How an ex-con became a stand-up guy

Comic Mark Hughes finds humour in his journey from prison to the stage

Through crime sprees, a decade of recidivism and rampant drug use, Mark Hughes has travelled through the darkest recesses of the human experience.

Now he’s shedding light on his life by making light of it.

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The Vancouver-based stand-up comic hosts a pair of shows Nov. 25 and 26 called Tragedy + Time Served = Comedy.

The show blends monologue with jokes sprinkled throughout that recall his harrowing journey, and how he’s continually working toward redemption.

Calling Hughes’s style brash is an understatement. Taboo is a word that doesn’t exist in his vocabulary and no subject matter is off limits.

“When I say that, I literally mean nothing,” he said. “There are some comics who do have limits. I really don’t believe there’s anything you can’t make funny. Not a single thing.”

A self-described “high-maintenance kid,” Hughes had an upper middle class upbringing in Point Grey.

He felt a growing disconnect with his parents and sisters through his early teenage years, and by 15 he was shooting heroin and cocaine.

That same year, he found himself in jail for the first time. It’s a setting that became a constant over the next 11 years of his life.

“I found an identity, and a community as it were, in the criminal and drug culture,” said Hughes, 36. “I did that for years and years and I liked it.”

The insanity swirling around Hughes came to a head in 2000, when he was 21. He went on a crime spree across Vancouver that included convenience store robberies, break and enters, a home invasion and a high speed police chase. 

He was sentenced to nine years in jail, but paroled in 2005. He was out of prison for about a month before his past caught up with him.

“I was so institutionalized, I didn’t know what to do out here in the community so I robbed a bank so I could get sent back to prison,” he recalled.

Hughes got sober in 2006 and was released from prison one year later.

When Hughes got out, many of those linked to his criminal past were dead. All but one of his close friends abandoned him and he maintains a passing relationship with his immediate family.  

While kicking drugs was “pretty easy,” learning how to live in a society he’d been removed from for 10 years was the steepest learning curve. Hughes says he was raped in jail and suffers heavily from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When I started going to prison I was so young that I never really learned how to do a lot of stuff that civilians do,” he said. “I remember interacting with members of society when I was 27, 28, 29 there was so much stuff I couldn’t do and they wouldn’t understand why. I didn’t want to tell them why.”

Stand-up entered the picture in 2013, after Hughes took comedy classes in New Westminster. Within two months, he performed his first stand-up gig. His first few shows didn’t focus on his life, as he initially thought jokes about drug abuse and jail time would alienate his audience. He recounted a story about his criminal past in a stand-up class after the fact and his teacher encouraged him to pursue those subjects in his act.

He did, and it went off like a hot damn.

“Someone asked me when I got off stage, ‘What did that feel like?’ and I responded with, ‘It felt like robbing a bank,’” Hughes recalled. “That’s probably why I still do it, because that was the thing I was missing. I needed to get jacked on something. If you can’t shoot heroin or you can’t rob banks, what do you do? You tell jokes.”

Hughes has since performed across Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island and was featured during the 2016 Vancouver Fringe Festival. Stand-up isn’t his only job — by day Hughes sells alarm systems — but he’s consistently gigging every month.

Following his November shows at the Dusty Flower Pot Cabaret, Hughes hosts an open mic night Dec. 1 at Seven Dining Lounge and a large-scale production Jan. 7 at the Rickshaw Theatre.

In between those, he’s co-organizing, hosting and emceeing a Dec. 8 comedy mixer that will serve as a fundraiser for the Overdose Prevention Society. Hosted at the Rickshaw, the show was organized on short notice in response to the massive fentanyl overdose epidemic raging through the Downtown Eastside.

“I’m not good at pretending or coming up with a cover story,” he said. “I don’t come up with these white lies and pretend these things didn’t happen to me. Something always told me it had entertainment value.”

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