Throughout the ’90s Sean Hughes was part of the comedy elite.
He had his own surreal sit-com on Channel4 – the aptly named Sean’s Show, before being one of the first team captains on Never Mind the Buzzcocks for a six-year run. Alongside that he could sell out theatres and halls around the UK.
Since then there have been numerous TV appearances, but mostly in acting roles – including a short run in Coronation Street, a Miss Marple adaptation, and alongside Peter Davison in The Last Detective. He was also part of the line-up of DJs for 6Music during its first year, hosting a Sunday show.
Comedic appearances as himself though, are notable by their absence.
‘I think there’s been a big sea change,’ says Sean. ‘I never wanted to be famous, I wanted to be well known for what I did, but I fell into celebrity for a couple of years and I just felt so shallow and empty about it all.
‘You get invited to all these parties because you’re on television, and then you go to them, and obviously being Irish, I like a free bar, but you think “I don’t like any of these people”, and I probably started showing it. Which is probably why they stopped inviting me.
‘I don’t play the game in that sense, which you have to, to a degree. It’s not that I’m socially awkward towards people, but I’d rather not go to these things.’
Sean’s Show, which aired for 12 episodes over 1992/93, is fondly remembered by those who saw it – and its creator.
‘If it was being commissioned now, it certainly wouldn’t get the budget,’ he says. ‘I’m still very happy with that. It still stands up to this day. It’s my legacy and I’m very happy with that.’
But while he gladly took the role of team captain on BBC2’s long-running musical comedy quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 1996, he is less pleased with its legacy.
He explains: ‘I don’t watch it, but it’s not like I avoid it. With television there are too many panel shows, and with Never Mind the Buzzcocks it was one of the first, so it seemed like a novelty.
‘I agreed to do it because I love music – it’s a passion of mine, but realistically, with these panel shows, you’re doing the exact same show every week. And people like that, you know?
‘But I got to the point where I was thinking, this is not what I want to be remembered by on my tombstone.
‘All of these shows are like that. It’s kind of lazy and kind of cheap.
‘TV comedy, if you want to look at the history of comedy, we came up when it was awful. We all went, “this is terrible”. Revolution is too much of a word for it, but that’s where the whole alternative comedy thing came in, and I was at the latter end of the first brigade. Panel shows seem to have opened the door for it to go back to being fairly terrible though.’
However, none of this is to say Sean has been sitting idly by, waiting to be invited on TV shows – far from it.
‘I did get offered reality TV things,’ he says. ‘But I would never do any of those.
‘If you do see me on one of those, you can shoot me in the face, because my life is essentially over. You’ve got my permission – think of it as euthanasia.’
His podcasts and the long-form live show are now where Sean mostly peddles his trade.
His last major show, Penguins, won the Herald Angel award at the Edinburgh Fringe 2013, and he is back at the Fringe again this summer with a new show, after a two-week work-in-progress run at the Soho Theatre in London.
‘I won’t do Live at the Apollo, because I find it all a bit wrong,’ Sean adds.
‘If there’s too much live comedy on television, then it kills the live circuit a bit.
‘You’ll find that clubs are suffering if there’s not a television name on the bill.
‘When I’m doing a two-hour show, we’ll get 200-300 people, which I’m very happy with. If I was on TV, it would be 1,000, but probably 700 of them would be expecting to see that kind of comedy because it’s all so sanitised when it’s on television.’
Penguins grew out of his previous show, Life Becomes Noises, which was about the death of Sean’s father.
‘I wanted to do an uplifting show about death,’ he says.
‘I was looking back on my father and our relationship, and it made me look back on my childhood so it was like a companion piece to that.’
‘I think it took me about two years to get Noises together. It wasn’t just a reaction to his death and “let’s get some stuff out”. My stuff is always about what happens to me, so there’s no way I could not talk about it.
‘To a degree, my manifesto, to start sounding like Russell Brand, is that I have to speak the truth. Everything has to be truthful, then you’re pretty much half-way there.’
As to what we’ll get when he appears at Horndean, Sean doesn’t yet know: ‘It depends on what mood I’m in that day. It will be a shorter set, so it will be something different.
‘I also do feel that’s why live comedy is so much better than on TV. I will say things that I hadn’t planned to say. There has to be some spontaneity otherwise it’s robotic.
‘It gives you more space. In Penguins there was a whole set and various things that would happen in the night, but there’s also space for other things to happen.
‘I always like to look at the local paper and see if there’s anything interesting in there. In my rider I insist on the local paper and that’s it.
‘If I think of an idea today, the wonderful thing about stand-up is you can put that in there.’
Sean Hughes headlines the Comedy All Stars night at Horndean College of Technology, on Friday, June 6. Doors at 8.30pm. Tickets £10 advance, £15 on the night. Go to comedy-allstars.co.uk