Preview: Adam Hills, Assembly Hall, Edinburgh

More Mr Nice Guy

Australian stand-up, and presenter of hit TV show The Last Leg, Adam Hills can’t escape the tag of ‘nicest man in comedy’. But, as he tells Mark Brown, he doesn’t want to.

When Channel 4 bosses were considering their coverage of the 2012 London Paralympic Games, they called upon comedian Adam Hills. He was an obvious choice. As an Australian, sport, to him, is more of a religion than a past-time. Even more importantly, as a disabled performer (he was born without a right foot), Hills has a strong track record of busting taboos around disability.

The resulting programme, The Last Leg – which Hills presented with Alex Brooker and “token able-bodied sidekick” Josh Widdicombe – averaged an impressive million-plus viewers and picked up the “outstanding achievement” gong at the Creative Diversity Awards. With its famous “is it okay to ask?” segment, the show made discussion of paralympic and disability issues much easier for a general audience while, simultaneously, being very funny.

As with so many good ideas, Hills tells me on the line from Melbourne, the show reached our screens virtually by accident. “It’s almost a fluke, the way that The Last Leg came about”, he explains. “Originally, Channel 4 asked me to host a two-hour long, late night paralympics highlights show on More 4. It was going to be a little bit humorous, but ostensibly a sports highlights show. Then, after they’d seen me do a bit of comedy about the paralympics, they went, ‘hang on! There’s comedy to be had here. Maybe we should turn it into a primetime comedy show.'”

The Sydney-born comic had no idea that the newly proposed format would prove to be such a success. “All we really wanted to do was celebrate the paralympics. I’d been in Beijing in 2008 and I knew the joy that the paralympics brings.”

The popularity of The Last Leg is widely considered to be founded upon its sensitive and intelligent approach to comedy about disability and disabled athletes. However, that too, says Hills, was more a question of accident than design. “We had to let people know that it was okay to make jokes about the paralympics, and that paralympians were okay with it. All of the important things that we achieved were almost side effects. If we had set out to make a path-breaking show that ‘pushed the barriers of disability awareness’, blah blah blah, we’d just have looked like preachy twats.”

Another element in the show’s success was Hills’s personality. Known, almost universally, as “the nicest man in comedy”, he is, quite simply, one of the most likeable people on stage and television. It’s a reputation he’s embracing with his latest stand-up show, which plays at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh during next month’s Festival Fringe. Entitled Happyism, I wonder if it is taking a very conscious stand against the aggressive and cynical strand in modern day comedy.

“Yes”, says Hills. “The show’s about a personal story, but it’s a story that reflects that [contrast with aggressive comedy]. The story is, I went on a TV show called Chelsea Lately [in 2011], which is hosted by an American comedian called Chelsea Handler. They were filming it in Sydney. It was one of those shows that takes pot shots at celebrities. They asked me to go on and be mean. They said, ‘we’ve seen what you do, we know you do nice, but we want you to be edgy and harsh.’ The problem is, when I try to do that, I forget to be funny.

“I’m really good at being mean”, he laughs, “but it just comes across as being mean… I went on the show, and I tried to do mean jokes about celebrities that I really didn’t care about and, half the time, didn’t really know. It went so badly, it was just awful. I did look as if I was just mean. It actually ended up in the papers here in Australia, just how badly it went. It kind of followed me around for ages.”

Indeed, the notoriety of his backfired attempt at nastiness followed Hills all the way to a very unlikely encounter. “Not long after doing the show, I was hosting a concert for the Dalai Lama”, the comedian remembers. “There were a whole load of Australian bands, and the Dalai Lama gave us a private meeting backstage, and His Holiness said, ‘I’m a Buddhist monk. I don’t know anything about music or comedy, but I do know this, you have a microphone, you should use it to say something.’

“I really love the fact that, of all people, the Dalai Lama said, ‘put something into your microphone’… I do think there is a responsibility in having a microphone and going out on stage. You can put anything you want into that microphone, and a lot of people are going to hear it.”

Lest you think Hills is on the road to a spiritual conversion, it is not only the leader of world Buddhism who has influenced his notion of “Happyism”. A later encounter with the creations of Jim Henson also had a part to play. “I was on stage with The Muppets in Montreal, and I watched them put so much joy into a room full of people, and it reminded me, ‘you have a microphone, use it to do something positive.'”

Hills’s new show may be all about accentuating the positive, but as a left-leaning, progressive Australian, I suspect he’s not exactly happy about the current state of the Australian Labor Party, whose parliamentarians kicked out their own leader, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, last month. “It’s an appalling state of affairs”, the comedian says of Gillard’s ousting, and her replacement by Kevin Rudd, the man Gillard herself had ousted in 2010. “It’s made a complete mockery of Australian politics.

“To boil it down”, he continues, “and this comes from the media, from talking to various politicians, and from talking to Julia Gillard, who I’ve got to know: basically it seems that the reason the parliamentary Labor Party got rid of Kevin Rudd three years ago was that he was almost impossible to work for. He was a real control freak, and the people who worked for him just couldn’t deal with it anymore. That’s what led Gillard to mount her leadership coup in 2010. From what I can tell, he’d just been chipping away in the background ever since. He  made it impossible for her to get anywhere.”

The comic admires much of what Gillard achieved as Prime Minister. He cites, as examples, progressive policies on education funding and disability insurance. However, he parts company with her, and with Labor, on asylum policy; the “offshore processing” of would-be refugees to Australia, including children, in what he calls “virtual concentration camps” in neighbouring countries, such as Papua New Guinea, is, he says, “a blight on Australia”.

If the internal turmoil in the Labor Party is a source of dismay, rather than comedy, for Hills, there is another subject that Edinburgh audiences can expect him to leave out of his show. “I always find it hard to make jokes about the rugby league team that I support”, he admits. “I’ve supported the South Sydney Rabbitohs since I was three days old. If I had to get up on stage and do jokes about them, I don’t think I could. I’m so passionate about the team, I’d have to distance myself from it in order to find the funny… It’s probably easier to make jokes about politics, because politics doesn’t matter.”

However, ask Hills, who is an Edinburgh Fringe veteran, about his attitude to the world’s biggest arts festival, and his favourite sport comes readily to his mind. “I always used to view Edinburgh as my grand final, to put it in rugby league terms. I would work up a show in Australia, say at the Adelaide Fringe, take it to Melbourne, and tour it around Australia. Then, by the time I took it to Edinburgh, it was as tight as it could possibly be.” It’s no different with Happyism, he says. Edinburgh remains, for him, comedy’s greatest showcase.

Adam Hills plays the Assembly Hall, August 15-25. For further information, visit: http://www.assemblyfestival.com

This feature was originally published in The Herald on July 27, 2013

© Mark Brown

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