Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sean Hughes changed comedy for my generation and he can't be dead, it's beyond stupid

A friend posted a link on the "Very Long thread" on Monday. This is a Facebook thread on my wall that has been going since September 20, 2013 and has generated more than 230,000 comments since, hence its name.

Friends comment on it about all sorts of things, with the sole aim to increase the comment count so we can eventually win some sort of prize. I mean, surely someone out there offers prizes for this kind of thing.

This link was a news article whose headline said Irish comic Sean Hughes had died, aged 51.

It is rare a headline that genuinely causes me to double take, then stare in shock. I am the fucking international editor of Green Left Weekly and we specialise in presenting the worst, most depressing news to the world, which, surprisingly, is largely indifferent.

I didn't even open the link. I did obvious thing and checked Twitter. Sure enough, people were tweeting that Sean Hughes was dead at just 51. Complications due to cirrhosis of the liver. I thought Hughes had quit drinking, but it seems he did for a bit, but went back on it.

Jesus, I looked hard at my beer reading that. Hell, I'm looking at the beer I'm drinking right now, thinking: "You bastard... your kind killed Sean Hughes!" (Still drinking it though, I mean it is already open and booze aint cheap.)

These are my two favourite Sean Hughes' jokes:
"I read that they've just arrested six Muslim men in Birmingham under the terror laws. Is this ringing ANY bells? I don't want to alarm anyone, but if you're Muslim and live in Guildford, don't hang out in fours."
"I had very liberal parents, they insisted I call them Bob and Marge. I don't know why, it wasn't their names or anything."
The first joke is paraphrased from when I saw Hughes' in Sydney in about 2006, and refers to the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four — Irish people tortured, then framed up and jailed for years for bombings they had nothing to do with, of which the current treatment of Muslims bears more than a passing resemblance. The second was part of his stand up in the early 90s and features in an episode on Sean's Show.

They represent the two extremes of Hughes' comedy, combining his capacity for biting social commentary with silliness —a stupid joke made funny by the cheeky, almost innocent way he'd deliver it.

It is difficult to describe what Sean Hughes meant to a certain section of people, people who were young in the early 90s and whose introduction to comedy that was raised almost to an art form came through the likes of Sean's Show, Hughes' groundbreaking anti-sitcom whose two series in 1992/93 was almost hypnotically hilarious. (A kind soul has just uploaded season 1 on youtube and Hughes himself uploaded season 2.)

Australia was blessed to have it shown latish at night on ABC TV. In my house, we somehow managed to record on VHS the final episode of season one, which to this day I rate as among the funniest half hours of comedy I've ever seen. Me and my sister watched it endlessly, over and over. I can still recall many lines.

(Sadly, one I remember is his repeated declarations, in the face of things going wrong: "I'm only 26!" In hindsight, that was already past the halfway mark of his life.)

For season 2, we were better prepared, and more was captured. He had a running joke that every time the phone rang, of quickly putting jazz on his stereo, then picking up the (toy) phone and waving it in front on the speakers before saying into it "Sorry, I'll just turn down the jazz!" As is his follow up in episode two of "What, God? I told you to stop calling!"

And there was his way of ending a phone call, seen in season one: "Bye-bye, bye-bye" offered cheerfully into his plastic toy phone.

Sean Hughes holds a slightly odd place in comedy. He exploded onto the British scene as a young Irishman, winning the much-vaunted Perrier award for his debut stand up show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1990 — at 24, he is the youngest comic ever to win it. He broke ground for Irish comics. This predates Father Ted, much less Black Books and Dylan Moran, among others who followed.

His show was different to most stand up of his day -- more conversational, with an arc. That approach is common, even the norm, these days.

Also, he made a point of bringing things outside the mainstream into his TV show, at a time when it wasn't normal. It doesn't seem unusual now that his TV show talked a lot about The Smiths (including the immortal line, "Everyone gets over their Morrissey phase... well, except Morrissey"), or that he wore a Nick Cave T-shirt in one episode, or had The Cure appear or had Pulp play in the background in a nother episode (in 1993, a full two years before "Common People" made them well-known).

This is why it can be hard to evaluate genuine trailblazers years after the fact -- looking back, what they did seems unexceptional and, without knowing the history, an observer thinks "well, that's not bad, but what is so special about it?"

Hughes was a transitional comic -- his impact was tied to a transition in comedy and he marks a sort of part-way point. He also played that role for me personally, and no doubt many others, opening the door to a different way of understanding and appreciating comedy. (He also, for better or worse, introduced me to The Smiths.)

Although it wasn't the first to do it, Sean's Show broke the rules of sitcoms, tore down the fourth wall and turned the fact that it was a sitcom into a joke itself. Playing a version of himself, Hughes would acknowledge the audience directly -- in the first episode, he is shocked to discover a crowd of more than 400 people in his living room.

But what made it work was the sheer joy of it, the way Hughes revelled in the silliness of the show, interspersing his stand up with running gags (in the first series, a sock never dried, in the second, he waged a constant war against scrabbled eggs stuck to a saucepan) and his self-deprecating commentary on life.

The books he put out in the 90s of his writings, 1993's Sean's Book and 1995's The Grey Area, stand alone as distinct works. There is the cheeky, lovable character from Sean's Show and his stand up in there, but he includes serious poems and heartfelt commentary, too.

Reading them at the time, you could feel Hughes' attempts to break out of attempts to pigeonhole him within the persona he played on TV. I remember it often felt a little too self-conscious, almost forced. But it was hard not to admire his determined refusal to be turned into a commercialised "easy-to-sell" product. It also revealed a dark side to his character, and a sensitivity that has been widely commented on (most comments in the media after his death refer to him as "gentle" and "kind").

He deliberately chose to express all aspects of his creativity and humanity -- no doubt against publishers and agents advice to stick to the grinning, floppy haired, cardigan wearing lovable loser as-seen-on-telly.

This dual nature, being in the public eye, but refusing the constraints of celebrity, marked his subsequent career. He was a team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks from 1996-2002, but walked away from what was no doubt a lucrative gig because he was bored with its formulaic format. Around that time, he also quit stand up. He wrote well-received novels and took acting gigs, like his criminally underrated role as "Mod" in The Last Detective series with Peter Davison. Yes, he played another lovable loser, but an even gentler one, marked by developing middle-age.

He returned to stand up again, on his own terms. He didn't earn the commercial success or operate in the public eye like in the 90s, but he did what he wanted. And he never wanted to be Michael McIntyre or tour stadiums.

A great moment from Hughes' later career that I'd never seen until now was an appearance he made on Celebrity Come Dine With Me -- in which he chose to serve stew to the judges for all three courses. With, as Hughes defiantly insisted when criticised, actual variations! But still, as the judges kept noting, nonetheless the same stew.

A stung Hughes defended his culinary creations by declaring: "With Da Vinci did they go, ‘I really like that painting, but it’s really like the other one you did with Jesus in it'? Jesus is in them all! It’s just disrespectful to a craftsman like myself."

A clip from the show can be seen here, featuring the judge's reactions, with a highlight being Hughes' contribution to "Christmas cheer" (for it was a Christmas special) being getting in a Smiths cover band to perform "Meat is Murder" and the ever OTT-sad "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out".

It is a cliche to say "we'll never see the likes of him again", but fucking honestly.

I saw Sean Hughes in Australia three times -- from my rather loose memory, in Perth twice in 1996 and 98 and in Sydney in about 2006. I was too young to have seen him when he came out in the early 90s, but short of that, I took all the opportunities to see him live I've had and there is no other comic I can say that about. If he'd toured again, I'd have seen him again. Now I won't.

In recent years, I have only thought sporadically about Sean Hughes, occasionally checking out what he was up to and enjoying what meagre offerings the Internet threw my way. Richard Herring's live podcast with Sean Hughes from 2015 is great.

Since 2011, I've been performing stand up, to varying degrees of constancy. Thinking about it, I realise now that in my performances, there are some distinct mannerisms or ways of delivering a joke that are... well, let's be polite and say "inspired" by Sean Hughes. That were clearly borrowed from him. It's never been conscious, but it's real.

The simple fact is I wouldn't be doing stand up comedy if not for Sean Hughes. I love sketch comedy and that love has obvious sources -- Monty Python, Fry and Laurie, even Australia's Full Frontal, among others. But stand up, and that style of gag telling... Sean Hughes made me think it was worth doing. Whether that's to his credit or not... others can be the judge. Feel free to go to his funeral and heckle over this point.

Here are some lovely offerings from comics who knew and loved Sean Hughes:

Mark Steel and Rhona Cameron remember a friend who was a 'gentle soul, a proper comic'

Richard Herring's blog pays a wonderful tribute.

Matt Lucas interrupting an interview to pay respects to 'an icon of my generation'

And my personal favourite, this beautiful, heartwarming tweet from his Never Mind the Bollocks co-star Phil Jupitus about finding Hughes' Grey Area in a bookstore and the teller refusing to charge him for it.... I'm not crying, you're crying and somehow your tears have projected themselves onto my eyes, you fucking bastard!

(That story was actually quite appropriate, seeing as the introduction to Sean's Book includes a detailed guide on "How to steal this book", or otherwise get away with reading it for free -- and Jupitus came up with the ultimate trick, have him die unexpectedly.)

There are many more, from fellow comics and others, that can be read from Twitter or just googling. They all combine shock with respect and awe for a man who blazed a path so many others followed, and whose influence was far greater than he probably ever know. The only way to end this is with Sean Hughes himself:


  1. Thanks for the heads up about the Stewathon. I thought I had dug up everything Sean did these last few months since our loss. I laughed maniacally to myself for a good 15 minutes and love him even more now.

  2. The stewathon was pure genius. Thank you for sharing this gem. I was in London and 18 when Sean burst onto the staid comedy scene with his refreshing gormless gloominess. I loved him to bits. Missed a lot of his later stuff since coming back to Australia, but horrified to hear of the death of the young hero of my dark youth. 5 months later i am still going through his back catalogue. This guy is due legendary status and we need to spread the word of his timeless wisdom.
    Pls ignore my nom de plume. My young daughter did something to my Google account settings but i guess there are worse things to be associated with than rainbows, sparkle and glitter 😅

  3. This is very belated, but I just stumbled across this piece and wanted to tell you how lovely it was. I wish I'd seen it at the time, instead of being absorbed by that awful Guardian article.
    I was a very close friend of Sean's, and I know he would also be very touched by what you've written. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for this comment, I really appreciate it. It still seems strange a year and a half in that Sean Hughes is dead. I read that Guardian article with horror and disgust such a terrible hit piece. I'm glad I'd written this before it or this post would have been 80% fury.

      Sean meant a lot to me, but my sister in the Kate 90s went through a dark and very difficult period, and she always said Sean's two books of his stories and poems etc helped her get through. She felt he understood and got what she was going through.