Sean Hughes’ death in October 2017 at the age of just 51 was an overwhelmingly sad loss to the world of comedy. There is, however, comfort to be found in the sheer depth and variety to the body of work that the ferociously talented writer, actor, poet and stand-up left behind as his enduring legacy.
Sean first announced himself to the world by becoming the youngest winner of the Perrier Award at the age of 24, in 1990. That show, A One Night Stand with Sean Hughes, set a new benchmark for longform stand-up with a well-honed narrative arc, marking a move away from the gag-heavy, cabaret-style sets that had previously been the norm for stand-up.
Breakout success soon followed, as a bit-part in the Oscar-nominated film The Commitments led on to television stardom with Sean’s Show – a quietly brilliant sitcom vehicle for his gently intellectual world-weary style. As a founding team captain on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Sean was responsible (alongside presenter Mark Lamar and opposing captain Phill Jupitus) for modernising the TV panel show, deftly skewering a few celebrity egos along the way. Disillusioned by an entertainment industry that catered all too easily do his demons, Sean retreated from the glare of the public eye (save for a couple of ‘straight acting’ roles), and focused on writing disarmingly introspective poetry, and novels, before returning to his roots. Sean’s final years were spent doing what he did best: touring theatres and festivals with sharp, lovingly crafted hours of autobiographical stand-up to the delight of everyone who had the privilege to have seen him.
Watch Sean Hughes: Penguins
A multi-layered captivating combination of wisdom and surprises in which Sean reflects back to his Dublin upbringing and the utter awkwardness of teenage life, whilst tying it all in to the present. But what does it have to do with Penguins?
Born in 1965, in London to Irish parents, Sean Hughes soon relocated to Ireland, where he was raised by his paternal grandmother. His cockney accent marked him as a target for bullies, and he sharpened his comic mind in repelling them with gags. As a young, bookish Smiths fan, Hughes returned to the city of his birth, and began performing stand-up at the Comedy Store in 1987. In 1990, his debut Edinburgh Fringe Show, A One Night Stand with Sean Hughes, won the Edinburgh Comedy Award, making him the youngest holder of the accolade, at the age of 24. Breakout stand-up success continued with a follow up tour, and later with a second show, Live & Very Funny.
In 1991, Sean cameoed as a record label executive in Alan Parker’s Oscar-nominated movie, The Commitments. Sean then starred in two seasons of his own sitcom vehicle, Sean’s Show (Channel 4), from 1992. In 1996, Sean was chosen to be one of the inaugural team captains on Never Mind The Buzzcocks (BBC2), a role which he held for 10 seasons, until quitting in 2002. The decision was accompanied by a move into ostensibly more serious acting work, with roles on ITV in The Last Detective (2003-07), Coronation Street (2008), and Agatha Christie’s They Do it with Mirrors (2010).
Hughes wrote two novels, The Detainees (1998), and It’s What He Would Have Wanted (2000), and two poetry compendiums, The Grey Area (1995), and My Struggle to Be Decent and Poems of Sadness and Light, which is unpublished.
Latterly, Sean returned to stand-up, and to Edinburgh, with 2007’s The Right Side of Wrong. Subsequent shows performed and toured to critical acclaim included Life Becomes Noises (2013) and Penguins (2014), while his final solo show was Mumbo Jumbo in 2015. In the final years of his life, Sean produced 70 episodes of his Under The Radar Podcast (2013-16). In 2017, touring the improvised show, The Blank Book, with a rolling cast of guests saw Sean take to the stage for the last time. Sean Hughes died in hospital of complications related to liver disease on 16th October, 2017.