"I'm doing what I love" … comedian Adam Hills.

"I'm doing what I love" … comedian Adam Hills. Photo: Ellis Parrinder. Grooming: Bradwyn Jones. Styling: Ricky James Flynn. Jacket, T-shirt and jeans: Topman. Shoes: Converse

Taping of Adam Hills Tonight is about to begin and in the studio audience we are grinning already. "Are you excited?" shouts the warm-up guy. We whoop and whistle in response. And now here is Hills himself, all boyish charm and jovial banter, giving us some last-minute instructions. "What I need you to do tonight is make lots of noise," he says. "There are mikes above your heads - they record you laughing. Don't hold back. If you're a quiet laugher, it does not help us." We laugh at this. Loudly, to reassure him. "If you like something, clap," he continues. "If you're not sure, clap anyway. In particular, at the very beginning, when I come down the stairs to start the show, just go wild. Lose your minds. 'Oh my god, it's Adam Hills!' "

Forty-three-year-old Hills is one of Australia's most successful comedians. Besides having his own talk show in this country, he hosts a TV program called The Last Leg in the UK, and in both places draws enthusiastic crowds to his live shows. Reading the critiques, you get the impression that the Poms might like him even more than we do - London's Time Out magazine has called him "Australia's ray of comedy sunshine". According to a free UK newspaper, Metro, his humour is so uplifting it sends "audiences skipping from theatres with joy in their hearts and a pledge to make the world a better place". One British reviewer said of Hills and his routine: "If you're not cheered up by this, you have no soul. Or you're easily irritated by happy people."

I can see the twinkle. But I’m not aware when I am twinkling. I don’t manufacture it. 

On my way back to the ABC's Melbourne television studios the day after watching the making of Adam Hills Tonight, I reflect that happy people can be a tiny bit irritating. Only if they are permanently perky, though, and it seems unlikely that Hills fits into that category. After all, he was born without a right foot. He may have overcome that handicap with pluck and perseverance - he plays tennis, he dances, he turns cartwheels - but surely the unfairness gets him down occasionally. And the inconvenience. His jokes about wearing a titanium prosthesis make it sound like a lark, but in reality, setting off airport security alarms has to get tedious. Anyway, aren't all comics gloomy underneath?

Hills alive … Hills with Alan Brough and Myf Warhurst from the <i>Spicks and Specks</i> team.

Hills alive … Hills with Alan Brough and Myf Warhurst from the Spicks and Specks team.

An ABC publicist leads the way from the reception desk along a drab corridor to the deserted green room. She tells me Hills will be along in a minute. "He's in a good mood this morning," she says. "As usual."

When Hills was 19, he informed his mother he was going to try his luck as a comedian, to which she replied, "But you're not funny." She wasn't the only female relative dismayed by his career choice. "I had an aunty in England who used to do make-up for people like Spike Milligan and Barry Humphries," he says as he settles into a sofa. "When she found out I was doing stand-up, she said to my Mum, 'Oh god. Oh dear. That's not good. Is he depressive? Because if he's not, he will be.' "

Hills chortles. In retrospect, he doesn't blame his mother for her reaction. He was studying communications at Sydney's Macquarie University, he says, "and I can see what she was trying to do. Ironically, she was worried I was going to give up a life of journalism to be a stand-up comic." (Here we both laugh heartily.) In any case, after uni he landed a job as a stagehand at Channel Nine. "Then a friend and I were doing stand-up, supporting a hypnotist, and his season was cancelled. We said, 'You know what? We should just start writing jokes and sending them to radio stations.' "

Leading lady … Hills with his wife Ali McGregor.

Leading lady … Hills with his wife Ali McGregor. Photo: Fairfaxsyndication.com

Late at night, the pair bought first editions of the next day's newspapers and scoured them for material. "We sat up, had coffee, spent two hours writing jokes," Hills says, "and cleverly sent them to the No. 2 breakfast show in Sydney, not No. 1." Soon they were on the show's writing team, and not long after that, Hills was on air. "I would do interviews, but in particular 'gotcha' calls. In my defence, we always tried to make them positive."

Hills has ruffled brown hair and the energetic air of a man on a mission to spread good cheer. On screen, his eyes actually twinkle - a phenomenon I first observed while watching him host Spicks and Specks, the music-themed quiz that ran on the ABC for seven years until 2011. I ask if he has noticed this himself. "I can see the twinkle," he says. "I know what you mean. But I'm not aware when I am twinkling. I don't know how to make it happen. I don't manufacture it." He laughs again. "I'm not that cynical and manipulative."

People who know Hills say he isn't cynical or manipulative at all. "Nice" is the adjective that keeps coming up. "I've never heard anybody say a bad word about Adam," says producer and director Peter Faiman. "He's totally affable. A genuinely nice guy."

When Hills landed the Spicks and Specks job, he had almost no television experience and Faiman was called in to teach him the ropes. "Adam is a keen learner," he says. But Hills remembers feeling overwhelmed by how much he had to absorb in a short time. "Just before the first episode, I walked into my dressing room and Peter was sitting there. I thought, 'I honestly can't take any more advice. If he tells me one more thing to remember I'm going to have a breakdown.' "

Hills continues: "He must have seen it in my eyes, because he put his hands behind his head and said, 'It's only f...ing television.' I looked at him and he said, 'You're not a surgeon. No one's going to die up there.' That was the last bit of advice he gave me, and it was perfect."

From the outset, Hills presided over the program with aplomb, keeping the laughs flowing while putting questions and challenges to teams of celebrity guests captained by his co-stars, comedian Alan Brough and radio broadcaster Myf Warhurst. It all looked so effortless that producer Anthony Watt recalls joking that Hills needed more to occupy him: "I used to say, 'Okay, I'm going to give you a Sudoku to do during the show and I want you to have it completed by the end.' "

Hills might even have given it a go. "Maths was my best subject," he says. "Weirdly, a lot of comedians have maths brains."

At Jannali High in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, Hills also excelled at debating. There's a performance gene in his family, he says. His only brother, Brad, is an actor who hosted children's television shows in Australia before moving to New Zealand. "Now he's in LA trying to crack it over there. We're certainly show-offs. We don't mind standing up and talking to a room full of people."

Hills' father, Bob, worked for Qantas, first as a cabin crew member, then in customer relations. "I remember hearing someone say he was the nicest guy in Qantas," Hills says. "I probably tried to emulate him. You look up to your dad as your hero." Thanks to Bob's taste for comedy, the household listened to Bill Cosby and Peter Sellers records. On TV, they watched Benny Hill and MASH. "So it was part of my growing up, the rhythm of jokes," Hills says. "From a very young age, I knew how to write a joke and tell a joke."

In the same way, he understood early that there could be nothing more thrilling than standing alone in the spotlight in a packed audi-torium. "You say it's the most terrifying thing you could imagine," he tells me, "but I guarantee that if you got up on stage and said something funny that you had thought of, and it got a laugh from 3000 people, you would do that for the rest of your life.

"A manager said to me, 'You're not stressed backstage. You're really happy.' And I thought, 'Why wouldn't I be? I'm doing what I love.' "

He honed his style and delivery when he went to the UK in the late 1990s, soon after the ousting of the Conservative government that had been in power for close to two decades. Bleak, spiky comedy was in fashion in those days, and for a generation of comics accustomed to ripping bitterly into the Tories, the ascendancy of Tony Blair's New Labour was disconcerting. "They didn't know where to direct their anger any more," says Hills, who took advantage of the confusion to practise the kinder, gentler humour that came naturally to him. "Nice-guy comedy", he calls it. "I came from a happy suburban family so I couldn't be a harsh comic. I was the boy next door. The sweet, inoffensive guy."

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he received a review that convinced him he was on the right track. "It described me as having 'celebratory, sun-drenched humour', and it crystallised in my mind what it was that made me different from everybody else in Edinburgh."

Not that Hills eschews politics. He just discusses it with the same geniality that he brings to most other subjects. In one of the last episodes of the recent Adam Hills Tonight series, he responded to claims by a right-wing columnist that the ABC was a nest of left-wing sympathisers by saying his only allegiance was to "policies of compassion. A little bit of humanity. A little bit of kindness. And you know what that makes me? It doesn't make me a leftie. That makes me a softie. And I'm proud of it." He was in favour of same-sex marriage, he added. He believed in giving asylum seekers a fair go. "When I see a boatload of people trying to escape a brutal regime, I just want them to be treated with basic human dignity. And by the way, before we send these new arrivals to PNG, are we at least asking if any of them can play cricket?"

Sport has always been important to Hills. As a kid, he took gymnastics classes and played rugby league. He was so good at tennis that he later worked part-time as a coach. "Other than wearing thongs, and he makes jokes about that, there's really nothing he can't do," says his wife, opera singer and cabaret performer Ali McGregor. For his agility, Hills is grateful to the doctor who argued when he was born that it would be wrong to amputate his right leg below the knee. "He said, 'No, I think there's an ankle joint there. If you leave that, it's going to give him a much better gait later in life.' " He is thankful, too, for the way he was raised. "My parents were told, 'Treat him like a normal kid. If he falls over, don't fuss. Let him pick himself up.' "

McGregor, with whom he has a three-year-old daughter, Beatrice, is slightly sceptical about his claim that he wasn't teased or bullied. "The other kids didn't see me as different," Hills insists. "Possibly because of that decision not to amputate. It meant that when I got to school, I didn't have a weird walk. If I had my socks pulled up, you couldn't really tell. In long pants, you certainly couldn't." Even his friends tended to forget about the prosthesis, he says, which McGregor admits she can understand. "Until he takes that foot off at night, I forget," she says.

To her, though, his ability to disguise his difference is not the point. "He is different, and he's had to believe in himself just that little bit more than someone who's got two feet." Hills' self-assurance never fails to impress his wife. "When we go to the beach, I'm worried about being in my bathers in front of people, and he just whips off his foot and limps down to the water."

Hills goes so far as to suggest that, if anything, his footlessness has worked to his advantage. Had he been born with all the usual body parts, he might not have gone into this line of work. "In order to be a comedian, you have to be a bit of an outsider," he says. "Maybe the foot" - he means the lack of it - "gave me that outsider feeling."

He once discussed the comic psyche with Carl Reiner, the distinguished US film producer and comedian, now aged 91. "And the way he described it was beautiful," Hills says. "He said, 'It's like everyone's got a satellite dish and that's how we pick up the frequency of the universe. Comedians have the same satellite dish as everyone else but ours is angled ever so slightly.' " Just like Hills himself, when he is without his prosthesis.

In a monologue that went viral on the internet, Hills gets stuck into US comedian Joan Rivers for making fat jokes about the English singer Adele. "How dare you make fun of one of the best female role models on the planet for the way she looks?" he demands. "You, Joan Rivers, are a jaded, bitter, old moll."

The video is really only amusing because it is such a spectacular departure from form. The most common criticism of Hills is that his amiability results in anodyne humour. "What is it with Australia's love affair with Adam Hills?" asks entertainment writer Anthony Morris in a recent issue of the Victorian magazine Forte. The comedian has been short-listed for the Gold Logie for most popular Australia television personality for each of the past six years, yet it seems to Morris that "what we really want is someone a little less nice and a little more funny".

The first episode this year of Adam Hills Tonight ("a fairly bland talk show," says Morris) had 838,000 viewers in the five mainland Australian state capitals. Over the course of the series, the audience dwindled to an average of about 725,000 people - more than it attracted last year, but fewer than in 2011. The program is significantly less popular than Spicks and Specks, which regularly drew well over a million viewers. (A revamped Spicks, with a new cast, is scheduled for next year.)

Still, Hills' latest stand-up show, Happyism, has recently completed a triumphant national tour, and in Britain, he is going great guns. The Last Leg started as a light-hearted nightly review of London's 2012 Paralympic Games. "We didn't set out to break down barriers or anything like that," says Hills. "If we had, we'd have come across as pompous and preachy." Instead, the tone was breezily irreverent, and the program was such a hit that, after the Games, Channel 4 transformed it into a weekly look at offbeat events in the news. The latest series started screening here on ABC1 this month.

I have to confess that in the course of researching this story, I spent quite a lot of time trying to find someone who doesn't like Hills. Or even someone who can identify a flaw in his character. Failing a flaw, I will accept a foible. No one can be nice right through. Can they? A typical response comes from Dave Cameron, head of Southern Cross Austereo's 2Day FM radio network, who worked with Hills at a radio station in Adelaide and shared a house with him for six months about 15 years ago. "He was the nicest guy you would ever meet," says Cameron. "I can't remember him ever being upset or angry or showing any frustration. He was best friends with everyone at the station, including the salespeople, and would never say a bad thing about anyone."

Sigh. McGregor confirms that Hills sees only the best in those around him. "Now and then I have to run off and hang out with my gay friends so I can have a good bitch," she says. "I don't feel I can do that around Adam. That would be shallow and mean, and he doesn't like that sort of behaviour."

If his wife has any complaint about Hills, and she's really scratching here, it is that he expects others to live up to his own high standards. "And when someone disappoints him, he takes it very hard." Not that he shouts or slams doors, she says. "He goes within himself and tries to work it out." A pause. "Which is an admirable quality."

I fear it is another indication of Hills' niceness that before heading back to the UK to work on The Last Leg, he himself does his best to help me find his dark side. "I think I have a little bit of a tendency to be negative sometimes," he says. "It's not quite a depression, but I can get into a spiral of thinking something negative, which leads me to think something else negative, and to be grumpy for no apparent reason."

I look at him sceptically.

"It happens when I'm tired and stressed," he adds with a twinkly smile.

 

Lead-in photograph by Ellis Parinder. Grooming by Bradwyn Jones. Styling by Ricky James Flynn. Adam Hills wears jumper by ck Calvin Klein, shirt by Three Over One, jeans by Topman and his own shoes.

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