Sean Hughes tells Shelley Marsden about new show Penguins, telling the truth with humour and his ‘Irish brain’…
“Penguins are to do with everything”, says Sean Hughes mysteriously. Ah, OK… We’re talking about his new stand-up show of the same name, which doesn’t involve the Antarctic creatures directly, but was inspired by how young penguins are left to fend for themselves.
The profound and notoriously droll London-Irish comedian attempts to explain. “We live in a society which puts kids first and foremost before everything else, and yet at the age of four they send you out to hang out with strangers when you’re barely hatched from the egg; like migrating penguins.
“Sheep is an overused cliché. Also, penguins tend to follow the pack and I talk about how you don’t really need to be a penguin in life. That’s the two points I make in a whole two-hour show.”
Naturally, he makes many more points but like much of Hughes’ work it’s hard to nail down. His honest, poignant comedy is a philosophical, meandering journey. He doesn’t do ‘gags’ and regularly refers back to ideas he’s thrown into the mix earlier on in. One thing he does at the start of the show, he reveals, completely baffles people – and they only get the punch-line 50 minutes later.
Subjects given his sardonic treatment include the generation gap (“People under 29 are computer literate and people over-29 aren’t. The latter are pretty much stuck in the middle of a drawbridge, drawn to our feral existence but also towards wanting to understand the technology of the kids”) and what he perceives as the mad-rush to grow up from an early age.
“From about the age of 9 people want to be able to have sex, drink, perhaps take drugs. I would desperately like kids to try and be kids for much longer.”
He also touches on the time, as a child himself, when he was attacked by a paedophile, and how the number of paedophiles out there is probably unchanged, it’s just there’s so much media coverage nowadays that you think there’s one hiding behind every bush.
That Hughes should take on such uncomfortable topics – albeit with humour – is no surprise. His last show, Life Becomes Noises, was about his own father’s death. Penguins, which revisits the comedian’s schooldays in Dublin, is a continuation of rummaging around in old memories.
He learned his lesson though – after journalists found out what the last one was about, recoiled in horror and said we’ll not go and see that thank you, he chose a name that could be given no negative connotations.
“It was a fantastic show and one I’m immensely proud of”, he offers. “I started revisiting my youth because of my dad, the loss of a loved one. I think Penguins is quite uplifting too, but I am Irish and that to me means I will always deal with the truth. There might be moments that are uncomfortable.”
That youth was, by the sounds of it, repressed. In Hughes’ words, it “f**ed up my life”. His father drank a lot – but no more, he laughs than any other Irish person. That wasn’t his problem. What pains him to this day is how he was brought up entirely indoctrinated into Catholicism, without any choice in the matter.
For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 8 March 2014).
Sean Hughes: Penguins is on tour now, including a four-night run at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, 26- 29 March. For all dates, see www.seanhughes.co.uk.