Tuesday 27 September 2016

Getting a leg up in comedy - Adam Hills on how living in Ireland helped his career

Aussie comedian Adam Hills made his name with hit TV show The Last Leg and jokes about his own prosthesis. However, it was his years in Ireland which left a lasting effect on him and his stand-up routine, as the Cat Laughs performer tells our reporter

John Brennan

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

Looking forward to the Cat Laughs in Kilkenny - comedian Adam Hills.
Looking forward to the Cat Laughs in Kilkenny - comedian Adam Hills.
Having a laugh: Adam Hills with Last Leg presenters Alex Brooker (left) and Josh Widdicome.

'When you're doing a gig in Ireland, you've got to remember that the audience are generally funnier than you are. It's one of the few places where you can ask someone in the audience their name and what they do at a comedy gig and 15 minutes later they're still talking and getting more laughs than you could have possibly got," says Adam Hills.

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The 45-year-old comedian and presenter of Channel 4's The Last Leg has had plenty of experience of Irish audiences - he lived in Dublin between 1999 and 2002 and polished his stand-up skills on the capital's comedy circuit. Now he's back in Europe for five weeks of stand-up shows, starting this weekend at the Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival where he performs today and tomorrow.

"I'll still use Irish phrases but with an Australian accent - I'll say 'in fairness' and 'sure you know yourself' and I'll still describe myself as feeling 'grand' in a really broad Aussie accent, I catch myself doing it a lot," he says. It's noticeable too - another Irishism he uses regularly through our interview is "malarkey".

"I think that's one of the words I always have to explain to my daughter - 'Daddy what's malarkey?' Oh wow, I'm really not sure," he laughs.

Hills has been back home in Sydney for the past seven weeks with his wife, cabaret singer Ali McGregor, and their two daughters Beatrice (6) - affectionately called Bebe - and Maisey (2). "I've basically been a house dad for the last two months," he says, before confessing that he managed to work in some time on the golf course too.

It's been a welcome break for Hills, who is fresh off his eighth season of the The Last Leg. The hit Channel 4 comedy show began life during the coverage of the 2012 Paralympics and quickly earned a cult following due to its open approach in talking about - and, indeed, joking about - people with disabilities.

Hills was himself born without a right foot and uses a prosthetic leg -something that he says he felt was natural material for his stand-up routines in his early years as a comedian.

"Very early on in my career, I was in the Sydney Comedy Store. I did a few jokes about my prosthetic and it went OK, it wasn't fantastic, but I remember one comedian took me aside after and said: 'You're not good enough to talk about your leg yet.' I said: 'What do you mean?'

"He said: 'You're still learning how to do comedy, when you talk about your leg you can really make a difference with it but not until you learn to do comedy first. You've got to spend years and years and years doing comedy, and when you're really good at comedy, then you can talk about your leg.'"

Somewhat taken aback, Hills mentioned the conversation to his manager who told him he agreed with the comedian's advice. "He said: 'If you talk about it now, you'll be known as the one-legged comedian and you'll never be anything more than a one-legged comedian."'

It was 2001, while living in Ireland, that Adam felt ready to joke about his disability on stage again.

"Just after the Edinburgh comedy festival September 11 happened. The upshot of that was whenever I went through metal detectors my foot would set them off. I flew from Dublin to Heathrow to Paris on September 14, 2001 and I remember going through Heathrow and my foot set off the metal detector.

"Rather than check it, the guy when he realised it was a prosthetic leg got really embarrassed and just waved me through. I remember thinking I would rather lift my trousers so someone can check that I'm not carrying a knife, rather than think: 'What if someone else got onto the plane with a knife?'

"It made me think people need to know it is OK to check to see what set off the metal detector. So feeling in myself that I was good enough to talk about it and then finding the reason to talk about it, it all fell into place after that."

With more and more of his work coming from the UK - where he was three times nominated for the Edinburgh festival's top accolade, the Perrier Award - Hills moved to London from Ireland in 2002.

Three years later, he returned to Australia where he hosted Spicks and Specks, a popular music quiz show similar to the BBC's Never Mind the Buzzcocks. By now a household name in Australia, in 2008 he was asked to present the opening and closing ceremonies for the Paralympics in Beijing for Australian television.

Hills was initially reluctant. "I remember my Mom saying to me when I was a teenager: 'You've been asked whether you'd like to try out for the Disabled Olympics.' And I remember thinking: 'No way, I'm going to compete in a real Olympics - I'm not disabled, I want to compete against people without disabilities.' I didn't want anything to do with it."

However, the experience in Beijing was a "real eye opener" for him, he says. "For the first couple of days covering it you sit there going 'oh my god, that guy is amazing considering he's got one leg,' or 'that girl is amazing considering she's blind'. After a few days, you stop the 'considering' part, and you think 'wow this basketball is amazing' and you stop seeing the disabilities."

Hills was asked whether he would consider participating in the 2012 London games - this time as an athlete. He considered playing tennis, a sport he had played competitively as a teenager and even coached. However, the time and dedication required would have meant he would have had to have given up his comedy career so he declined.

The coach who had approached him told him that the best thing he could do for the Paralympics was to tell everybody about it. He got that chance four years later, when he was asked to host a Paralympics show on More4 in the UK alongside British comedians Alex Brooker and Josh Widdicombe.

Such was its success, The Last Leg outlived the Games and was moved to a prime-time slot on Channel 4, where it's still going four years later.

"None of it was expected and none of it was planned for," Hills says. "It's going to be a lesson that I teach my daughters in years to come, that the thing that makes you different, is the thing that makes you unique. The one thing I thought that was going to hold me back in life has pushed me forward."

Today, Hills' work commitments mean that he spends a lot of time between Australia and the UK. It will come as no surprise to viewers of the, often political, Last Leg that he has strong feelings on the Brexit debate. He puts the referendum down to David Cameron's desire to "appease his own party" and "win over a few UKIP voters". The Prime Minister has, he feels "really passed the buck and he's hoping the people do his dirty work for him and make the decision that he wants, so he doesn't have to alienate his own party."

He's more amused than exercised about the US Presidential race, which he calls "kind of bizarre" and jokes that he feels Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has been doing "everything to lose but it keeps backfiring". Closer to home, he praises the passing of the marriage equality referendum in Ireland last year and hopes that Australia will do the same.

"I'm hoping that we follow Ireland's lead, but along the way I know it's going to get really, really ugly - if I learned anything from the Irish referendum it's how personal and bitter the whole thing can get."

Disability remains at the forefront of Hills' comedy routine, and in the audience as much as the material. He often has sign interpreters to cater for deaf audience members.

"I realised that there are extra laughs to be had in it and that for the first time deaf people were able to get into my stories. It's fun, it's great. I love being on stage ad-libb-ing with deaf people, asking what they do for a living. They sign it to the interpreter and then they say it to me. Then I have to say something back and the interpreter has to sign it back. I get people who only come to sign interpreter gigs!"

He's looking forward to this weekend's Cat Laughs gigs, at the Hole in the Wall, Hotel Kilkenny and Watergate Theatre. In fact, he describes the festival as his "favourite in the world".

"It's a festival that really celebrates stand-up. You could open one night and close the next, you're with some of the best names in the world in front of genuinely the most fun audience in the world, it's just everything I love about stand-up comedy."

Though genuinely meant by a man often referred to as 'the nicest man in comedy,' those sort of sentiments prove that Adam Hills really does know how to work a tell-us-we're-brilliant Irish audience.

thecatlaughs.com

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