‘Stand-up is about telling the truth while making people’s sides ache’

Comedian and writer Sean Hughes
Comedian and writer Sean Hughes

Stand-up Sean Hughes talks to JOANNE SAVAGE about searching for meaning and being inspired by Richard Pryor

Stand-up Sean Hughes’s new show is called Penguins. Not that it actually involves very much about penguins.

“What I’m getting at is really the way society treats us like penguins - we’re told how to feel, kept in place by convention, controlled by ideology. And so most of us are moving along following the leader like penguins or sheep.

“Take New Year’s Eve for example - we’re told what to sing and how to feel. Everything is defined for us and made prescriptive so that we don’t have to think for ourselves.”

Hughes is a philosophical comic, someone of obvious intelligence and literary kudos (he has written two novels and describes Milan Kundera as his favourite writer).

“There are huge themes in the show ranging from my upbringing in Dublin, my experiences of being educated by the Christian Brothers, growing up, getting into stand-up and trying to tell the truth about relationships and the way a lot of people choose to settle rather than searching for what it is they really want romantically.

“It’s a bit of a mishmash, but also a properly evolved show and hopefully it’s a lot of fun and very, very funny.”

Hughes was born in London and raised in Dublin where he was always being slagged off as the token Brit. He set off to the city of his birth again at 19 to pursue what he sees as the ‘vocation’ of comedy and to also attempt to lose his virginity.

“I’ve always been interested in seeking the truth and to me comedy is about speaking the truth and saying daring things that you perhaps couldn’t get away with outside the arena of comedy.”

He remembers the moment, aged 14, when he saw Richard Pryor on the TV and was blown away by how this man could speak the truth and be so funny.

“I grew up in quite a working class part of Dublin and regardless of teachers, parents, priests, Richard Pryor was the first man who spoke the truth in a way that really registered with me. Here was this crack-addict from Illinois on our black-and-white TV and when I watched him he changed my life in an instant. It was at that moment I realised I wanted to speak the truth and make people laugh very hard while doing so.”

He draws humorously on his biography for his latest stand-up show.

“I talk about the outright traumas of being sent to school at the age of four, then being 17 and awkward and looking for love, right through to the challenges of middle age when you have such different axes to grind.”

He says his Dublin childhood was up and down, “not Angela’s Ashes, but it wasn’t Hollyoaks either”. Taught by the Christian Brothers, none of their Catholicism rubbed off on him: “I don’t even bother being critical of religion because I don’t believe in God, so what’s the point in being critical of something that doesn’t exist?” (Richard Dawkins sadly doesn’t seem to believe in the same tack).

Hughes likes to keep things fresh on stage by improvising, ad-libbing, freewheeling, interacting with the audience: “It’s the same show but it’s never the same if you know what I mean,” he says, paradoxically.

Hughes is a natural performer too, announcing with no hint of irony and quite remarkably, that he “feels more comfortable on stage than he does in his own kitchen”.

He hopes Penguins is funny but as one of his friends told him: “Sometimes your shows are really funny, sometimes they make you sad, but the thing about your stand-up is that it always makes people feel.”

I ask Hughes, 48, if it is a difficult process writing a stand-up show. Does he sit at his desk for hours on end or jot down things in the middle of the night when inspiration strikes like an inconvenient nocturnal thunderbolt?

“No, look, if I get up at night the only thing I’m going to do is go for a piss, not write jokes.

“For me when I sit down to write it always begins with an idea that I am trying to convey and then I think of funny ways to communicate it.”

He insists that these days he channels all his energies into the pursuit of comedy (not so as to interrupt his sleep patterns though) and that to this end he prefers thinking rather than reading. Above all the things that interest him the main thing is “looking for meaning”. I suggest he should study for a doctorate in philosophy, but this doesn’t appeal. “Honestly, at the minute I am a bit of an idiot and am lucky if I can even get through the Sunday supplements and Q Magazine,” he laughs.

But there’s no way I believe him. Not with his lively mind, whippet-quick wit and astute awareness of how society exerts control over individuals.

What change would he like to see in the world, where he all-powerful for a day?

“Just more people daring to speak the truth as opposed to saying the things they feel they ought to say.

“In comedy you speak the truth and get away with it. I’d like to see more people speaking the truth and getting away with it. It would make for a much more interesting world. The media are to blame too in making things bland by churning out the same narratives, attitudes and ideas. We should all be fighting the good fight for truth rather than settling for comfortable lies.”

Sean Hughes: Penguins, The Mac, Belfast, April 9. Visit themaclive.com or call 02890 235053.