Adam Hills says the real impact of 2012’s The Last Leg won’t be seen until 2020, adding it “accidentally” broke barriers about disability.
Hills, who fronts the Channel 4 show, says it put the “awesome” Paralympic athletes centre stage, while getting laughs from moments like “the blind guy who misses the long jump and lands on someone”.
“If all you’re doing is pointing out the funny in the Paralympics then you’re mocking disabled people,” he says.
“But if you’re celebrating them as well, then you’re covering both bases, you’re being balanced.”
The show, which also features Alex Brooker and Josh Widdecombe, started out as a comedic wrap-up of the day’s events at the Paralympics.
They “accidentally broke down a few barriers”, Hills explains, adding: “We didn’t set out to, that wasn’t our plan, but we knew that would be a side effect of doing what we did.”
Rio was next to host the games in 2016, but Hills explains this wasn’t enough time for 2012 to have an impact.
“You think it’ll happen four years later, but no, those guys in Rio started planning well before 2012 so it’s not until 2020 in Tokyo that we’ll see the impact.
“I know for a fact that the Japanese broadcasters have said ‘let’s use the Paralympics to change perceptions – we’re not going to just cover it, we’re going to affect social change because that’s what happened in 2012’.”
The Last Leg introduced the groundbreaking #isitok feature in 2012. Viewers were invited to tweet questions that could be considered inappropriate, like: “Is it OK to fancy the Para-athletes?”
These questions were then answered on-air, reflecting the show’s mix of laughs and serious content.
Hills sees the show as part of the “perfect storm” of “everyone in London” thinking the Olympics would “go badly”, and then saying: “‘That was great, now let’s do it again, what can we do?’
“And then the Paralympics came around with billboards that said ‘thanks for the warm-up’, so people were going into it with a positive attitude.
“We went into it with positivity and a little bit of edge. It was about disability, so we were rooting for the underdog – they did well, so we were rooting for the winners.”
The show’s popularity meant people took notice of the Paralympics, not least because of the success of the British Para-athletes, who came third overall with 34 golds and a whopping 120 medals.
Hills is ruminating about the success of the show as part of his self-penned book of memoirs, Best Foot Forward.
It paints a colourful picture of his happy childhood and early failures and successes as a stand-up, before romping through his TV career and encounters with stars including Billy Connolly and Whoopi Goldberg.
He writes about years of early slog and travel, with late-night gigs, local radio and plenty of knock-backs. But it never crossed his mind to give up on comedy.
It’s at this point that he makes a surprising confession – about an addiction.
He can’t get enough of the buzz from performing live comedy, saying it feels like a “cleansing vomit”.
“I don’t think I’ll ever not do stand-up,” he says quietly. “It boils down to the addictive nature of how good it feels when a gig goes well.
“If I haven’t done it for a while, I start getting really edgy and I can’t work out why I’m unhappy and unfulfilled. Then I go and do a gig, and it’s like ‘aah, that’s better, I needed to get that out of my system’.”
Hills, who was born without a right foot, also writes briefly about this as well.
His parents “received the invaluable advice to ‘treat him like any other normal kid'”, which they did, by enrolling him in a gymnastics class.
‘Introverted and shy’
He also heeded early advice from a veteran at Sydney Comedy Store, who said he should stop including his foot in his act until he was “good enough”.
Hills also says he’s “surprisingly introverted and shy”, despite being known for his his TV rants on topics from child poverty to Donald Trump.
But this hasn’t stopped him from inviting a variety of politicians on the show, which is now on its 14th series, and takes a satirical spin around the week’s news.
He managed to persuade Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to step out of a glamorous car onto a red carpet, wearing a white fur coat and a lot of attitude.
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband went so far as to lip-sync to A-ha’s Take On Me.
“They all come out of the show looking good,” Hills says, adding that his favourite Tory was Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who won lots of fans just by being “funny”.
“She was amazing, she had a lot of people saying more Tories should be like her afterwards. Tory MP Anna Soubry did quite well, but Sayeeda Warsi was the best of the Tories,” he says.
Hills laughs about politicians often appearing on the show as “a last resort”.
“When former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg appeared, he said to me: ‘You get slated in the press, you get your own party turning against you and then your press secretary says do you want to appear on The Last Leg, and you think how much worse can it get?!’.”
Hills is happy to get serious though, and when asked about Paralympic sports such as boccia – which don’t appear to merit live Paralympic TV coverage yet – he pauses for thought.
“I think sometimes the lack of coverage is to do with the host broadcaster, sometimes it’s to do with just bad planning.”
Citing other Paralympic sports that have also been overlooked by live TV, including the wheelchair marathon and equestrian events, he adds: “I would have thought that the lack of coverage for boccia might be that the sport isn’t considered exciting enough, the physics of the ball rolling – it’s like lawn bowls.
“Having said that, I bloody love lawn bowls on TV! I’d love to see more boccia coverage, especially when you’ve got the GB team winning medals – that’s what people want to see.”
As for the future, he’ll continue working on The Last Leg, plus a documentary about playing in the disability rugby league. Not surprisingly, he also has plans up his sleeve for more stand-up.
Hills is pleased that disability in comedy appears to be much more visible. Lee Ridley – better known as Lost Voice Guy – won Britain’s Got Talent, while Robert White, a comic with Asperger’s, came second.
“There are a few disabled comics coming through, which is bad news for the rest of us,” he laughs.
“I think what’s really interesting and what’s a good sign is when people watch The Last Leg now, they complain there’s not enough diversity on it.
“When you consider that two out of three of us are disabled, you’ve got hand deformities, leg deformities, and people are asking ‘why aren’t there more women and people of colour?’
“You go ‘oh wow’, we have ticked that one diversity box so hard in indelible ink, that people just ignore us. So that’s a good sign.
“It means we have to move on to the next thing.”
Best Foot Forward, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is out on 24 July.