Edinburgh Festival '97: Laugh and you're out

He sang duets with a spider and spent a lot of time saying `hiya', but now he wants to be serious. Is Sean Hughes joking? By James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
The clue is in the designer stubble: Sean Hughes has gone serious. He claims he's no longer a fluffy comedian who tells cute jokes about furry pets and is pursued by Boyzone-style groupies. He's now proud to be profound. He bandies the names of Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney with a facility other comedians reserve for Star Trek and Thunderbirds.

"People are shocked by my new stuff. They say, `What's happened to Sean Hughes? What's his problem? He's gone sick.' They still expect me to go `Hiya'. But that image sticks in my throat. My show is extremely dark now. I've got darker. Melody Maker said: `If the culture of despair means anything, here's the master of it.' I thought that was a brilliant review. The darker, the better...

"I'm not making apologies for being serious any more," the Dublin-bred comedian continues. "I sound like the grand old master of comedy, but while the younger acts are preparing their five-minute acts for television, I've got a responsibility to dig deeper. I've dropped all that stuff about cats and dogs. Anybody could do that. I feel I have to do stuff that nobody else will touch." Help.

In Alibis for Life, his latest live show, that stuff includes discussing the death of a close friend and a black box centre-stage which emits the sound of human crying. It is, says Hughes, the place where people go when their relationships break up. Segments of the show bear such titles as "Disharmony" and "Cynical Home Truths". He's also written The Detainees, an angsty, black-comic novel about disease, drugs, drink and depression (he says it was intended to be like Milan Kundera).

This is, after all, a man who views performing as a quasi-spiritual endeavour. "There's something of the preacher in all good stand-ups," he says. "If you're dealing with ideas, there's something quite religious about the experience."

Not everyone leaps for joy at the prospect of Sean the Serious. "My heart sinks," groans Seamus Cassidy, the former head of light entertainment at Channel 4 and now senior producer at Planet 24. A fellow Irishman, he has been a friend of Hughes since signing him up for a sitcom at Edinburgh in 1990. "His new show does sound like sixth-form angst, which is a shame because he's got a lot more to say than that. I wonder if he feels that comedy is not enough to convey his concerns. But Bill Hicks was a comedian who managed to say shocking things, and you came out feeling you'd had a good laugh. Sean has a tendency to forget that the audience should come out laughing rather than thinking, `God, he had profound things to say on longings or rape.' I find that a bit patronising because he's a very good comedian."

He certainly is. Like another of his heroes, Morrissey, Hughes has raised bedsit insecurity into an artform. Loaded, the lads' Bible, called him "probably the best stand-up around at the moment". Harry Thompson, co- producer of Never the Mind the Buzzcocks, the BBC2 pop quiz on which Hughes is a team captain, reckons that "he manages to be engaging but subversive at the same time. He has wit and a mischievous air about him. He comes across as smart, knowledgeable and very natural."

While Karen Koren, Hughes's longterm producer at the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh, admires the pathos he conjures up on stage. "He does the full circle of comedy," she claims. "When you go to the theatre, you want to laugh, cry and experience all the emotions. That's what you get from Sean."

Still, Hughes has not been without his critics. Sean's Show, the culty C4 sitcom in which he self-consciously deconstructed the form on screen and sang duets with a talking spider, was critically slammed. Hughes still shudders at the memory: "I was slagged off horribly."

Now, he says, "reviews don't trouble me. People give critics too much importance. Just because there are a few stand-ups writing novels, reviewers think it's like stand-ups are gate-crashing the party. `They're just comedians - how low can you get?' But we write lines - it's inevitable that a lot of comedians will write novels because it's a larger canvas."

Others sigh that Hughes has failed to fulfil the potential that burned so brightly in 1990 when, as a relatively-unknown 24-year-old, he won the Perrier Award. "If I was being absolutely brutal," Cassidy reflects, "I'd say too much happened to him too early. He got distracted into too many different things. He should have focused more on what was going to work for him."

Thompson disagrees. "I don't think his potential is unfulfilled at all. He's getting his poems and his novels published. He's had his own series on Channel 4 and he's a team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. That's pretty bloody potential-fulfilling if you ask me. He has, however, made one major mistake in his career, which was to grow a particularly ludicrous beard."

For his part, Hughes has no time for industry doom-mongers. "Those who say I haven't fulfilled my potential are not people whose opinion I value. Someone like Jack Dee becomes huge for doing an ad. Who wants to be successful on those terms? I don't want to be a `TV personality'. I have an extreme hatred of bubbly people, like you get on The Big Breakfast. Also, if I write another novel, I can't afford to do that much television because then the novel won't be taken seriously. Television is here today and gone tomorrow. My problem with television is that it's for stupid people. That makes me sound arrogant, but people sit back and chuckle at Last of the Summer Wine."

Arrogant or astute? Pretentious or profound? Hughes is surely a bit of both, a beguiling mixture of the naive and the knowing. He is a one-off, a misunderstood poet on the laddish, relentlessly shallow stand-up circuit, and the comedy world is certainly richer for his quirkily original presence.

At the age of 31, there is no sign of the restless artist settling down. Hughes is not likely to opt for the security of 2.4 children and a guest spot on Celebrity Squares in the immediate future. "I find commitment difficult," he admits. "It's like being an alcoholic. You have to take one day at a time. `See you next Tuesday?' `I don't know, I need more space.' I feel a routine coming on".

`Alibis for Life': 15-29 August at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh (0131- 226 2151), then on a national tour from the end of Sept (info: 0891 455488). `The Detainees' is published by Simon and Schuster on 1 Sept. A new series of `Never Mind the Buzzcocks' begins next month

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