Adam Hills: The Art of Positive Comedy

Known for his optimistic stand-up, Adam Hills shocked many when rants from his UK show The Last Leg became viral sensations. The Adelaide Review discovers if the ever-smiling Aussie comedian has done a Krusty the Clown and turned into the last angry comic.

Hills is bound for the Cabaret Festival (which also features Hills’ wife Ali McGregor, who is presenting Ali McGregor’s Opera Burlesque) to perform his new show Clown Heart – which premiered at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in April. He flew to the UK straight after his Melbourne run to film three UK election specials of The Last Leg, which he hosts with Alex Brooker and Josh Widdicombe. The Channel 4 show, which is a humorous looks at current affairs, originally ran to coincide with the 2012 Paralympics but has discovered a life of its own and will likely be pushed to 30 episodes in 2016 and 40 the following year. Screened locally on the ABC, Hills’ rants from The Last Leg became viral sensations as he took certain industries and celebrities to task. “It [ranting] got attention because I was always known for having a positive outlook, and it’s kinda like, ‘Oh, look out – the happy guy just snapped’,” laughs Hills. The former host of Spicks & Specks was a popular commercial radio host in Adelaide before becoming a stand-up sensation in Australia and the UK. He says he never set out to create “the rant”. “The first one was about women’s magazines taking photos of Kate Middleton pregnant and publishing them. It went well, and the network went, ‘We want more of those’. I was like, ‘I can’t manufacture them to order’. A couple of weeks later Joan Rivers was the target because she basically did a whole bunch of fat jokes about Adele.” Channel 4 wanted more. “I said, I can’t, because if it’s a regular thing people are going to go, ‘He’s just doing it because it’s a part of the show’. Also, it’s out of character to the rest of the show, which is so positive and uplifting. It is funny when it’s out of character, but if it’s a regular thing – it’s not funny anymore.” Hills says the rants haven’t crossed over to his stand-up show, and the genesis of his positive comedy was an early gig in Adelaide. “I was comparing the night, and I went out and kinda took the mickey out of some butchers and put them down. Then the first act went out and they all heckled him. I was thinking, ‘Wow, why are they kicking off? Why is there such a negative vibe in the room? Oh, yeah – ‘cause I put it there.’ These guys came out for a good night, they’re butchers, they’ve got proper jobs, they work hard all week and I just completely demeaned them in front of a room full of people.” Hills says that you shouldn’t mock people “unless you really need to”. “Unless you’re talking about the government or there’s hypocrisy or there’s something you’re really wound up about. This goes back to the rants; I only ever rant about something that really fires me up. I won’t pretend. I won’t put on a faux rant.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e66toX31qBk But by sticking to the positive script means Hills needs to be incredibly funny. “For one of my first shows in Melbourne I got a review that said, ‘He came across less as a comedian and more as an upbeat motivational speaker’. But I took something from that – if you’re going to be positive you better be funny as well, otherwise you are just a motivational speaker.” Death is the crux of his new show Clown Heart, his most personal to date, which also deals with the trials and tribulations of family. “The whole point of the show is that death is going to get the last laugh, so it’s our job to get in first. Trying to explain death to my daughter and watching my dad go through leukemia and not win inspired it. [He was] trying to go out laughing and all I could do was try and make him laugh in the last few days, in fact, the last few months really. I just tried to make him laugh as much as possible.” Hills says Clown Heart was one of his hardest stand-up shows to write, but he believes it’s one of his best. “I had a few nights recently where I’ve come off stage and thought, ‘I really like that I’m saying something’. Pretty much everything I talk about in the show is there for a reason. I’m proud of it in a way. It’s [Clown Heart] tough on people around me. It’s tough on my wife [McGregor], because I’m trying to talk about our relationship in a good way but in a way that… I’ve had other couples come to the show and go, ‘Oh my god, I thought it was just us! We don’t hate each other – it’s just what happens.’ I’ve had other people say they’ve just lost someone to cancer and they found the show really uplifting. Then I had one woman who said that she came out to have a laugh, because she lost someone to cancer, and I didn’t provide her with that laugh. If it’s a personal show people will take it personally. It’s been an interesting process. Maybe next year I’ll do something light and fluffy – talk about the differences between Australians and English people for an hour.” Due to his Last Leg commitments, the former host of Spicks and Specks and Adam Hills Tonight says it’s not likely that he’ll front an Australian show for some time. “Probably not but the good thing about The Last Leg is that they show it on the ABC on a Wednesday night. It’s been lovely during the [Melbourne Comedy] festival – I’ve been collecting for Father Bob Maguire’s foundation – and lots of people have come up to say, ‘I love Spicks and Specks’ but more and more people are coming up and saying, ‘Oh, we really love The Last Leg’. It’s nice to have a show that’s on air in both countries. All I’ve got to do is get one on in America and I’ll be set.” Does Hills want to crack the late night American TV market? “To be honest I don’t know if it’s the late night TV market that I want because that’s a hard slog. Weirdly, I know both of the late, late show hosts now. Seth Myers I’ve known for 10, 15 years. In Edinburgh, we used to do improv together and then James Corden, I met him a few times in England. It’s hard work. It is a daily grind – five days a week, they film at five in the afternoon, so you go to work at nine in the morning, you finish at six or seven at night, you bust out your best stuff and you’ve got to do it the next day to what is a relatively small audience. They’ll be getting one million to one-and-a-half million a night, that’s what we used to get watching Spicks and Specks, and that’s how much we get watching The Last Leg. I’m not sure if that’s the kind of thing I’d like to do if I ended up in the States. I’m not sure what it is, but eventually I’d like to have a show that’s on air in America. I’d love to have a show that’s on in every English speaking country in the world.” Adam Hills Clown Heart Festival Theatre Saturday, June 6 adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au/adelaide-cabaret-festival https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZwjMrhGoZs

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.