Adam Hills: “The bullies at my school weren’t disablist”

Adam Hills on spending time with Sean Hughes, blowing his chances in Hollywood – and dad dates with Russell Brand

I had a really happy childhood in the suburbs of Sydney. And if I’m honest, I think the whole of the rest of my life has been an attempt to recreate that. I was happy as a kid and I just want to stay happy. But by the age of 16 doubts were starting to creep in. I went to an all boys’ school, and I think there’s something just not right about separating boys and girls at school. Lots of us struggled to deal with women for the rest of our lives. They were a foreign concept to us. I started to worry about, would a girl ever like me, what would she think of this or that. I began to take those first stumbles into dating and proved pretty terrible at it. Looking back, I realise I was ridiculously shy.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to talk to the girl on the bus. Just back yourself, say anything! I used to see this girl every day. I’d look at her and she’d look at me. This went on for months, then finally there came the day that the only empty seat was the one next to her. So I took it. And for the whole journey I didn’t say a word. I just couldn’t. I didn’t know how to start a conversation. Now I think, oh dude, just say hi, just ask a dumb question, anything. A while later one of my mates asked me if I liked her and I was too embarrassed to admit it. Now I think, maybe he knew her! Maybe he was asking on her behalf! Oh my God. Years later she came to see my gig and I spoke to her afterwards. She remembered me. But I still didn’t get her number. Why didn’t I get her number? What were you thinking Adam? Absolutely clueless.

I got nervous around people a lot. I suppose comedy was my way of dealing with that. It’s the one place I can go where I look like I’m in control and enjoying my life. I’m the funny guy who always has the witty comeback. But in real life, I’m still nervous with people. I panic. The right thing doesn’t come out.

Josh Widdicombe, Adam Hills and Alex Brooker in The Last Leg
Josh Widdicombe, Adam Hills and Alex Brooker in The Last Leg

Even when I was a teenager, I could quote whole comedy routines word for word. Some of my mates even had me on call – they would call me over in the playground to come and do a comedy routine. I’d do them with impersonations, whether that was Billy Connolly or Bill Cosby. I also tried to write a comic strip. My dad was a huge comedy fan and we watched a lot of comedy together, from Bugs Bunny when I was younger, to Benny Hill or M*A*S*H when I got older. We’d sit for hours and just laugh together. Then when I was 18 I went to see my first live comedy gig and it was open mic night. And I realised anyone could have a crack. As soon as I saw that I thought, oh, that’s what I want to do.

I didn’t have any long-term ambition regarding a career. As soon as I got my first professional show I thought, right, that’s it. I’ve made it. I’ve done what I wanted to do. Everything else since then has just been a bonus. I supported Sean Hughes in Adelaide in around 1996. He was an amazing comic, just great. Afterwards we went out and played table tennis and drank all night. Over the years I bumped into him, then in the last couple of years we really spent a bit of time together. I was really, really sad to hear he’d died. The last time I saw him he seemed to be on really good form but it turns out there was a lot going on. I think he got to 50 and realised he was a bit lonely and wanted to reconnect with a lot of people.

The only career advice I’d give to my younger self is, don’t go to that Argentinian restaurant in LA in 2003. And then you won’t get food poisoning and miss all the meetings with TV producers the next day. That’s the only regret I have. I’d been contacted by a massive casting director at NBC who’d been following my career in Edinburgh. He cast the sitcom Friends. He set up all these meetings with Jay Leno’s producer and the NBC guys and Jerry Lewis’ manager. But I was so sick I couldn’t go to any of the meetings, then I had to fly back the day after. LA is all about striking while the iron’s hot and I totally didn’t do it.

If I could go back and have one last conversation with someone, I think it would be my grandmother. She died in 2001. My nana Hills. We named our first daughter after her. She always used to say, always look behind you. And she meant, never forget your family, or your old friends, the real people. I’d like to tell her I named my daughter after her. And that I’m still looking behind me.

I’d love to tell my teenage self, you won’t believe how much you enjoy having kids. The best day for me is one where I just hang out with my two daughters. I always knew that I liked kids and I’m very family-oriented. I grew up in a very happy family who did a lot of stuff together. I was talking about this with Russell Brand recently – he’s just become a dad. We’ve had some dad dates in fact. He put it beautifully. He said, some people say when they become a dad, I never knew I had this much love in me. But I always knew I had this much love in me, I just didn’t know what to do with it until I became a dad.

When I pulled my sock down, no one really noticed my prosthetic leg

There was a time at school when I was very conscious of my prosthetic leg. It only went to the knee, so in summer I used to wear long socks to cover up the join. Then I realised the only kids who wore long socks were the nerds who got beaten up. So I was being mocked not for having a prosthetic foot but for pulling my socks up. And when I pulled my socks down, no one really noticed my leg. No one picked on me for that. The bullies at my school weren’t disablist. I think the younger me would be surprised how much I’ve embraced my foot as it were.

If I could go back and re-live any time in my life, it would be the fleeting moment I found out we were having another child. My wife came out of the bedroom holding up a pregnancy test. That moment was probably the happiest I’ve ever been. I felt a wave of contentment. Because then we were a family. I grew up with a brother and for me, growing up with a sibling or multiple siblings, that’s what life is all about.

Adam Hills’ stand-up show Clown Heart is out now on DVD, £19.99

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