"At the time we said to each other "I reckon if we finish after Tokyo, that's a good place to end it." But then, of course, Tokyo was put off for a year..."
Almost nine years to the day since Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker first burst onto our screens with The Last Leg, a show commissioned to highlight the London 2012 Paralympics and tackle the tricky questions viewers wanted to ask, the loveable trio are back at the heart of Channel 4's prime-time schedule throughout the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Across 12 nights, they'll broadcast live from the BT Studios in the heart of London’s Olympic Village in Stratford, rounding up and reflecting on the biggest sporting stories of the day, with comedian Rosie Jones as the show's roving reporter, bringing all the latest news from the ground in Tokyo.
Each night, they'll be joined in the studio by friends and family of the Paralympians and will connect with Japan for live links and interviews with the competitors and medal winners.
Not ones to miss out on the action, The Last Leg of Tokyo 2020 will also see the boys have a shot and compete in 12 different Paralympic sports filmed at the London Olympic Stadium across three days.
As a huge fan of The Last Leg since day one, it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to speak to comedian Adam Hills about the upcoming series.
We spoke about the difference having no audience has made to the show, who his favourite guests to have on the show have been so far, as well as what fans can expect from this year's Paralympics series and whether or not The Last Leg could be coming to an end after Tokyo.
Can you quite believe that The Last Leg has been going for 9 years?
Every series when we start, I go to my laptop, I open up The Last Leg folder, I open up a new folder for the new series and I type in "Episode 1", I then look at the series number of the folder - we're up to series 23 now - and it just amazes me that we've done that many series!
Are you still enjoying doing the show as much now?
We absolutely are, to be honest. And in a very strange way, Covid and Covid restrictions have given us a whole bunch of challenges that we've had to deal with and that have kept the show interesting.
Whether it be doing the show in lockdown from my garage in Melbourne or coming back here and doing it with no audience, or not being able to have four people on the couch. So we had to spread them out in a semi-circle, which we then realised, actually makes for a much better show. It's much easier to have a conversation.
So in a weird way, all of the hurdles have forced us to keep the show a little bit fresher.
Going back to the beginning then. This show was originally a companion show for the London 2012 Paralympics, wasn't it?
Yeah, that's right. We were only commissioned for those 10 episodes and we didn't think there'd be any more. Then halfway through, Channel 4 started talking to us saying "Don't go anywhere after these two weeks, let's have some chats." and then gradually it became what it is... which is kind of a flagship show for the channel at the moment.
What's lovely is that every four years, we get to hit the reset button and go back to what we first got into it for, which is covering Paralympic sport. Josh, Alex and I all studied to be sports journalists at university, so covering Paralympic sport is right up our alley.
As soon as the Olympics started, Josh messaged both of us saying "Oh my God I'm so excited, I can't wait for the Paralympics this year!"
2012 was a real turning point wasn't it for appreciation towards the Paralympics in this country? And The Last Leg played a large part in that...
Hugely! A lot of that actually comes down to Channel 4 because it's all about visibility. I was lucky enough to cover the Paralympics for Australian TV in 2008 and it blew me away and I realised what an amazing thing it was.
Normally, over here the channel that covers the Olympics, will also cover the Paralympics, and in 2012 it was the first time that it had been given to a different channel. Instead of just covering it the same way that the Olympics had been covered, Channel 4 went a completely different way.
They put out that promo with Public Enemy behind it, they put billboards up all over London saying "Thank you for the warm-up" - there was a real attitude about it. And then they commissioned The Last Leg to give it an edge but also a sense of humour. Realistically, it was Channel 4 who changed the way the Paralympics are looked at.
This year's promo is such a lovely progression from Meet the Superhumans to we can achieve anything and this year it's - yes, we can achieve anything but it's because we've worked really hard and put our bodies on the line.
I think those three promos show the progression disability awareness has had in the UK over the last 8/9 years.
What are you most looking forward to about the Paralympics this year?
I am most looking forward to the battle between Australia and GB because if the Olympics is anything to go by, it's going to be really close. I remember in London, in the Paralympics, it came back to the final race, the marathon - I remember if Kurt Fearnley had beaten David Weir to the Gold, it would have been even in terms of Gold medals. But David Weir won it.
But then in Rio, Britain had a belter of games but I notice that the Australian Olympic team are doing particularly well and that usually bodes well for the Paralympic team.
You've shaved your head for Stand up to Cancer in the past, stopped shaving your beard until Brexit was done and painted your leg in 2012. Anything like that planned for the Paralympics?
In 2012 Alex and I had a bet and it was if GB beat Australia in the medals table, I'd paint my leg with the Union Jack, which I did. Then in Rio, I said to the Paralympics GB team, if you beat Australia I'll dye my hair red, white and blue and I'll get each of your names on my prosthetic leg - which I did.
This year, we couldn't quite decide what to do so we're going to open it up to the viewers. They can decide what my humiliation should be! The same public who named a boat Boaty McBoatface so it could go any which way!
Also, I'm going to make sure Alex has something that he has to do because I really think Australia have a really good chance at beating Great Britain this time.
Sadly yourself, Alex and Josh won't be in Tokyo this year. Will you miss not being there?
Oh my god! So much. I love Tokyo. I've been there two or three times before. I was so looking forward to showing Tokyo to Josh and Alex. Doing things like going to karaoke bars, taking Alex to a traditional Japanese restaurant and knowing that there'd probably be no food there that he'd like!
We were going to film ourselves driving mini Mario karts around the streets of Tokyo, which apparently is something you can do. So all those things are in my brain as if they almost happened. We're definitely going to miss being there.
The main thing for us is that moment where we can have Paralympians on the show. When people start winning medals is when they start coming onto the show and we're not going to get to do that live in the studio this time.
But having said that, we've made up for it by filming a whole bunch of us trying out different Paralympic sports!
What were they like to film?
We had so much fun, honestly! We did 12 sports in three days - we did Wheelchair Basketball, Wheelchair Rugby, Wheelchair Tennis, Wheelchair Volleyball, Blind Swimming, Blind Cycling, Seated Archery - and to be honest, that was the one that I was worst at.
What was funny - I mean, we wind it all up to be funny, that's the whole point of it - but Josh and Alex are really competitive. So they were Team GB, I was Team Australia and they'd set me up with a different comedian each time who was not known for their sporting prowess! But what they forgot is that comedians are really competitive. We are where we are for a reason. Because we want to be the best.
I can't tell you who the comedians are, because they're keeping them a secret, but there are some genuinely tense sporting events going on. Especially Wheelchair Rugby and Wheelchair Tennis.
Someone who is going to Tokyo for The Last Leg is the wonderful Rosie Jones. What will she be doing out there?
(Laughing) She will... and I'm laughing because the whole idea was that we'd send Rosie along to sit in the stands and support British Paralympians.
Problem is, there's not going to be anybody else in the stands. It's just going to be Rosie and she's pretty easy to hear at the best of times, let alone in an empty stadium! So Rosie's job will be to go and sit in empty stadiums and cheer on Paralympians.
She's so up for it! What's lovely about having Rosie on is that she came with us in 2016 - she was a researcher on The Last Leg. Not even a comedian! Technically she was a comedian because she was the loudest and the funniest in the office, but she just didn't have a camera on her.
I think probably in 2016, the producers went "You see that girl in the corner? Next time, let's make sure there's a camera and a microphone near her at all times!"
How are you feeling about doing 12 shows in 12 days?
We're really excited! We've got these video packages ready to go of us playing sport, we're going to cross to Rosie every night. The first show, or two, are the trickiest. Until the sports start happening and the gold medals start coming in, it's sometimes a bit tricky. But once those successes start happening, we've got heaps to talk about.
Because the events finish 2 o'clock in the afternoon, our time, we'll basically get to work around lunchtime, watch the last few hours of events and then we've got 8 hours to then plan the show.
I'm looking forward to it. I can't wait. I'm finding myself a little bit on edge at the moment because I really want to jump into it, but there's nothing that can be done just yet. Even when we start writing the show, we can't really write anything until the events happen.
Will there be an audience?
I think we're going to have an audience. Because we're at the BT Studios at the stadium, which is where we did the show from in 2012, I think we can have an audience of maybe 30 or 40 people.
We're going to try and get Paralympian's families in there, because it'll be a good connection for them to come and support them and watch The Last Leg, so we'll have around 30. But that's 30 more than we had in 2012.
What have you missed most about not having an audience?
This is genuinely what's been the hardest thing for me. Pre-Covid, we'd rehearse the show in the afternoon, I'd do my jokes that are in the script, I look to Josh and Alex - they don't do their jokes in rehearsal, they just go "Yep, I've got something" so it's kept fresh for the night.
For me, if the crew laugh in rehearsal, then it's like - well, that's a good joke. We'll keep that one in the show. And that's fine because then the audience would come in and if the crew laughed, the audience will probably laugh.
Without an audience, what happens is, we then go live and the crew have heard all my jokes so they try to laugh again out of politeness, but they end up giving a half-hearted "haha". What's really frustrating is you go "Come on! You loved this joke 7 hours ago!"
What's been lovely though, is that some of the guests - and Josh and Alex as well - have found it slightly more relaxed without an audience, and more enjoyable. Because what ends up happening, is you do the jokes you want to do not the jokes you think the audience will get.
Sometimes when there's an audience there, you think - I really want to say this, but I don't think anyone's going to laugh, so I won't - but when there's not an audience you just say it anyway because it doesn't really matter!
After nine years together, I imagine you, Alex and Josh are incredibly close now?
We definitely have. What's interesting now, is that we tend not to see each other outside of the show but I think we've fallen into that. So we know what when we do see each other on camera, we are genuinely excited to see each other again.
If we spent too much time together, by the time we get on air we'd just be making in jokes that the audience weren't across. Whereas now, genuinely, we get together on a Friday night and ask "What did you do with your week?".
One of our producers once described it as a comedy news show that's also a little bit of a sitcom.
Who have been your favourite guests in the past?
I think I was most excited when John Cleese was on the show. And not just because he was on the show, but because of the way he embraced it. He said he wanted to bring his cat on because if there are so many people who are famous who are not talented, then his cat should be famous. And he did!
The cat kept walking amongst the audience and what was more of a compliment was that at one point he went and got it and afterwards, said to me "If it was any other host, I'd have let the cat steal the attention, but I have to much respect for you, so I went and got the cat."
So John Cleese, but also Kathy Burke. She was a revelation when she came onto the show. I remember the first time she was on, people just lost their minds and asked us to have her on every week.
Charlotte Church was brilliant. And Al Gore. The reason I loved having Al Gore on the show, was because at one point before the show, one of the producers said to me "I've just run the whole show past Al Gore and he said he doesn't want to be on set when the dancing Donald Trump and the naked Vladimir Putin so we might have to do that before he comes out!"
That's when you know you're making a live news, comedy, TV show.
With series 23 confirmed for the autumn. Have you ever thought about when the show might end for good?
I'll tell you a secret, Josh, Alex and I, many years ago when the show started doing really well - around 2014/15 - went "How long do you think we've got in us?" - and I think at the time we said to each other "I reckon if we finish after Tokyo, that's a good place to end it."
But then, of course, Tokyo was put off for a year so we went "Let's go for another year" but I don't think any of us have any plans to end the show at the moment. As long as we keep enjoying it - and like I said, Covid has kept it fresh over the past 12 months, so now when we get an audience back it'll be a renewed excitement.
I don't know... it'll come down to as long as we're enjoying it and as long as the viewers are enjoying it, then we'll keep doing it.
And what I love about The Last Leg is how it can turn itself to any subject, especially with your special shows about elections or recently, the Euros...
Because of the Paralympics, we're at our best when we're reacting to something that's happened on the day. Even the most recent series, when we did the 90-minute Euros Final special - we kind of didn't plan that because we didn't want to jinx it.
We've learnt from both Brexit and Donald Trump's election - prepare for the most boring outcome. For instance, when Donald Trump was elected, we prepared a show assuming Hillary Clinton would win because we knew if she did, that would be the hardest show to make funny. And if Trump wins, don't worry. We've got this.
And the same kind of happened with England in the Euros. They played on the Wednesday night and we were writing a show that day and went - right, let's write a show that assumes England doesn't make it to the final. Because if they do, everything goes out the window and the show will write itself. And if they don't, we're going to have to work really hard to make the show funny.
That's why the Paralympics are such a joy to cover, because the first show will be mainly about the opening ceremony, but once the sport starts happening, we'll have plenty to talk about.
The Last Leg of Tokyo 2020 starts Tuesday 24th August at 10pm on Channel 4