Sean Hughes Obituary – Stand-up Loses a Pioneer

A winner of the Perrier Award at 24 and a household name through TV quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, expressive and soulful comedian Sean Hughes has died aged 51

Feature by Ben Venables | 17 Oct 2017
  • Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes was known to many as one of the original captains on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Yet it is his influence on live stand-up which is difficult to overstate. Hughes died on Monday morning after his admission to Whittington Hospital, London, with cirrhosis of the liver. 

In the late 1980s, Hughes arrived in London from Dublin and started playing the Comedy Store. He sported a look, his hair flopping over a warm gaze, that makes it easy to see why he was soon comedy's poster boy. Talking to The Skinny for our How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe series, Gilded Balloon founder Karen Koren described the young Hughes with fondness: "He wanted to be Morrissey and thought he was Beckett."

It was at the Gilded Balloon's original home that he first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe; a joint show with one of his comedy mentors –Whose Line is it Anyway?'s Stephen Frost. A year later Hughes returned to Cowgate with his first solo work One Night Stand. His flowing delivery and contemporary outlook made this the first 'narrative' Fringe hour. In other words, he put on a show, rather than stringing together a bunch of funny stuff. 

Structure in comedy shows is sometimes viewed with cynicism. Some comedians use theatrical devices to manipulate emotions more than to compel an audience. But Hughes was using his stage time for expression and to have something to say. It was an innovative show and picked up the Perrier Award, making Hughes – at 24 – its then youngest winner. One Night Stand also formed the basis of his Channel 4 sitcom Sean's Show.

Hughes occupied an intriguing position in comedy. On the one hand he predates Newman and Baddiel as the first 'Rock n Roll' comedian (a short era in the early-1990s which made NME cover stars of the duo). On the other, it is the expressive side of Hughes's work which had a lasting influence – even on the same Rob Newman. Inspired by Hughes, he's spent the last two decades writing political and cerebral material. Shortly after his friend died, Newman tweeted: "In Sean Hughes's hands stand-up comedy became art, filled with truth, meaning and soul – and he got the biggest laughs."

After Never Mind the Buzzcocks made Hughes a regular in people's living rooms, the fame cast a shadow over his stand-up. Crowds expected to see the bloke from TV rather than the carefully written show Hughes wished to put on. Hughes enjoyed a hiatus, not that he seems to have had much free time: he added poetry, novels and acting to his accomplishments. He returned to stand-up once his material could be seen on its own merits again. 

27 years after his Perrier win he performed his last Fringe run this year at the Gilded Balloon. Never one to tread the same path, Blank Book saw Hughes and guest comedians attempt to write a story on stage. The show had been set to transfer to Soho Theatre this coming weekend. 

Live comedy often goes unpreserved and it's fortunate that Hughes left quality recordings of much of his work. Audios of some of his early sets are available on Spotify and some of his later shows can be found on indie label Go Faster Stripe, and also streaming service NextUp. 

Sean Hughes is survived by two brothers, Alan and Martin.