It’s a scorcher in St Kilda and the morning sun is beating down on Acland Street. It’s so hot, even in the early morning, that the tribes of international backpackers have chosen the beach instead of the usual al fresco avocado smash and kale smoothie.
Dave Hughes locks his bicycle to a pole and we find some shade inside the Vineyard, a bar packed with craft-beer-toting backpackers in the evening. This morning it’s been opened especially for us. Someone knows someone.
Today he’s low-key, reflective, thoughtful, definitely more Dave than Hughesy. It’s not about jokes this morning but rather the thoughts of a hard-working professional who takes his role as a family man very seriously. He seems to enjoy the idea of being serious – not a side of him you often see.
Usually, when we see Hughesy, he’s in comic mode, whether it’s his stand-up shows, his drive spot on KIIS-FM with Kate Langbroek, his cameo football player “roasts” on The Footy Show or, previously, his long stint on Channel Ten’s The Project.
That’s why exploring the serious side of the man with those slightly manic eyes, the bemused, gap-toothed smile and the drawled absurdities of life is my aim today.
I ask him if he has changed since becoming famous. “I wouldn’t think too much,” he says. “It’s hard to tell. I’ve got a family – that changes you. Their joy becomes your joy. Summer’s been great because I’ve been home so much and I’ve had plenty of time with the kids.”
Dave has been married to Holly, a former newspaper reporter, since 2006. Their son Rafferty is six, and daughters Sadie and Tess are four and three. He loves being a father. “Some runners came in the mail today and the girls got the post, opened it up and it was runners for Tess,” he says. “She got me to put them on her and she ran up and down the hallway to test how they go. Just the cutest thing in the world.”
His newest role as host (and chief consoler/congratulator for the contestants) on Nine’s Australia’s Got Talent has earned him some serious cred with his kids. “It’s something different for me,” he says. “Broadening the horizons in the hosting role. It’s a family show, a kids’ show. I’ve got little kids so they’re excited. You almost feel like you’re the contestants’ father … commiserating with them if they don’t do so well or celebrating with them if they do.”
His reference to the joy of being home with the kids tells a larger tale. After years of work in stage, screen and radio, comedy’s everywhere man knew that his work/life balance was out of kilter.
In 2013, after 12 years working with Kate Langbroek on the punishing 6am to 9am breakfast radio slot with Nova, the pair left the station and, in late 2014, announced they would join KIIS-FM to helm its national afternoon drive program.
He now reveals the toll years of breakfast radio took on his life. “I was sick of breakfast,” he says. “Sick of the early mornings, which means early nights. You can’t enjoy evenings because you’re paranoid about the fact that you’re not asleep.
“During the week there is absolutely no enjoyable nightlife. I did stand-up through those years and you’d almost be in pain because you were so tired.
“I was very tired all the time. When I was doing The Project as well, I was ridiculously tired all the time. Our son was born just after that show started. We had three kids in almost five years. I felt sick every day, basically. You feel jet-lagged.”
He felt one responsibility rolling into the next. “It would be an hour or two with the kids and then you’re back into it. Long days.”
This brutal schedule came at a cost. “Enjoyment of life wasn’t enough because you were so exhausted all the time. I really enjoyed last year doing the radio in the afternoons. You haven’t got that pressure of that really early start. If you’re only doing breakfast radio it’s a pretty sweet gig. But I want to do other stuff.”
I ask if proving himself across a range of media was a spur. “There’s probably been an element of proving things over the years but I don’t think that’s the case any more,” he says. “Radio’s easy with Kate because we’ve got such a strong relationship. That’s not an issue – as long as you’re not tired.”
But getting off the treadmill isn’t easy for him. He finds it hard to just stop. “I love performing. I have a couple of days off and I’m like, ‘I should be doing something’.
“I find it very hard at night to sit down and watch television. I went for a walk last night along the beach and I really enjoyed that. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do more of that’. Clears your mind.”
As a teenager in Warrnambool, Dave had visualised a successful career in comedy. He remembers the moment when he decided that would be his future. “I loved Sam Kinison, an angry American guy who used to yell about his own problems. I saw that and thought, ‘Yeah, I like that, I like people who can make fun of their own lives’.”
It was in year 10, at Christian Brothers College, that he decided his future. “I remember lying in bed at 14 or 15 and thinking, ‘I want to do comedy’ and at that moment feeling lucky that I knew what I wanted to do.”
He remembers getting laughs at an early gig at a comedy club in Perth, a step towards his teenage dream coming true. “It just hit home and I knew I had something.”
From that moment, stand-up has been his passion. “I love doing it. Stand-up comedy for me is never a chore. The adrenalin, the instant reaction. No matter how many times you’ve done it or how many times it’s gone well, you never know for sure each time how it’s going to go.
“There’s an excitement there every time, whether I get onstage in front of 30 people in a pub or corporate event or 1000 people on a stage somewhere. The joy I got from that first big laugh on stage – I still get that joy.”
Dave had a wild youth in Warrnambool – he gave up alcohol aged 22 because he was drinking too much. On the ABC’s Q&A program last year, he talked about his drinking and about how he suffered depression as a young man. It was an impressive appearance.
“I’m happy to tell my story, if people ask,” he says. “I stopped drinking before I turned 22 because I used to always drink too much as a young bloke and it depressed me. You can see what it does to other people. You absolutely don’t need it.”
Giving up drinking was a big decision which shaped his life. “I hadn’t started stand-up comedy then and I wonder, the way I was going, whether I would ever have started. I think alcohol was weakening my mental strength, and maybe if I hadn’t stopped drinking I wouldn’t have had the calmness to start comedy.”
He talks about being in nightclubs sober and clear-eyed. “Being blind drunk is not attractive to anyone, I wouldn’t have thought, which I didn’t realise until after I’d sobered up,” he says.
“People actually do respect you if you tell them you don’t drink because it’s not good for you. Even young people. They go, ‘Wow, that’s strong’.”
I ask his thoughts on the influence he, as a high-profile person, can have on others by talking about his experiences. “It can’t hurt, that’s for sure. I’ve had people via the internet and in person tell me that it’s inspired them to stop drinking.
“I never tell people to stop drinking. I say, ‘whatever makes you happy. If drinking doesn’t make you happy, don’t drink. If drinking makes you happy, drink. But look at your situation. If it’s not making you happy, you can stop. I tell people, you don’t need it, and that’s something people who have got an issue need to hear, that they can have a good life without it, and a social life as well.”
Dave offers an insight into the comic mind and the effect a life of performing has had on him. “It’s being self-obsessed, that’s the problem. It’s narcissism: is that the right word? Wanting to be loved and wanting to be the best and wanting to be a hero, and beating yourself up when you don’t achieve it. That was me for many years; probably is to a degree now. As you get older you try and drop away from that bulls**t.”
Dave has always used his own life for material and his search for comedy in the everyday remains his joy. “That can become tiring where you go, ‘Geez what am I going to talk about today?’. It’s joyous once you find it, though. It’s a search I want to be on constantly for my whole life. It’s not something I ever want to stop.”
Hughesy on …
How wealth has changed him
Not much, I don’t think. Obviously I don’t have to worry about money.
(His now fellow KIIS-FM broadcaster, whom he once labelled “a massive d**khead”)
I had coffee with him … I think we were both a little awkward initially but we’re absolutely fine now.
The seduction of social media
Last night my wife was studying and the kids were in bed so I had two or three hours to fill in on my own. I could fill that easily by looking through my phone but at the end of that it makes you feel agitated.
Instead I could have gone for a walk. Or watched a movie – a solid chunk of something rather than just bits and bits. It’s so bitsy now, life.
You’ve got to be less selfish. They couldn’t care less [that I’m well-known]. I’m mocked by them constantly.
I enjoy it. I enjoy getting better service. You get free fish and chips every now and again. I did a thing for [Channel Nine’s] Postcards about a fish and chip shop [in Balaclava] and ever since I’ve gone back they’ve given me free fish and chips.
It’s like a gold pass. One of the most valuable things that’s ever happened to me.
The radio work over the years has been easy mainly because Kate is so good to work with. When people know their roles and are happy with their roles, life’s easy.
We’ve had our moments over the years. Sometimes that occurs when you’ve got third parties there. She’s so sharp, smart, brave and she’s really funny.
- Australia’s Got Talent screens on Sundays at 7pm and Mondays at 7.30pm on Channel Nine.