It’s not often that a popular comedian interrupts an interview to change his daughter’s nappy and switch channels on the television she is watching, but Adam Hills is such a hands-on dad that nothing comes between him and his parental responsibilities. ‘I am doing all this while cooking dinner for my two-and-a-half-year-old and now she’s informed me she has a pooey nappy and wants to watch something else on TV. Back in a minute,’ he chuckles.
After forging an impressive career in comedy, Adam is now comfortable with his disability, speaking out on various rights and issues.
It seems that the 45-year-old Australian stand-up is trying to make up for lost time. ‘I was away for nine weeks earlier this year and my wife bore the brunt of it all so when I come home I clear the diary, and now I literally have a two-year-old at my feet, who I’ve just fed, changed her nappy and will later on have to bathe.’
The laid-back, smiley-faced Adam is in his native Sydney but will soon be on the road again, making one of his dozens of regular long-haul flights west, this time to Dubai, where he will be performing at the World Trade Centre on May 27. He is looking forward to adding to the 1.7 million flying points he has accumulated. ‘I thought something special would happen when I reached a million,’ he says, ‘like in the George Clooney film Up in the Air. I thought the head of Qantas would present me with my own plane but it never happened!’
Adam frequently has layovers in Dubai but this time is relishing the idea of leaving the airport and coming into the city. It’s been 14 years since he did that and he can’t wait to reacquaint himself and his wry, observational humour with the Dubai audience. ‘Whenever there is an expat audience, it’s always good fun because I’ve spent so many years travelling the world. I’ve got bits and pieces about various nationalities so I am assuming there will be Americans, English, Irish, Australians, Scots, hopefully some Swedes and Dutch, all of whom I will have material about.’
He is best-known for his British TV chat show The Last Leg, which was originally meant to be a short-run series to complement the Paralympics coverage in London in 2012 but was so popular it became a regular satirical news show. Yet Adam secretly admits that he finds himself counting down the days to when he can get back to the day job of stand-up comedy. ‘I much prefer doing stand-up comedy. That’s what I love. I love having the day to myself, I love being out on stage beholden to no one and just doing what I feel like doing for an hour-and-a-half. I have purposely scheduled it so I get into Dubai a day before the show so I can have a look around. Go on a bit of a fact-finding mission, if you will.’
For many years the fact that Adam wears a prosthetic after being born without a right foot was kept hidden from audiences for fear of being saddled with a label he didn’t want. ‘Someone told me very early on when I started in stand-up, “don’t talk about your foot straight away because you’ll be labelled as the one-legged comedian and that’s all you’ll be able to talk about”. That was an agent. And then another comedian more bluntly said “you’re not good enough yet. Wait until you are good enough, then you can talk about it”. It was an interesting way of putting it. Build up your comic skills first before you talk about the thing that people are going to remember you for. So I didn’t talk about it for ages.’
It was a combination of things that finally persuaded Adam to declare his disability. ‘I was nominated for a Perrier Award in Edinburgh, and something in my brain said “right you can do it now, you have proved yourself”. Also that was around 9/11 and I was going through airport metal detectors that were being set off by my prosthetic and as people were getting a bit freaked out I was just getting waved through without being checked because they didn’t want to offend a disabled person. So that gave me the impetus to start talking about it. It was time people started feeling more comfortable about disability and not feeling so awkward that they wouldn’t check to see if you had something strapped to your leg.’
Since achieving his TV and stand-up success, Adam is much more at ease with his own disability and regularly speaks out in support of disabled rights and issues and a myriad of other causes. He presents The Last Leg with comedians Alex Brooker, who is also disabled, and Josh Widdicombe, who isn’t. ‘The Last Leg was a show in 2012 that talked about the Paralympics and to make people feel comfortable about disability, and in order to do that we had to reference our own disabilities. That was never the goal, it was always a bit of a side effect of what we were doing. I guess because of that I feel a bit responsible now but it was the Paralympics that made disability look cool.
‘When you see someone running with a blade you think, “that looks awesome”. As we speak I am wearing a blade that I was fitted with a few months ago and I love it to bits and just think I am the coolest man on the planet! The image of disability has changed. I would never have referred to myself as disabled in the past whereas now I say yes, I am. If that puts me in the same category as those Paralympians, then sure.’
You would think that as a child, not having a foot would prevent you from doing a lot of things, especially in a sporty sense. ‘No, I played everything,’ says Adam. ‘Rugby league, cricket and tennis. I ended up becoming a tennis coach when I was 17 or 18. I still play golf. I am lucky. The bit that is missing from my foot hasn’t really stopped me from doing anything. However, when I was 12, I was asked whether I would consider competing in what was then the Disabled Olympics and I remember saying to my mum, “I am not disabled. I’m not going to go.” Whereas if the Paralympics was called the Paralympics back then and got the coverage it got in London in 2012, I’d have competed in a second.’
Adam’s shows are renowned for using a sign interpreter at the side of the stage. However this will not be in evidence in Dubai. Adam explains: ‘In Dubai there will be different nationalities and they will have a different type of sign language. So American sign language is different to British is different to Australian, so it is totally possible that I would need six different sign interpreters. The show could go on all night!
One thing that will be guaranteed at the World Trade Centre show will be audience participation. Adam thrives on it. ‘Whether you are in front of 50 people or a 100 or a 1,000, you’ve got to connect with them in some way. I like the audience to leave thinking “we’ve seen something that hasn’t happened any other night”. For example in Glasgow a guy came in late because he thought there was a support act, so I got him up on stage so he became my support act. I like knowing that every show is going to be different so the Dubai show will also depend on who is in the audience that night!’
You’d expect Adam’s life to be as composed and unflappable as it is on stage. ‘If only’, says the comedian. ‘Me on stage and on TV, to paraphrase a quote from Bono, is closer to the person I would like to be in real life. I wish I was as unfazed in real life as I am on stage. I’ve learnt through trial and error that when you are on stage people like to see someone unfazed by stuff. They love it when things go wrong and you manage to work your way out of it. I’ve always tried to be positive with my comedy.’
It’s almost impossible to envisage Adam as anything other than warm, genial and big-hearted. ‘I might kick the odd garbage bin if I can’t find my glasses,’ he chortles. ‘I go on stage full of the best intentions and positivity and a bit of innocence, but it’s always liable to go off the rails!’