How I wish I’d made Sean Hughes that daal
Hardeep Singh Kohli
HA R - DEEP!” It’s hardly unusual to hear my name shouted across a street during the Edinburgh Fringe. But this “Hardeep” was accented with a uniquely Irish brogue. It was an upbeat shout, not the sort you worried about addressing. “Hardeep!”
I turned my head towards the harbinger of happiness. In the decade or so I had known Sean Hughes I must have heard him say my name a few dozen times. But no matter how many times I heard him speak “Hardeep”, I would always be incredulous.
One of my comedy heroes, the man who changed how I thought about, wrote and performed comedy, knew who I was – and he almost always seemed happy to see me. If I’d known 10 weeks ago, as I crossed that Edinburgh street to meet Sean that it would be the last time we spoke, perhaps we’d have done more than our usual ritualistic self-beratement for never seeing each other except during the eighth month of the year in Scotland’s capital. That would be followed by him suggesting we meet up for a glass of something when I was next in the Smoke. It would conclude with me promising to come round to his place and cook him a Punjabi vegetarian feast. (He seemed to love my daal.) Maybe this time I would have actually followed through, dropped him a text and made an arrangement. I thought about it. Thought. But I didn’t actually hit send. And now I never will. It wouldn’t be true to say that Sean and I were close friends. We weren’t. He wasn’t an easy man to be close
to from my point of view. He was a hero. The year I got married, Sean became the youngest ever recipient of the Perrier Comedy Award. His show, A One Night Stand, was a tour de force of funny and, at just 24 years old, the world lay at his feet. He had only been performing for three years. He played a record producer in Alan Parker’s The Commitments, and I still smile thinking about how he nailed the part.
A few years later my brothers and I had our lives changed by Sean’s Show, a Channel 4 sitcom that changed the game for British TV. I might be wrong, but Sean’s Show was the first stab British TV had at a genuinely post-modern comedy. The conceit was simple enough. Heavily inspired by It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Sean played a version of himself who lived in a sitcom. It broke the fourth wall. He had a spider who was in fact Elvis Presley and would answer phone messages from Samuel Beckett. I still smile thinking about how the character Sean would start playing jazz before he answered the phone to give the impression of urban sophistication. I smile because I did the same thing in real life. His was funny; mine was arch pretentiousness.
I first met Sean at the end of the last decade. We were both playing the same room at the Gilded Balloon; obviously he had the main slot. We would cross over in the dressing room as I came off and he got ready to go on. I remember being nervous at having to meet him; pre-stage performers are not always the easiest people to make small talk with as you try to judge the best moment to tell them how much their work has inspired your own. But Sean was a delight. He was pretty much as he was onstage. Sweet, funny, very Irish.
The following year I was doing my curry chat show, Chat Masala, and he agreed to come on as a guest. I was overjoyed. I had over 100 guests that year but he will always be the most memorable. A few of us who knew him have been consoling and remembering him. Maybe wining the Perrier so early in his career didn’t help him as much as it might have. And while he had some amazing highlights I’m not sure he ever hit the heights his profound talent deserved. He had a restlessness about him. But what do I know?
As I write, my face a contradiction of tears and smiles, I know that the comedy community and those who love watching comedy have lost a behemoth, a Hercules in an ever-more Lilliputian world. I’ll binge-watch and listen to all the Sean’s Shows I can get hold of. I’ll continue to cry and laugh and smile. I feel very lucky to have met Sean Hughes, luckier still to have been able to call him a friend.
My only regret was not cooking him that daal. If you take one thing from this please, should you have the chance, carpe diem. Or carpe daal.