Ahead of rare Hong Kong shows, Aussie comedian Dave Hughes talks about the riches of embarrassment
Funnyman who has made a career out of embarrassing situations makes a rare overseas foray, bringing his biting observations to Wan Chai for three nights
Australian comedian and media personality Dave Hughes is a household name in his homeland, but he’s the first to admit he’s something of an unknown quantity overseas.
“It annoys me that I don’t do gigs outside Australia more often,” he says. “I’ve been full-time with radio and TV in Australia, and there’s just not enough time. I really like getting up in front of non-Aussies – although it’s still mostly Aussies at my shows everywhere.”
Hughes will make one of his rare overseas forays to perform at the Punchline Comedy Club at Tamarind in Wan Chai on January 12, 13 and 14. Not being automatically recognised in the street as he is at home, he says, has both pluses and minuses.
“You do get people saying ‘Tell us a joke’ when you’re lining up at the ATM or wherever; luckily they often have low expectations of what is funny and will laugh at whatever I say. So it’s a relief when no one knows me, although it does annoy me when I don’t get such good service.”
A prolific stand-up, Hughes, 46, universally known as Hughesy, specialises in observational material built around his annoyance with the inconveniences and minor humiliations of everyday life, expressed in a stark, opinionated but good-natured style. His offstage personality isn’t a whole lot different, although with a lot less annoyance.
Hughes is best known at home for his tireless television and radio work in Australia: his TV credits include longstanding roles on comedy chat show The Glass House, Australian rules football panel show Before the Game, variety show Rove, current affairs panel show The Project and, most recently, and somewhat incongruously, Australia’s Got Talent. On the radio he has spent 15 years with Kate Langbroek as co-presenter of drive-time radio show Hughesy & Kate.
Hughes didn’t take to the stage until he was 22, however, and his first stand-up experience went so badly that it was almost his last. Originally from the small coastal town of Warrnambool, about 200km west of Melbourne, Hughes dropped out of university and spent several years doing a variety of jobs, including one hosing down carcasses in an abattoir.
“I had a desire to do comedy from my early teenage years,” he says. “I had an inkling I had an aptitude for it.” His suspicions were confirmed when an improvised speech in a school religious studies class had his classmates in stitches. “It was the only subject I failed. But that speech inspired my career.”
His first attempts at stand-up, though, didn’t prove quite so successful. “The first time on stage was terrible,” he says. “I didn’t realise how bright the spotlight would be. It was like being interrogated by the Gestapo. And the audience hated me.
“That first gig was so traumatic, I almost never did it again. I’d failed university, I’d packed in every half-arsed job I’d had, and there was a voice in my head saying, ‘You’re a loser’. I got up again the next week, and I kept my dignity, but my brain couldn’t handle the pressure.
“Six months later I saw an ad in the paper saying ‘New comics required’. It was the same comedy club as before. I rang the owner, and he said, ‘You weren’t that bad; come back and try again.’ Something had changed in my brain, and I felt like I absolutely killed it that night; I was floating. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ It was 1993, and I’ve been addicted ever since.”
His career took off with a routine at the 1999 Melbourne Comedy Festival, and plentiful TV and radio work followed. He never completely gave up stand-up, but went back to it in a big way after quitting The Project, which he describes as “like being in a sausage factory”, in 2013.
Then, in 2015, Australia’s Got Talent came calling – a rather different challenge from the sort he’s used to, and one that means that his children, aged 7, 5 and 3, are now interested in his work for the first time. “When I’m dropping my son off at school I get recognised a lot,” he says. “One little girl said, ‘I’m seeing you too much on TV.’”
Nor are his own children any more sparing of his feelings. “I took my shirt off on a show once and it got used as a promo and shown a lot,” he says. “My three-year-old daughter saw it and said, ‘Never show your tummy on TV again.’” His son, he adds, recently asked him if he was already wealthy when he met his wife, “implying I was batting out of my league”.
But then, being a comedian with a reputation for biting observation gives every situation in life a potential silver lining. “When I’m genuinely annoyed or insulted or my ego is hurt, I get a couple of minutes of stand-up out of it. It started when I was unemployed and did jokes about it.
“Embarrassment is where the bulk of my comedy comes from. The other day my son was embarrassed about something, and I pointed at our house and said, ‘Don’t worry about embarrassment – embarrassment paid for this.’”
Dave Hughes, Jan 12-14, 8pm (Jan 12), 9pm (Jan 13 &14), Tamarind, 2/F Sun Hung Kai Centre, 30 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, HK$390, Cityline, ticketflap.com