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How Laughing at Life Helped Hughesy Build His Career
By Ben Jhoty | Oct 18, 2021
What do you call a comedian who tells you he doesn’t drink, runs 5k in 20 minutes, is a vegan and practises meditation? A liar? No. A comedian? Because if it’s not a lie it’s got to be a joke, right? Wrong again. The answer is Dave Hughes.
I’m listening to Hughes tell stories about how he became the man he is today as he sits in his home study. As he talks, the 50-year-old funny man is contemplating a severed head of himself that’s staring back at him from his desk. “I did it for Halloween, and it’s looking at me, and well, it’s me decapitated,” says Hughes, his famously laconic, deadpan drawl instantly bringing a smile to my face. “It’s probably not good feng shui. I probably should move it somewhere else.”
As macabre as it is having your own head encroach upon your workspace, the 3D cranium is perhaps a useful reminder to Hughes that life is short and, at its core, ridiculous. It’s something Hughes realised a long time ago. The problem? Like most of us, his ego sometimes sees him forget it.
“I remember having the attitude that life was funny from an early age,” says Hughes. “I was able to see the silliness, luckily. But still, to this day, I’m too egocentric in many ways, where you just take yourself too seriously. My feelings get hurt every day. And it’s all ego related, whether it’s someone saying something not nice about you, or some bloody ratings that aren’t going your way or some bullshit, where you’re comparing yourself to others.”
Of course, seriousness, particularly the overly introspective kind, is the flipside of silly; but as Hughes has mined to great effect, there is a symbiosis between the two states. Because although self-absorption should be the antithesis of funny, by digging ever deeper into his neuroses, Hughes has somehow managed to expose the absurd, often trifling nature of his
own and others’ anxieties and fears.
It’s some feat. As appealing as the idea of taking life less seriously might be, most of us fail or forget to employ this sunny attitude, often just moments after we’ve vowed to embrace it. Thus, we curse as we confront a loungeroom full of Lego pieces, get triggered by someone on social media, or start ruminating on something we said yesterday.
After more than 25 years’ trying to make people laugh, Hughes knows better than most that prioritising silly over serious is a struggle, something you strive for and, at best, achieve only fleetingly. But those moments when your troubles recede or you’re able to see how minor, trivial or even pathetic your problems often are, those are precious. And, as Hughes has discovered, without them life can be pretty hard work.
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
LOSE THE MASK
After getting up at 4.30am to record The 2Day FM Morning Crew With Hughesy, Ed and Erin Molan on the Hit Network, Hughes is now munching on peanut butter and banana oatmeal toast. Two years ago, he saw the Netflix documentary The Game Changers and decided to become a vegan. A keen runner, Hughes had struggled with muscle soreness after runs since his early thirties. Doctors told him it was age. The problem got progressively worse, until in his mid-forties he was “blowing calf muscles every third run”. Going vegan, he believes, has helped reduce the inflammation in his body after exercise. As a result, the soreness has vanished. “I honestly haven’t pulled a calf muscle in two years,” he says. “I can walk down the stairs in the morning without going sideways. At the age of 50, it’s amazing. I treat it like a miracle.”
Certainly, it sounds ‘game changing’, allowing him to run between 5-7km, five days a week. He aims for 4-minute kays, or around 20 minutes for a 5km run. “You’re always in a better mood after a run,” he says. “So, the more you do it the better.”
The other pivotal habit that helps underwrite Hughes’ health and mental wellbeing is meditation, something he tries to practise for 20 minutes, twice a day. He loves it, he says, because it helps keep him in the moment. “It’s corny to say it but when you live in the moment, there’s nothing else. If you can just stay in the moment, life is beautiful. All our troubles happen when we don’t live in the moment. The more you can stay there the better.”
Hughes dishes out such nuggets of hard-won, self-help wisdom throughout the course of our conversation. He’s clearly a man who’s faced down his demons and if not defeated them, then is certainly giving as good as he gets.
Between silly and serious there is a third rail that’s perhaps been as crucial to his health and happiness as anything else: self-awareness. It’s a topic I clumsily broach by way of his return as a judge on the new series of The Masked Singer. What, I wonder, does Dave Hughes’ mask look like? “My mask is that I try to take the mask off,” he says. “I’ve got a smile on my face most of the time . . . and so I bloody should, you know what I mean? I’ve got absolutely nothing to complain about.
So, my mask is a smile. But it’s ‘fake it till you make it as well’, I reckon. If you say to yourself, you’re going to be happy, you will be. No one else makes a decision about my mood. I make them. I’ve got the everyone does.”
I ask him if the mask on his desk – that severed head – has a smile on its face. “No,” he says. “It’s not smiling, which probably reminds me that that’s how I’m going to end up, so I should try to smile till I get to that point.”
You should, too. And laugh. Seriously.
By Ben Jhoty
Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Deputy Editor, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.
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