After seeing Daisy Berry’s Am I Mental?, a fun, light-hearted take on the ins and outs of brain chemistry, seeing Steve Hughes tackle the topic in Nervous Breakthrough was a shock to the system. Hughes has long billed himself as a dangerous comedian – one who doesn’t pull punches and isn’t afraid to make the jokes that other comedians won’t touch. After a several-year battle with depression, adrenal fatigue and suicidal tendencies, he’s back touring and there was no way in hell he wasn’t going to bring his issues to the stage. If you’re going to check out this show, you need to know that you’re in for: the show is rife with no-holds-barred discussions of mental illness, suicide attempts, rape, and death by cancer – and if at any point you don’t find these topics funny Hughes will be sure to point out that it’s you who’s the unfunny one.
Despite this, the show opens with the kind of suburban dad humour that Hughes himself mocks later in the show, but the jokes are funny and Steve’s charm carries the material further than you would expect it to go. But it doesn’t take long for the show to veer into the darker territory that the title promises: in the last two years Hughes has suffered through a breakdown, a breakup, and a stint in rehab, and is more than eager to tell a crowd of strangers all about it.
The man has been through hell, but it’s done nothing to soften his edges: his razor-sharp observations closely resemble a lot of Bill Hicks’ work in the early 90s (perhaps a little too closely: does it still count as stealing jokes if you change the punchlines?) and his takes on capitalism, the government, and the price of capsicums are ridiculously funny. However, while he’s not afraid to challenge the status quo a lot of the shots he fires miss the mark and more than a few times the audience struggled to decide whether there was actually going to be a joke at the end of one of his tirades. At other times he employs far too many gross, pointless jokes and slurs, making otherwise funny jokes needlessly offensive, and it’s frustrating that a man as smart as Hughes doesn’t realise that offensive doesn’t automatically mean funny.
Tragedy often makes for great comedy, but Hughes seems more focussed on baring his soul than getting laughs. While the laughs he does get are huge – at one point I think I forgot how to breathe – too much of the show is littered with uncomfortable pauses while he waits for a laugh and the audience waits for a punchline. He seems unfazed, though, and his recoveries are so effortless that it becomes hard to tell if he actually cares about the audience’s reaction at all.
The combination of rib-breaking hilarity and heart-breaking sadness make for one hell of a show though, and if you have a thick skin and a black sense of humour, Steve Hughes might be the comedian for you.