night. “As soon as I saw that,” Adam confesses, “I thought, ‘oh yeah, I have to do this for the rest of my life’.” It wasn’t very long at all before he found himself writing gags for 2Day FM’s then-breakfast shift hosts, Wendy Harmer and Agro. A year and a bit later, Adam found himself heading interstate to host the breakfast shift on Adelaide’s equivalent of 2Day.
“I did that for four years,” Adam says, “until I decided I was sick of getting up at four o’clock in the morning and wanted to do stand-up again.” Adam is grateful to have made the discovery this early in his career that he doesn’t enjoy broadcasting as much as he does live stand-up. Adam thus differs from many other comics, for whom stand-up is merely the first step towards television or radio. “All I have to worry about,” he says, “is how to make a better show on stage, rather than ‘How am I gonna be more famous?’” As far as he’s concerned, the audience can tell when comics are doing stand-up “just as a step along the way” as opposed to doing it “for the art of stand-up”.
Does the fact that Hills has just returned from the Edinburgh Festival prove that he is interested in perfecting the art of stand-up? “My bank balance would reflect that,” Adam offers, laughing. “I’m certainly not doing it for the money.” The first time you go to Edinburgh, Adam claims, “you know that you’re going to lose a lot of money”. You look upon it as a business investment that “may pay off” some time down the track. It wasn’t until his third Edinburgh Festival that Adam broke even – which meant that, through contacts made and the work that followed thereafter, he finished that year ahead of the game. This recent visit, Adam’s fourth, was the best. Adam received five-star reviews and sell-out crowds, as well as the best comic training. “I ended up doing something like fifty-six shows in twenty-three days,” he says. “I learnt what you’d normally learn in a year of doing stand-up comedy.”
It’s not hard to see why Adam was so successful in Edinburgh. Not merely because of the universal appeal of My Own Little World, incorporating, as it does, national anthems and recognisable caricatures. Hills offers a distinctly happier world view than many fellow comics on the world stage. “A lot of comics are very cynical and very world-weary,” he observes. “If you’re watching that for an hour at the end of the day, it can be quite draining.” Adam’s own attitude is to have fun and to “play” with the audience. Besides, he says, when you’re doing shows in places like the Gold Coast, it’s hard to be grumpy on stage. “Everyone’s spent the day on the beach; imagine me walking out and going, ‘well, isn’t life shit!’ It just doesn’t sit right.” In Adam’s Own Little World, life is frequently filled with joyous song – each one a loving piss-take, of course.