This was without a doubt one of the oddest comedy shows that I’ve ever witnessed.
It started ordinarily enough – well, as ordinarily as any Comedy Festival gig can, what with having no opening act. The house lights dropped on cue, Earth Wind and Fire’s ‘September’ filled the air. Then suddenly, we’re greeted with a pokey old head sticking out from left of stage – the appearance of which elicits a wave of applause. It’s the man of the hour, that loveable rogue Steve Hughes, returned with a little more wrinkles and a lot less hair but just as metal as ever. He opens by confiding that he’s in a pretty poor state on account of being bedridden with illness, but regardless of this fact he manages to slam out a brilliant opening half-hour, touching on everything from old age and the colonoscopies that come with it, to social network surveillance and romance in the digital age (read: dick pics), leaving me howling in my terrible theatre seat* and begging for air. So nothing out of the ordinary there – just classic Steve Hughes, teetering on that fine line between irreverent, whimsical alcoholic and anarchic conspiracy theorist, just like we like him. Then he got into his Social Justice Warrior and Feminism material. He prefaced it going in with a statement: ‘I know I’m gonna get some bad reviews for this’, and with having been a pretty long-term fan of Steve Hughes I never would have thought that this statement would have been directed at me. But in this instance, I am sad to say that it was.
Now, I’m gonna be clear about this before I get crucified by the Anti-PC Brigade – it wasn’t the material that put me off. In honesty, I found a lot his feminist musings here pretty boorish and under-cooked – like a drunk dad speaking outta line at the end of a party – and they also lacked the normal depth I would expect from a man I know to be an incredibly insightful comedian, but regardless, it was not the material that put me off. I’ve been a lover of stand-up comedy since I can remember and I understand, appreciate and fully respect the art form, and as such, I do not come to a comedy show and expect that I will agree with the opinions expressed therein. Nor do I want to – I don’t come to comedy shows to be comfortable, I come to them to be confronted, and to leave thinking. I come to them to cackle my throat raw, too, but the point I’m making is that I don’t come to be placated, and I’m not afraid to engage with challenging material that I don’t agree with. So again, it wasn’t the material that put me off. It was the way that he derailed his entire show with thirty to forty god-damn minutes of it that put me off.
The secret to any good performance is timing, and in comedy, timing is everything. Any comic worth his weight will consider the timing of a punchline, but the best in the business know that their focus should not only be on timing their punches but on the pacing of the show. You gotta keep them punches rolling; you gotta keep the energy in the room high and the laughs coming back-to-back. And if you’re going to present some challenging material, part of making that work is knowing how to pace your gags so that if you throw an audience with one topic, you’ve got enough time to win ’em back on the next without dulling the energy in the room. Tonight, Steve Hughes gave absolutely no consideration to that age-old art, slamming out one short-sighted feminist gag after another without any kind of development to the concept and by the hour-mark in the show, I felt numbed-out and completely detached. Even he seemed a bit fatigued by it at that point.
Thankfully, the show didn’t end there – instead, something kind of strange happened. You could tell that Steve knew there was a weird energy in the room now, and I think part of him didn’t want to leave the show on an awkward note. He did some solid material about gaining some perspective on the way he’s chosen to live his life over the years, and then on his health (both physically and spiritually). Then, looking unsure of where to go from there, he began to set his mic back down and wrap up the evening. As it became obvious the show was coming to an end, a murmur began rising from the crowd, slowly growing in intensity. Some people started hollering for an encore before the man even left. Somebody threw out a request, and then another – Steve looked around for some confirmation, then a crew member bellowed from out back that there was no show following him tonight. With that, the man came back to life before our eyes, taking the mic back up one last time to a roar of support and adoration and announcing that he was gonna stick around for as long as the crowd wanted him there.
For an additional 40 minutes, Steve giggled whimsically and flopped around the stage like it was his own personal open-mic night. His energy was double that of the entire preceding hour, making loose and vague observations on anything he could think of and working out his punchlines on the fly like a fearless comedy troubadour. He started taking requests from the crowd, sheepishly admitting he didn’t remember half of the gags and even taking a blank minute or two to try and remember them so that he could deliver while we all sat patiently with baited breath. He riffed awkwardly on people’s countries of origin (that age old ‘where are you from, ma’am?’ routine) without really having any material on any of the countries offered, and so then that became the joke. In not having any material prepared, he managed to completely out-perform the scripted portion of his show. Just as the energy started to dip again, Steve decided this time to take his cue; he gave the usual thanks to end a show, and in an incredibly touching moment of vulnerability, confided that he was suffering some pretty serious health issues. He said he was going to “see a man about it” soon, and requested that should we have a god or an energy out there that we pray to, to put one up for Steve Hughes during this coming month. After the performance we witnessed tonight, I don’t think anybody in the room failed to put a thought out into the ether for him, theist or not. Steve, whatever you’re going through, get better soon mate. All love.
** Side note: honestly, these seats were haggard. I wouldn’t usually complain about theatre seats but these old plastic drop-down jobs were so old they bowed; I was envious of the guys below us on those plastic school chairs we used to have just for the stability they were experiencing. Lift your game, Town Hall.