Hughes grew up in Warrnambool in Western Victoria, at the end of the Great Ocean Road. It is, or it was, the type of place where you played footy in winter and cricket in summer, or you surfed, he says. Hughes loved it. “I was a ’70s kid, country lad, and I would be outdoors every day kicking the footy around until dark or playing cricket in the local nets, which were over our back fence.” As well as sporty, he was smart, a combination that landed him “middle of the range” when it came to popularity. “I was certainly not as popular with the girls as I would have liked to have been,” he says. “But look, I had friends. Enough friends without being the king of the schoolyard.”
Enough perhaps, to be the class clown and the everyman. Hughes remembers performing a play on a grade six camp and getting a laugh from the small audience. “I remember thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I’ve got something here’,” he says.
In fact, whenever he found himself in front of a group of people, he couldn’t help trying to make them chuckle. “I was going to Christian Brothers’ College and I remember doing a speech for religious education and just being able to crack the whole room up and that being intoxicating,” he recalls.
From around 13, he began nurturing a secret ambition to one day become a comic. “I remember feeling lucky that I knew what I wanted to do,” he says.
At the same time, though, the class clown pulling pranks was just as often the kid crying in the dunnies when he didn’t make the school footy team. “It was funny: I was a contradiction of someone who knew they wanted to be a comedian and so would be laughing half the time and the other half the time I was crying because I wasn’t as popular as I wanted to be, or I didn’t get the right score on some bloody test at school,” he says. “So, I was definitely a contradiction in the way I thought about life growing up. And to this day, let’s be honest. I’m still feeling sorry for myself half the time.”
But while Hughes knew he wanted to become a comic, back then at least, it wasn’t a career you just went out and
pursued, particularly if you were the dux of your high school. He dropped out of an IT course at Swinburne University, then tried accounting at the local campus of Deakin, before dropping out again. And that’s when things began to unravel.
Hughes began binge drinking and smoking marijuana. Feeling rudderless, he became depressed. Several times, drunken benders saw him wake up in strange places. While he never felt suicidal, he says, he did indulge in reckless behaviour, particularly in cars. The type of behaviour where you don’t always care about what happens to you. “I think a lot of young people go through those moments of just not caring about results and doing stupid stuff that you regret,” he says. “Even in cars where people are drunk or you’re drunk.”
Hughes began to feel like his mind was haunting him. “At one point I thought I was absolutely insane,” he says. He turned to his mother for help. “I said, ‘Mum, I think I’ve got schizophrenia’. I was having these episodes where I was just flipping out, basically.”
His mum took him to a doctor who told him he didn’t have schizophrenia. The news settled him down. Afterwards he quit drinking and smoking for good. That was 28 years ago.
You wonder how he managed to get off the booze and bongs so easily when so many young men spend the rest of their twenties and beyond struggling to come to grips with these and other vices. One reason is that unlike a lot of young guys, he actually sought help. “If you think you’ve got issues, talk to people,” he says. He also worried about what he was doing to his brain.
“I do remember once reading an article saying that every time you lose a memory from drinking you kill some brain cells, and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m killing a lot of brain cells’, because I’d lose memory every time I drank. But the longer
I was sober the happier I felt, and the more I realised it was the right thing for me.”
It didn’t hurt that he had ambition. Or an ego. He wouldn’t become a comic for a few years yet, but the dream was still hanging around, teasing him with possibility. “Certainly, I had an ego that said that I could . . . it’s a wanky thing to say, but I could achieve stuff,” he says.
Ultimately, Hughes believes sobriety allowed him to start taking the reins in his life. “It’s all about getting control back,” he says. “Not letting something else dictate your emotions. You have complete control of your own brain. Whether
you think you do or not, you actually do. It’s empowering to realise that.”
Hughes first stand-up gig was a bomb. He’d moved to Perth at 22 and tried out at a local comedy club. “I felt like a loser because no one was laughing,” he recalls. “All my insecurities came flooding out on stage. There’s no way you can make an audience laugh when you’re feeling like that.”
He went back to the club a second time and felt that he “kept my dignity at least”. His third attempt a few months later was transformative. “I walked on stage and I had an epiphany, which is that I don’t have anything to prove and that just by getting up on stage I’m a winner. That was the start of my career.”
After that he was hooked. “I love the thrill of a ‘bit’ getting a laugh,” he says. “It was just the joy of something occurring to you and you walking on stage and turning that into comedy for people. It was just amazing. It still is.”
But as enraptured as he was to be finally pursuing his dream, he was raw. So raw in fact that he didn’t know you were allowed to repeat jokes night after night. “I thought the barman would heckle me,” he says.
But he kept getting up on stage, because that’s what you do when something’s your dream. And he kept trying out new material, seeing what hit and what missed, gradually refining his act. Other comedians wondered what he was doing. Why didn’t he stick to the stuff that worked?
You’re probably familiar with Hughes’ act today. The everyman ranting about the petty trials and tribulations of life. He’d been inspired by an American comedian he’d seen on a stand-up video as a kid – Sam Kinison. “He was ranting about the fact that his wife screwed him over,” Hughes recalls. “He was ranting about things in his own life that were painful
to him. But he just did it so, so funny. What I like to think I’ve done is turn my own pathetic problems into comedy.”
As he says this, I find myself recalling some of Hughes’ rants on TV, his face red with indignation at perceived slights and minor daily infractions, often ‘perpetrated’ by his long-suffering wife, Holly, and his three kids. “Life is ridiculous,” he says. “If you can sort of reflect that, or you can convey the ridiculousness of life, there’s going to be a certain amount of people that are going to go, ‘Yes, thank you for doing that’.” If you can remind yourself at the same time, all
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