Comedian, TV personality and radio host, Dave Hughes has long been a quintessential Victorian. But this week he’s started as a Sydney-based breakfast show kingpin. Yes, the territory comedians are sent to be slaughtered, destroyed, demolished and generally disheartened.
He’s taking it – and you’ll be shocked to hear this – laconically. And it does seem like that’s just how he is. In this interview a few weeks before he turned 30 in 2003, it was all there to see.
Including the most famous knockback in Australian comedy.
He may talk slowly but Dave Hughes was never silly enough to fall for the second oldest line in the romance business. That’s the line proffered to those men who aren’t exactly the Hugh Jackman of their year but have a bit of wit and character about them.
It goes something like this: hey don’t worry, women really like men who make them laugh; they prefer that to good looks. You’ll be a winner.
“I was hoping for that to kick in and it didn’t really kick in,” drawls Hughes who has never been shy about admitting he didn’t lose his virginity until his 20s. “I had the odd victory and those girls, I appreciate their, ah, taste. But I still think girls like a good looking bloke; there’s no doubt about that. The good looking young blokes get the action.”
The Melbourne comedian with the delivery so dry it has its own drought relief package pauses and says sardonically. “But being well known does make you better looking.”
Ah yes, the Woody Allen factor you might say. Not that Hughes is that short (“I’m above average height you know. I’m 178cm, the average is 175. Whenever someone says I’m short I say check the stats.”) or plain. But he is near ubiquitous and very popular with an award winning Melbourne breakfast radio shift, regular TV gigs on the ABC’s Glass House and Channel 10’s comedy footy panel show After The Game, several commercials and hundreds of stand-up shows a year.
“The attention’s great that you get from females,” Hughes laughs. “I certainly didn’t get it as a young man, not well known, I didn’t get it at all. People go to me ‘don’t you not like that when girls just want to talk to you because you’re famous?’ I say to that it’s superficial one way or the other so use what you’ve got.”
Once again though he undercuts himself with an aside. “But when you start thinking you’re a sex symbol you get an email telling you you’re ugly and bringing you back to earth.”
Having been in a steady relationship for the past 18 months, Hughes, who turns 33 at the end of the month, hasn’t had to worry one way or the other about the attractions of fame for a while.
“Maybe initially she liked me because I was on radio but you couldn’t last forever surely,” he says.
“They get bored with fame eventually.”
What about when she’s heard all the jokes a hundred times at home?
“I have been accused in the past when I’ve been in relationships of roping up – talking to girlfriends like I was talking to an audience,” he confesses.
You can almost hear him on a date mouthing a variation of one of his regular audience lines: “give yourself a round of applause, you’ve been a great date, I don’t want you to leave tonight not knowing that’.
“I haven’t used those lines exactly,” he laughs. “But that tone I’ve probably used before. I am joking. It’s hard for me to get too serious. She gets annoyed sometimes that I’m not too serious but my motto is we’re all going to be dead sometime so relax.”
Pause. “Maybe I’m not the best person to talk about feelings with. But I’m trying.”
That sounds like one of his stage lines now.
“I know, I know. I’m roping up now. What can I say?”
It wasn’t like that in Warrnambool, the small Victorian country town where Hughes was born and grew up and where he was expected to stay for the rest of his life. He was funny but comedy wasn’t a career option, any more than his other option of being a footy star was. As he’s talked about in his stand-up, it was more like the meatworks. Or the dole.
And then Hughes did something radical for a young Australian bloke: he gave up drinking and taking drugs.
“It was a big call, yeah,” he says now. “I had a vision of myself in the future. I used to get drunk and get locked up all the time, not for being violent but for being hopeless and I thought nuh. I stopped for a couple of months at first: I was giving up until Christmas Eve and then Christmas Eve as I’m about to start again I thought I’m going to be exactly like I was; I don’t need this. And I haven’t drunk since and that was 10 years ago.”
How did his mates deal with that?
“They were shocked,” he smiles. “I was the first one to cut the can on a Sunday morning: let’s keep this party going. So they took a while to get used to that.”
Some drinkers can feel threatened by that.
“Absolutely. I remember when I was a drinker if someone in the group wasn’t drinking you’d do your best to get them to join your gang. If they weren’t drinking you didn’t want them around. People were threatened and confused by me, saddened, like someone had died in the group. But they did come around eventually.”
Why did he stop?
“I was really depressed at the time. I was on the dole, had failed uni and felt really depressed. Drinking wasn’t doing anything for me. There were a lot of big drinkers in the family that I’d seen over the years and I thought this can be not a good thing. Maybe a part of me thought maybe this brain could do all right.”
Soon after this he moved to Perth to begin, away from both familiar ears and the big city audiences of Sydney and Melbourne, a comedy career.
“The stopping drinking helped me focus, gave me the courage to try comedy. It was very scary for me and I reckon if I’d hadn’t stopped drinking I would never have started comedy. I’d have stayed in the country town my whole life,” Hughes says.
“But who knows, maybe I’d have had a better time if I’d kept drinking, had better parties all those years.”
Not to mention the drugs.
“Before I had turned 22 I was a big bong smoker too and I gave it all up at once,” Hughes says. “I’ve never had an eccie. I talk about eccies but from the perception of someone looking at people doing them. People offer me cocaine and I’ve never had it.”
He lays on another Dave Hughes pause and then adds: “I say that to other comedians and they get angry: ‘you knocked it back?’”