Steve Hughes, the Bard of Paradox
Thursday, May 28, 2009
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: Whatâs brought you back to Australia?
STEVE HUGHES: Aahâ¦ living in England for ten years. Thatâll bring anyone back! It will.
I just realised that Iâve 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 wasnât thinking, âgreat, Iâll go back and play the Fairfield RSLâ, 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: âyeah, go on get on with it anyway, mate!â
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 â they had someone cancel or something â âoh no, who are we gonna get?â Then I went, âaw, Iâm hereâ¦â. I wasnât gonna work at all. Well, not for a while, anyway. But three weeks â you canât turn down that.
Dom Romeo: Now I know that the story about the gig that nobody turned up to happens to be Dave Joryâs story.
STEVE HUGHES: Dave Joryâs good. I like Dave Jory. Heâs a good act. I worked with him on Saturday â him and Daniel Townes, which was good, because Iâd only seen Dave MC before. You donât get to do much as an MC. Although, itâs a harder job than people think, MCing, which is funny. They just think, âoh, weâll get anyone to MCâ and Iâm thinking, âNoâ¦ youâve got to get the room ready, you mental case!â I remember hearing this MC one night come offstage, he went, âyeah, they were a little cold when I went onâ¦â. I thought, âwell, of course they were; youâre the MC. Thatâs your job, you idiot!â
Dom Romeo: Do you ever MC?
STEVE HUGHES: No. About three times, in England, but only because someone pulled out and I thought, âall right, Iâll do it for youâ. But no, not really.
Dom Romeo: When you left, you were clearly a good comic of the ones coming through. You clearly had something. Youâve gone away and youâve come back brilliant. You must have known you could do this. But was there a point when you were overseas where you went, âIâve gone from being okay to being quite good, actuallyâ¦â
STEVE HUGHES: Yeah, yeah, of course there is. When you gig that much in Englandâ¦ I mean proper gigsâ¦ Thereâs heaps of gigs. Sometimes people go, âYou know, thereâs quite a few gigs in Sydney nowâ, but you realise, âyeah, but theyâre at the Fairfield RSLâ; that doesnât help you out eitherâ¦â. At least in England there are gigs, heaps of gigs, and theyâre goodâ¦
They have comedy gigs in villages in England, which manage to keep it going. You know what I mean? Itâs just a different country for comedy, than it is here. Australiaâs outdoorsy to begin with. Or, as my mother said, when she said, âis the English comedy scene good?â and I went, âyeah, itâs greatâ. She said, âis it better than here?â I said, âof course it is!â She goes, âYeah, well, we donât do indoor sports here, do we?â
But you donât as much, because the sunâs outâ¦ so itâs very difficult to get this good in Australia if you donât get that kind of exposure. I remember when I saw Bill Bailey at the Harold Park Hotel, which was in about â98 or something, which was killer! You just go, âyou gotta get that good! You gotta get that good!â And you wanna be around people that good, donât you. So I said, âwell, I have to goâ¦â The worst thing that could have happened was I have to come back. It was a very good idea, I think, if youâre 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 donât care anymore and you think, âgood!â cos you know you can do it. Jongleurs in England, which is a more mainstreamy chain of clubs â theyâre marketed more mainstream: bucks nights and hen nights and office dos, that kind of thing â 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, âright, now I can finally do it the way I wanted to do itâ. Iâd mastered âdeadpanâ 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 theyâre 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 youâre getting compliments off guys who you think are brilliant then you start to go, âoh well, somethingâs workingâ. Also, if youâre getting work in the UK, itâs working to begin with!
Dom Romeo: You make it look effortless â that deadpan persona is you, personifiedâ¦ so to speak.
STEVE HUGHES: Yeah, well just, you know, learning how toâ¦ If you want a crowd to be quiet, itâs best you just stand there in silence instead of yelling at them, âwill you please listen to me?â because they go, âno!â 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. Itâs no good going, âcan everybody turn around and listen to me?â Itâs better to stand there and say nothing. Then they go, âwell this bloke must have something to say â heâs got nothing to say.â Itâs 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 â 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 âoffensiveâ. Like âsupport the war on terrorâ, which is actually the murder and genocide of millions of people, yet donât ever say the word âpoofterâ again because that could be deemed really offensive. Support the illegal invasions of Middle Eastern countries. See, to me, thatâs common sense and understanding that youâve been duped here.
Dom Romeo: You broadly fall into a class of expat Aussie shouty, sweary comedians â not as shouty as others because you can and will be deadpan and silent â and youâre not as blatantly sweary because it always has a purpose. But do you see yourself in that subgenre of comic? Chances are, youâll say, âyeah, that subgenre of good comics, and thatâs the only thing we have in commonââ¦
STEVE HUGHES: Thereâs only a few that really go over there a lot, like Jim Jeffries whoâs always there. Jimâs big in America and tons of places. Adam Hills has always been over there â he was the original Australian that was overseas when I started. Kitty Flanagan has been overseas a lot. Sheâs good. Sheâs killer! Sheâs 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 donât 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, âyouâd work!â. He could work in England. Itâs good delivery, itâs good jokes.
The âswearyâ 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, donât we! Whatâs that joke that Arj Barkerâs got about how Australians are the only people who swear when they give directions?
Sometimes I swear too much. You have those nights where youâre nervous and youâre not doing too well, and you slip back into this sort of âah, fuck youâ¦!â Actually, I did a TV show for the BBC before I left, which was the first bit of mainstream TV I did in England â no swearing of course â which was good! Good practice. And actually, I re-wrote some of my jokes without the swear bits anymore, and I realised, âthat works much better!â If you do do it too much, you canât use it as a strength, because sometimes you have to say âf*ckâ in a certain place to make the joke kill. Some people think, âyou can just say âbloodyâ, but no, you canât.
Dom Romeo: There may be an alternative to âf*ckâ but itâs not always the same one. It will be a different one each time, depending on the joke, surely.
STEVE HUGHES: And of course, thereâs no alternative to âC*NT!â. One must use âc*ntâ 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 thatâs not a joke, thatâs actually a crime that took place â do you want to talk about it, or have you talked about it enough?
STEVE HUGHES: Itâs quite funny because people quite often go up to Jim and say, âthatâs Steve Hughesâs material; they donât know heâs the other guy. Heâll go, âno itâs not â I was there too, tied up on the ground!â
We donât have to talk about it, Iâve 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, âcan you pass me that pen, mate? Iâve just had a killer ideaâ¦â
Dom Romeo: Do you still play music?
STEVE HUGHES: Yeah, I do. In fact, Iâve 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-shoutyâ¦ this almost ties back into the original question, whyâd I come back. Listening to my new CD, Iâm so angry and mental and yelling, itâs quite insane. I listen back to it and I realise, âgod, I needed a rest!â These English are such good audiences they even accepted me just screaming at them.
Soâ¦ uhâ¦ what was the original question?
Dom Romeo: Are you still playing music?
STEVE HUGHES: I taught myself guitar so I donât 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. Itâs a little bit chaotic. I wonât say who it is yet, in case we donât pull it off.
Dom Romeo: Are they signed?
STEVE HUGHES: No. Theyâre very well known, though. If you know underground Australian heavy metal. Itâll be good. Iâd be very f*cken happy. A pure live ritualâ¦ Itâll be quite disturbing.
Dom Romeo: You were saying youâve only just made it to âproperâ television in the UK.
STEVE HUGHES: Just stand-up. Not a âshowâ or anything.
Dom Romeo: Do you want to do more of the television thing? Because you strike me as the seminal âliveâ comedian. What you do is you thrive with an audience. I couldnât see you fronting a game showâ¦
STEVE HUGHES: Oh, no, no, no, no. No, Iâm not doing that! Sometimes comedians are all sort of, âI wanna get on TV, I wanna get on TV, I wanna do this, if I get on TV everything will be all rightâ¦â. They live in some kind of fantasy. Sometimes I have to say to them, âwhat do you want to do on TV?â They donât know! âYou canât have no idea; write a show as good as Blackadder and then youâll get on TV. Do you have a show as good as that? Thatâs the standard, as far as Iâm concerned. Unless you want to be the host of some crap show.â I canât do that. What am I gonna do? I hate TV. I love it as a medium if it were used correctly. But itâs not. Itâs used by the ruling elite to send propaganda messages to the new world order society thatâs being congregated into an empirically based scientific dictatorshipâ¦ You getting all this? You getting this down, everybody? You understand?
Dom Romeo: Thatâs 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: Thatâs impossible. Itâs 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 donât even think mine is âunderneath it allâ. I just say it! Simple as that! Youâre often limiting yourselfâ¦ If you have a contempt of the mainstream, which of course, in this country, to put it bluntly â I donât care â Iâve always found the TV industry here to be âsafeâ; âgutlessâ; 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 theyâve done. Weâve all just got to shut up and be happy and drink lattes in the sun and pretend nothingâs ever gone wrong, and until you accept that thereâs a tragedy here that needs to be acknowledged, then youâll 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 weâre so isolated. Yet thereâs never any structure for art to be turned into a side of the Australian culture. Itâs still dominated by sport, which isâ¦ uhâ¦ I donât know. Good, if you like sport. Not all of us do! So anyone who doesnât like sport in Australia has usually been outcast. And yet, thereâs 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 â some of the artists I know here, if they were in Europe, theyâd be liked. Theyâd have somewhere to perform, somewhere to show their stuff. Here, itâs like, âwhat are ya doinâ that for mate? What are ya doinâ that for? Thatâs a bit stupid. A bit weird. A bit negative, isnât it? Whereâs the ball?â Anyway. Stuff like that.
Dom Romeo: I guess the last question would be, âwhy donât you come back more often?â but youâve kind of answered itâ¦
STEVE HUGHES: Itâs so far to come back, isnât it? Not like my Canadian mates. They can go home from England. Seven hours!
Dom Romeo: But itâs not just the time and the distance it takes to travel â itâs also the philosophy and the mind-set. Thatâs far away, too.
STEVE HUGHES: Well, I donât know. Because Iâm really enjoying it, being here now. Only because I havenât 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 itâs 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, âright, I gotta do something different nowâ. I did all of England. I thought, âwhat am I doing? What am I doing?â Iâve 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 donât fake laugh. They knee-slap laugh. Theyâre a little conservative â but I donât believe they are, really. Cos theyâre the one race I know that actually say âc*ntâ all the time. So, they have this constant paradox, Australians: they swear like f*cken dockers, and theyâre next minute theyâre like, âoooh, oooh, can you say that?â Itâs like this f*cken paradox, the Australian psyche. Which is good. Paradoxes are where secrets to the universe lie.
But Iâm enjoying doing gigs here, because they do laugh from their guts, and itâs fun: youâve just got to sneak in under their shell. The next minute, they realise theyâre f*cken pissing themselves, so itâs just good fun. Plus I can do tons of old jokes I havenât done for years!
Dom Romeo: What are you doing at the end of this residency at the Comedy Store? Youâre not heading back to the UK, are you?
STEVE HUGHES: No. Iâm going to Queensland to stand in the bush.
Dom Romeo: Hopefully youâll come back and do some more gigsâ¦
STEVE HUGHES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Iâve got the Laugh Garage â the Parramatta one â on the 13th. Which I donât know how Iâm going to get out to, because I went for my driverâs licence test the other day and they failed me. Because I didnât stop at the stop sign for long enough. Even though the guy said, âI know you can driveâ. Well give me the licence then! âNo, you didnât do it to the correct rulesâ¦â. But you know I can drive, why do you have to waste everybodyâs 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 youâre playing the Fairfield RSL.
STEVE HUGHES: Oh, right. The Fairfield RSL. Iâm 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 monthâs run down at the Fairfield RSL. We should get anywhere up to six or seven people a night. Seats four hundred. Iâm sure itâs gonna be a great gig.
Dom Romeo: Steve, itâs always a pleasure to catch up with you.
STEVE HUGHES: No Problems, brother.