Shooting Stars
It all Boyles down to Dylan Moran

Steve Hughes, the Bard of Paradox

Steve Hughes came back to Australia for what, initially, was a three week residency at the Comedy Store. Thankfully, he has stuck around, playing more gigs. See him whenever you can. He's clever and funny. If you don't believe me, look at this YouTube clip. Then read the interview. Be warned. It contains cuss words. But make sure you see him!

Dom Romeo: What’s brought you back to Australia?

Aah… living in England for ten years. That’ll bring anyone back! It will.

I just realised that I’ve got to sit down for a minute in the bush. Go out to the woods, stare at the sky, look at thunderstorms. Honestly. This is the deal. I wasn’t thinking, ‘great, I’ll go back and play the Fairfield RSL’, which some comic on stage mentioned the other night is one of the worst gigs in his entire history, because no-one showed up and the woman made him do the gig anyway. Which I guess is the decent part of the Australian spirit: ‘yeah, go on get on with it anyway, mate!’

You just have to have a break and sit down. I just happened to run into getting three weeks at the Comedy Store out of nowhere – they had someone cancel or something – ‘oh no, who are we gonna get?’ Then I went, ‘aw, I’m here…’. I wasn’t gonna work at all. Well, not for a while, anyway. But three weeks – you can’t turn down that.

Dom Romeo: Now I know that the story about the gig that nobody turned up to happens to be Dave Jory’s story.

Dave Jory’s good. I like Dave Jory. He’s a good act. I worked with him on Saturday – him and Daniel Townes, which was good, because I’d only seen Dave MC before. You don’t get to do much as an MC. Although, it’s a harder job than people think, MCing, which is funny. They just think, ‘oh, we’ll get anyone to MC’ and I’m thinking, ‘No… you’ve got to get the room ready, you mental case!’ I remember hearing this MC one night come offstage, he went, ‘yeah, they were a little cold when I went on…’. I thought, ‘well, of course they were; you’re the MC. That’s your job, you idiot!’

Dom Romeo: Do you ever MC?

No. About three times, in England, but only because someone pulled out and I thought, ‘all right, I’ll do it for you’. But no, not really.

Dom Romeo: When you left, you were clearly a good comic of the ones coming through. You clearly had something. You’ve gone away and you’ve come back brilliant. You must have known you could do this. But was there a point when you were overseas where you went, ‘I’ve gone from being okay to being quite good, actually…’

STEVE HUGHES: Yeah, yeah, of course there is. When you gig that much in England… I mean proper gigs… There’s heaps of gigs. Sometimes people go, ‘You know, there’s quite a few gigs in Sydney now’, but you realise, ‘yeah, but they’re at the Fairfield RSL’; that doesn’t help you out either…’. At least in England there are gigs, heaps of gigs, and they’re good…

They have comedy gigs in villages in England, which manage to keep it going. You know what I mean? It’s just a different country for comedy, than it is here. Australia’s outdoorsy to begin with. Or, as my mother said, when she said, ‘is the English comedy scene good?’ and I went, ‘yeah, it’s great’. She said, ‘is it better than here?’ I said, ‘of course it is!’ She goes, ‘Yeah, well, we don’t do indoor sports here, do we?’

But you don’t as much, because the sun’s out… so it’s very difficult to get this good in Australia if you don’t get that kind of exposure. I remember when I saw Bill Bailey at the Harold Park Hotel, which was in about ’98 or something, which was killer! You just go, ‘you gotta get that good! You gotta get that good!’ And you wanna be around people that good, don’t you. So I said, ‘well, I have to go…’ The worst thing that could have happened was I have to come back. It was a very good idea, I think, if you’re gonna do comedy. You become masterful.

Dom Romeo: When it came to manifest itself, how was it clear to you? How did it feel, what was it like?

STEVE HUGHES: Well, just when you know you can walk into a room with 500 people on a Saturday night and you don’t care anymore and you think, ‘good!’ cos you know you can do it. Jongleurs in England, which is a more mainstreamy chain of clubs – they’re marketed more mainstream: bucks nights and hen nights and office dos, that kind of thing – and I was quite deadpan when I left. I wanted to master deadpan.

Then I started to break out of that by doing these huge shows in England and that suddenly added more strength to the repertoire of performing. I realised, ‘right, now I can finally do it the way I wanted to do it’. I’d mastered ‘deadpan’ and all this stuff. Then you start to get invited to go overseas, and then you start doing gigs in Holland, Sweden and Finland where you have to change the words and make the jokes work a little differently because they’re listening in another language and they think a little differently about comedy.

So you start to get all these things under your belt and you start to realise that if you’re getting compliments off guys who you think are brilliant then you start to go, ‘oh well, something’s working’. Also, if you’re getting work in the UK, it’s working to begin with!

Dom Romeo: You make it look effortless – that deadpan persona is you, personified… so to speak.

STEVE HUGHES: Yeah, well just, you know, learning how to… If you want a crowd to be quiet, it’s best you just stand there in silence instead of yelling at them, ‘will you please listen to me?’ because they go, ‘no!’ I learnt that years ago, gigging at the Fringe Bar years ago, where stick you on a palette in the corner in front of a bunch of talking Eastern Suburbs yuppies. It’s no good going, ‘can everybody turn around and listen to me?’ It’s better to stand there and say nothing. Then they go, ‘well this bloke must have something to say – he’s got nothing to say.’ It’s reverse psychology at the subconscious level. It helps to be intelligent if you want to be a comedian, as well.

Dom Romeo: You bring a lot of psychology into play with what you do – if not explicitly then underlying the material. Is that an accurate assessment?

STEVE HUGHES: I guess on a level, yes. Sometimes I think a lot of the psychology is simple common sense, in the sense of just breaking down what people find acceptable on certain levels of thinking in society, especially in the political correct age where they think saying anything against anyone is somehow ‘offensive’. Like ‘support the war on terror’, which is actually the murder and genocide of millions of people, yet don’t ever say the word ‘poofter’ again because that could be deemed really offensive. Support the illegal invasions of Middle Eastern countries. See, to me, that’s common sense and understanding that you’ve been duped here.

Dom Romeo: You broadly fall into a class of expat Aussie shouty, sweary comedians – not as shouty as others because you can and will be deadpan and silent – and you’re not as blatantly sweary because it always has a purpose. But do you see yourself in that subgenre of comic? Chances are, you’ll say, ‘yeah, that subgenre of good comics, and that’s the only thing we have in common’…

STEVE HUGHES: There’s only a few that really go over there a lot, like Jim Jeffries who’s always there. Jim’s big in America and tons of places. Adam Hills has always been over there – he was the original Australian that was overseas when I started. Kitty Flanagan has been overseas a lot. She’s good. She’s killer! She’s one of the best female comics in England, I reckon. Daniel Townes goes over there a bit now. There are a couple of Aussie guys who live over there who I don’t know if they ever did it here, but they do it there. Aaron Counter, who lives in Edinburgh. When I saw Dave Jory the other night, I thought, ‘you’d work!’. He could work in England. It’s good delivery, it’s good jokes.

The ‘sweary’ thing: sometimes I do swear too much sometimes. Sometimes I use it for a purpose, and other times I say it too much like being an Australian, we just do swear. F*ck! We swear, don’t we! What’s that joke that Arj Barker’s got about how Australians are the only people who swear when they give directions?

Sometimes I swear too much. You have those nights where you’re nervous and you’re not doing too well, and you slip back into this sort of ‘ah, fuck you…!’ Actually, I did a TV show for the BBC before I left, which was the first bit of mainstream TV I did in England – no swearing of course – which was good! Good practice. And actually, I re-wrote some of my jokes without the swear bits anymore, and I realised, ‘that works much better!’ If you do do it too much, you can’t use it as a strength, because sometimes you have to say ‘f*ck’ in a certain place to make the joke kill. Some people think, ‘you can just say ‘bloody’, but no, you can’t.

Dom Romeo: There may be an alternative to ‘f*ck’ but it’s not always the same one. It will be a different one each time, depending on the joke, surely.

STEVE HUGHES: And of course, there’s no alternative to ‘C*NT!’. One must use ‘c*nt’ with strength and sense of purpose.

Dom Romeo: You and Jim Jeffries shared a house for a while and you both have a story about an actual crime that happened that’s not a joke, that’s actually a crime that took place – do you want to talk about it, or have you talked about it enough?

STEVE HUGHES: It’s quite funny because people quite often go up to Jim and say, ‘that’s Steve Hughes’s material; they don’t know he’s the other guy. He’ll go, ‘no it’s not – I was there too, tied up on the ground!’

We don’t have to talk about it, I’ve got great material about it. Come and hear it. It was very funny. Only comedians would be lying on the floor in a house with towels over their heads with guys with machetes wandering around, thinking to themselves, ‘can you pass me that pen, mate? I’ve just had a killer idea…’

Dom Romeo: Do you still play music?

STEVE HUGHES: Yeah, I do. In fact, I’ve just got a new comedy CD out which is interesting in the sense of how we were just discussing that I can be quite deadpan and un-shouty… this almost ties back into the original question, why’d I come back. Listening to my new CD, I’m so angry and mental and yelling, it’s quite insane. I listen back to it and I realise, ‘god, I needed a rest!’ These English are such good audiences they even accepted me just screaming at them.

So… uh… what was the original question?

Dom Romeo: Are you still playing music?

STEVE HUGHES: I taught myself guitar so I don’t have to be in a band. But I always put a song on the end of my comedy CDs, which I record myself. And I may have something in the works, depending how long I stay here, to play with a couple of freaks in the Sydney metal scene. We may do a gig. It’s a little bit chaotic. I won’t say who it is yet, in case we don’t pull it off.

Dom Romeo: Are they signed?

STEVE HUGHES: No. They’re very well known, though. If you know underground Australian heavy metal. It’ll be good. I’d be very f*cken happy. A pure live ritual… It’ll be quite disturbing.

Dom Romeo: You were saying you’ve only just made it to ‘proper’ television in the UK.

STEVE HUGHES: Just stand-up. Not a ‘show’ or anything.

Dom Romeo: Do you want to do more of the television thing? Because you strike me as the seminal ‘live’ comedian. What you do is you thrive with an audience. I couldn’t see you fronting a game show…

STEVE HUGHES: Oh, no, no, no, no. No, I’m not doing that! Sometimes comedians are all sort of, ‘I wanna get on TV, I wanna get on TV, I wanna do this, if I get on TV everything will be all right…’. They live in some kind of fantasy. Sometimes I have to say to them, ‘what do you want to do on TV?’ They don’t know! ‘You can’t have no idea; write a show as good as Blackadder and then you’ll get on TV. Do you have a show as good as that? That’s the standard, as far as I’m concerned. Unless you want to be the host of some crap show.’ I can’t do that. What am I gonna do? I hate TV. I love it as a medium if it were used correctly. But it’s not. It’s used by the ruling elite to send propaganda messages to the new world order society that’s being congregated into an empirically based scientific dictatorship… You getting all this? You getting this down, everybody? You understand?

Dom Romeo: That’s why you need to get to television: you need to do a show that stops all of that or at least presents the alternative.

STEVE HUGHES: That’s impossible. It’s all owned by one conglomerate. TV has to offer the illusion of having separate channels, like politics offers the illusion of having different parties.

Dom Romeo: That, to me, is the philosophy underlying your comedy. Every comic who has something to say, eventually, you get to their philosophy underneath it all.

STEVE HUGHES: I don’t even think mine is ‘underneath it all’. I just say it! Simple as that! You’re often limiting yourself… If you have a contempt of the mainstream, which of course, in this country, to put it bluntly – I don’t care – I’ve always found the TV industry here to be ‘safe’; ‘gutless’; nothing of grit ever seems to make it on. Australians have been conditioned to turn off when they hear politics or anything serious or something that may offer a streak of tragedy or acceptance of something they’ve done. We’ve all just got to shut up and be happy and drink lattes in the sun and pretend nothing’s ever gone wrong, and until you accept that there’s a tragedy here that needs to be acknowledged, then you’ll never have proper soul or as good a scene or be able to make a band as good as Peter Gabriel.

Dom Romeo: See, but you just went and undercut all that!

STEVE HUGHES: Yeah. But the problem is, Australia actually has some of the best artists around. They can totally perform well on stage. Bands that keep going; longevity; hardcore; Australians know how to do it because we’re so isolated. Yet there’s never any structure for art to be turned into a side of the Australian culture. It’s still dominated by sport, which is… uh… I don’t know. Good, if you like sport. Not all of us do! So anyone who doesn’t like sport in Australia has usually been outcast. And yet, there’s no underground scene for the outcasts to create the part of society that turns into the fabric of society. You know what I mean? At least in Europe – some of the artists I know here, if they were in Europe, they’d be liked. They’d have somewhere to perform, somewhere to show their stuff. Here, it’s like, ‘what are ya doin’ that for mate? What are ya doin’ that for? That’s a bit stupid. A bit weird. A bit negative, isn’t it? Where’s the ball?’ Anyway. Stuff like that.

Dom Romeo: I guess the last question would be, ‘why don’t you come back more often?’ but you’ve kind of answered it…

STEVE HUGHES: It’s so far to come back, isn’t it? Not like my Canadian mates. They can go home from England. Seven hours!

Dom Romeo: But it’s not just the time and the distance it takes to travel – it’s also the philosophy and the mind-set. That’s far away, too.

STEVE HUGHES: Well, I don’t know. Because I’m really enjoying it, being here now. Only because I haven’t been here for so long. And the gigs are brilliant. And I conquered so much of England. A lot of guys who I met who started doing comedy in England ten years ago, as much as it’s fun to work there, you still start to go a bit mad, just on the comedy circuit for years and years and years and years, you go, ‘right, I gotta do something different now’. I did all of England. I thought, ‘what am I doing? What am I doing?’ I’ve done tons of Europe and stuff. Just kind of like, need something else to do. Because they laugh good, Australians. They laugh their guts out. They don’t fake laugh. They knee-slap laugh. They’re a little conservative – but I don’t believe they are, really. Cos they’re the one race I know that actually say ‘c*nt’ all the time. So, they have this constant paradox, Australians: they swear like f*cken dockers, and they’re next minute they’re like, ‘oooh, oooh, can you say that?’ It’s like this f*cken paradox, the Australian psyche. Which is good. Paradoxes are where secrets to the universe lie.

But I’m enjoying doing gigs here, because they do laugh from their guts, and it’s fun: you’ve just got to sneak in under their shell. The next minute, they realise they’re f*cken pissing themselves, so it’s just good fun. Plus I can do tons of old jokes I haven’t done for years!

Dom Romeo: What are you doing at the end of this residency at the Comedy Store? You’re not heading back to the UK, are you?

STEVE HUGHES: No. I’m going to Queensland to stand in the bush.

Dom Romeo: Hopefully you’ll come back and do some more gigs…

STEVE HUGHES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve got the Laugh Garage – the Parramatta one – on the 13th. Which I don’t know how I’m going to get out to, because I went for my driver’s licence test the other day and they failed me. Because I didn’t stop at the stop sign for long enough. Even though the guy said, ‘I know you can drive’. Well give me the licence then! ‘No, you didn’t do it to the correct rules…’. But you know I can drive, why do you have to waste everybody’s time? Anyway. Come to a show and you can hear me rant about that, if I want.

Dom Romeo: All right. And the last thing is, we need to know when you’re playing the Fairfield RSL.

STEVE HUGHES: Oh, right. The Fairfield RSL. I’m doing a one-month run there. Five nights a week. Come on down. You get a pie and chips. Make sure you take your hat off before you go in. Show respect. That should be a great month’s run down at the Fairfield RSL. We should get anywhere up to six or seven people a night. Seats four hundred. I’m sure it’s gonna be a great gig.

Dom Romeo: Steve, it’s always a pleasure to catch up with you.

STEVE HUGHES: No Problems, brother.

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