Entertainment

Adam Hills: clown laughs in the face of death

Nothing tests your sense of humour quite like the death of a beloved parent. For comedian Adam Hills, the loss of his father to cancer made him think about what purpose comedy serves.

"At the funeral, a friend of the family said to me, 'You might not feel like going on stage and being funny for a while, but I hope you get that feeling back soon'," Hills recalls. "But the weird thing was, [dad's death] made me want to go out on stage even more. I remember his oncologist telling me, look, there's nothing more we can really do, and hearing the helplessness in his voice. It was a hard thing for him to admit. And yet I left him having made him laugh, and it made me more convinced than ever that my job is to make laughter happen as much as possible."

Adam Hills: "We should have as much fun and laughter as possible while we're here."
Adam Hills: "We should have as much fun and laughter as possible while we're here." Photo: photobat

Hills' new stand-up show, Clown Heart, which brings the comic and TV host back to Sydney for his first performances in three years, is "laughing in the face of death", he says.

"The idea came to me when I was doing Adam Hills Tonight on the ABC," he says. "There was a guy, Craig Coombes, in the audience and he had thyroid cancer. He had this thing where he would take a naked selfie every Tuesday and put it online. It was the most playful way he could think of to deal with the most serious thing ever. We met up after the show and later on we did some photos together. One was a recreation of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the nude. I was Yoko."

Adam Hills says parenthood has deepened his commitment to spreading laughter.
Adam Hills says parenthood has deepened his commitment to spreading laughter. Photo: photobat

Hills and Coombes have since become good mates, and Coombes, who continues to defy an initially grim prognosis, has recently released a limited edition 2016 Naked Tuesday calendar.

Parenthood has also deepened his commitment to spreading laughter, says Hills, who has two young daughters. "Around the same time my father passed away, I was sitting in the bath with my daughter. She was three at the time, and she was trying to comprehend death, asking me if I was going to die some day. Then she said the most beautiful thing in the world: 'I don't want to die daddy. I like my new soap.'

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"That sums up everyone's reaction to death. No one wants to die. We've all got great stuff in our lives, things we love. We should have as much fun and laughter as possible while we're here."

Hills' commitment to finding the humour in a situation helped in the last few hours of his father's life, he says.

Adam Hills: Passion for the stage undimmed by loss.
Adam Hills: Passion for the stage undimmed by loss.  Photo: photobat

"One of dad's favourite movies was Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1," Hills says. "There's a ridiculous scene where someone says, 'We should end this meeting on a high note', and everyone sings, 'Aaaaahhh!' My family adopted that.

"So even when dad was in hospital hooked up to respirators and barely able to speak, I would always say, right I'll see you tomorrow ... 'Aaaaahhh!' He even managed to squeak out a little 'eeeeeee'. Technically, it was the last thing he ever said to me."

Hills' TV career in Britain (where he hosts Channel 4's The Last Leg) has kept him away from the stage and that's been a good thing, he says. "I can't take five or six months off to tour a stand-up show any more. I started doing Clown Heart in Melbourne in April [2015] and then I did it in Adelaide and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Instead of doing 60 nights in a row and getting sick of it I've been able to spread the load over two years and it keeps the show really fresh for me.

"When I started in comedy it was all about getting the laughs," Hills says. "Now it's about saying something with that laugh. It's really about creating a moment which people remember."

Adam Hills plays the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, January 13-14. Tickets $54.90-$64.90, sydneyoperahouse.com