Going off-script The three-time Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee Adam Hills chats to Jay Richardson about hosting the Paralympics and the unpredictable world of improvised standup.
dam Hills enjoys messing around in Edinburgh so much he gave up the chance to compete in the Paralympics. A former tennis coach, the Australian comic was born without a right foot but rejected an offer to train for the Games when he was 14, having never considering himself disabled. “My mum asked me ‘do you want to go to the disabled Olympics?’ And the stigma of the word made me say no.” Commentating on the Beijing Paralympics for Australian television however, the 42-year-old found himself regretting his youthful stubbornness. So when he was asked to try out for London, he gave it serious consideration.“The wheelchair tennis coach
took me aside” he recalls, “and said ‘look, technically, you’re probably limited enough. The hardest part is teaching the tennis skills but you’ve already got those, so we’d just need to teach you how to use the chair.’” This would have meant spending four hours a day in a wheelchair, which part of him felt was cheating. Still, he warmed to the idea. “Maybe there’s a documentary in this. Maybe I can really compete ...But then I learned how much work was involved. And it wasn’t laziness that stopped me. I’d have had to quit comedy, give up on hosting TV shows. It would be head down, full-on training. Even after covering the Paralympics, I hadn’t realised how much sacrifice goes into it.” He will, however,
be involved with the Paralympics, hosting highlights of the Games on Channel 4. When he started performing standup, aged 19, Hills refrained from discussing his prosthetic foot onstage, fearing he’d be pigeon-holed as “the one-legged comedian.” But he is happy to be a spokesperson for the Paralympics. “As soon as you mention the Paralympics and disabled people, there’s a tension there. But it’s a great honour and I’m pretty sure Channel 4 will cut through that tension and make the Paralympics cooler than the Olympics. There’s an alternative feel to it. We can’t take the mickey out of the sporting achievements but we can be irreverent about the disabilities. That’s where the comedy comes from. “When you’re in a room where a guy’s got one arm, this girl’s a dwarf and that guy’s in a wheelchair, there’s no rhyme or reason as to why any of us are in these situations. It’s a celebration. And the Paralympians think it’s funny too. They laugh at each other. I laugh at the shit that happens with my foot.” He deplores the clichés and condescension that attach themselves to the Games. “One of the Australian coaches took me aside in Beijing to say ‘it’s been great having you here because a lot of the able-bodied commentators talk about how inspiring it all is, whereas you talk about the sport.’ And that’s what disabled people want. They don’t want to hear about a kid fighting back after falling off a horse. They want ‘holy shit! That guy swam fast!’” If elite sport demands dedication, so too does standup, especially if you’re ad-libbing a fresh hour of material every night. “You learn tricks and your instincts get sharper, it’s like a muscle,” he reflects. “Rich Fulcher taught me that. The more you use it, the better it gets. Other comics are more cynical.” Chuckling, Hills recalls Boothby Graffoe pointedly asking: “Are you doing the lazy show this year?” Defining the Mess Around ethos as that of “an anti-talk show,” he laments the fact that he’s obliged to interview celebrities plugging their latest Hollywood blockbuster, rather than simply chatting to the crowd for a whole programme. In the course of the last series, he bowed to numerous requests to host a mass gay wedding and fulfilled one Monty Python fan’s dream, arranging for him to recreate the famous fish slapping dance with John Cleese. This year, Hills has reduced his show’s capacity to just 200 seats, because there’s an intimacy to Mess Around that he’s missed. “The audience knows they’re seeing a one-off, which is what makes them come back. It reminds me of when I started out, that raw excitement and the ever-present risk of failure.” f
Adam Hills: Mess Around @ Assembly Hall
7:40pm – 8:40pm, 2–19 Aug, £10 – £13
edinburgh festival preview guide 2012 fest 37
Published on Jul 15, 2012