Since we last spoke to Barry Hilton in 2011, he has been around the world three times on cruise ships, made two films and a TV show, moved into motivational speaking, released several DVDs and launched a, erm, clothing line. Last year, he performed a sold-out show at the Grand West Arena in Johannesburg, followed by another at Sydney Opera House in early 2017. With gigs in London, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Canada coming up, it’s safe to say Hilton’s humour transcends his native South Africa.
Six years ago, he told us he’d love to live in the UAE, because it’s the “centre of the world”. And he remains up for it. “I still want to,” he tells us from his home near Cape Town. “I just need to convince my wife. The UAE is fantastic because these guys are so intelligent. They’re building an incredible country that’s fast becoming the world’s biggest tourist destination.”
The hit comedian has, in fact, just completed a four-show run for the Abu Dhabi tourism authority in his homeland. “There was a seriously high-ranking guy there and my opening joke was, ‘The sign of wealth in the UAE used to be how high you had to get your foot to put it on the dashboard when you’re driving. Now it’s how many cell phones you can operate at the same time. He loved it because he had three cell phones.”
At 61 years old and with six children, the youngest just seven, Hilton is still full of zest, firing out humorous lines at every opportunity. “I’m a flippant, famous South African,” he jokes as we ask about his fashion line (available online at www.mycousin.co.za, by the way).
Garments mostly centre on his catchphrases, such as “my cousin”, which is how he refers to everyone due to a belief in treating everyone the same (and because he can’t remember names so well), and “nou gaan ons braai”, which roughly translates from Afrikaans as “now we’re going to grill”. As well as a pun-tastic range of men’s underwear, Hilton also has a line in barbecue spices and marinades. He tells us he was recently approached by a large company wanting to buy his T-shirt brand.
But stand-up is where it all started, and Hilton’s new show, Evolver, which hits the Mövenpick Hotel Jumeirah Beach on Thursday June 29, he promises will be “fast, funny and explosive”. “I get on stage and just talk. I’m not one of those comics who does a set show every time, so I get up on stage and start talking and thinking. If you come to see my show today and tomorrow, 50 percent will be different. I’ve got a lot of material in my head, and I go which way the audience goes.”
This adaptability has, perhaps, ensured Hilton’s enduring appeal as he reaches 35 years in comedy. In the early days of his career in South Africa, Hilton pretended to be from Liverpool to stand out on a tough comedy circuit, and again later to avoid prejudices in the UK. “I walked into an agency in Oxford, and I said, [in a very believable Scouse accent], ‘All right, I’ve just come down here from Liverpool and I want to work here in Oxford’. And I got the job, but later I thought ‘that’s enough’, because you have to be your own person if you want to be something in life. You can’t follow and pretend. I am who I am, and maybe that’s why I’m still going after 35 years.”
His brand of comedy is clean, non-political and strewn with stories about relatable topics such as his son’s gym obsession, or the South African braai (a barbecue of some significance). It was advice from one of Hilton’s heroes, Billy Connolly, during the early days of his career that helped him on this path. He opened for Connolly in Jersey, where the Scot warned that while he was a “very funny young man”, he needed to “stop telling jokes and start talking about life”. And that’s what he did. “I came back to South Africa and reinvented myself,” Hilton says. “I’ve evolved. Whatever is happening in my life, I talk about it. I’ve gone from jokes to observations and now it’s almost like a conversation.”
It’s a very human kind of comedy, too, and that makes it open to people of any age and background. He tells us the night after the sold-out Johannesburg show, where he performed to 4,200 people, he did a gig for 22 people in the lounge of a boarding house for a lady who had just turned 70. “Her kids asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said she wanted to see me,” he says. It’s a story that highlights Hilton’s ongoing relationship with comedy as something he does because he genuinely loves raising a smile from people. “I’m making you laugh, that’s all that matters,” he says as we have a giggle at one of his tales. Now, we would definitely buy a T-shirt with that on.
From Dhs185. Thu Jun 29, 9pm. Mövenpick Hotel Jumeirah Beach, JBR, www.thelaughterfactory.com.