Interview | Paul Sinha – "I’m not the kind of comic who’ll go on stage and slag off the Tories"
Any introduction to Paul Sinha usually contains one, if not all, of the following biographical details: a qualified GP, a keen quizzer, a sports obsessive and an openly gay man, he is perhaps most widely known as the “Sinnerman” on ITV’s award-winning tea time gameshow The Chase. Sinha is, however, all this and more. As a nominee for the Edinburgh Fringe’s 2006 if.comeddie prize, Sinha’s newest tour is a reclamation of his primary career choice: Paul Sinha is a Stand up Comedian. With the show coming to Leeds’ The Wardrobe on 27 January, LSi chatted to the Sinnerman about pressing issues in the comedic world: agency strangleholds, depoliticised stand up, and working on material whilst tucked up in bed.
Sinha’s previous two shows Looking at the Stars and Extreme Anti-White Vitriol came about thanks to encounters with the likes of Jim Davidson (who described Sinha as an “Indian poof”) and an infamous Jeremy Vine debate with the BNP’s deputy leader, Simon Darby. Yet his latest tour, an hour and a half show, adopts a more personal tone. “This is much more about saying ‘this is me’. It uses various stories and encounters to paint a picture of what it’s like to be me. I mean, stand up should be about what you are and what’s personal to you. You certainly won’t be hearing any jokes that have been told by anybody else.” Chuckling, he says “the jokes only really sound right coming out of my mouth.”
Having performed five critically acclaimed shows at Edinburgh, Sinha’s latest tour is a greatest hits of his stand up over the past few years: “I suppose what you’re seeing is a composite of all those shows. You have to work quite hard to give it a narrative logic and make sure everything is in the right place, as well as adding in the stuff that I’ve written since 2011 as well.” As Sinha tells me, the title of the show is very specifically chosen: “it’s there to remind people who might only know me from tele that I’ve been doing something else on the side, and doing it reasonably successfully too. It’s just a little gentle reminder.”
Enquiring about the process of piecing it all together and adding in new material, I ask Sinha whether he works mostly at a desk or develops his material onstage: “the physically accurate answer to the question is no, not so much at a desk.” Like James Joyce before him, Sinha does most of his writing in bed. “I used to work on material in the car, in between driving around to gigs, but I’m becoming less of a driver and more of a public transport man. It helps me turn up to gigs not completely exhausted.”
There is, though, a development process throughout a tour: “Sometimes you’re on stage and you just think. You can sit on a joke that works in an Edinburgh show and you don’t realise that it’ll work in a 20 minute show. It works vice versa as well. Nobody gets it right first time and there are bits that I do in a longer set that I know won’t work in a shorter one – no matter how much I want them to. It’s hard to let jokes go like that but it’s part of the process. It’s impossible to get everything right first go.”
Sinha stresses that a 90–100 minute show is by no means easy, even if you are working with material that’s well rehearsed. “You learn lessons as you go along. There’s no doubt about that.” Sinha’s more politically minded jokes are a case in point: “any politics have to be dealt with skilfully because people don’t like to be told how to think. I tend to refer to my comedy as socio-political. My material comes from a relentlessly left-liberal position and you have to work hard to sell that material, particularly to those who might not instinctively agree with your views. I’m not the kind of comic who’ll go on stage and slag off the Tories because I’m aware that 30% of the people in the country support them.
“What I would say, though, is that I’m happy to pick up on specific things the Tories are doing. I have a fair amount of stuff about gay marriage in my set. I prefer to take on an issue rather than people. I think that one of the reasons why political comedy has become slightly unfashionable is the realisation is that most politicians are as bad as each other.”
Talking about the alternative comedy scene of the 1980s, Sinha says “30 years on and I think that people just want to laugh now. That sort of strident comedy has become a little bit old fashioned. My ambition is to win people over, but to do it by making them laugh. That is the primary ambition of any stand up and it should remain the primary ambition. You’ve got to be realistic. You’re a jester, a clown. You’re not likely to change people’s political opinions.”
Sticking with the idea of ‘alternative’ comedy, I mention his participation in Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience, which returns for a second series this year. “Stewart came to see me at the Stand and liked my show. I’ve never thought of myself as ‘alternative’ but I see the reason that Stewart Lee thinks of me in that sense, because I’ve got an unusual comedic voice: a masculine, sports-obsessed, former doctor Asian gay man. He likes that comedy voice and I feel very flattered to be included. It’s nice to have his approval.
On the project itself: “I think what Stewart’s trying to do more than anything else is to provide an alternative to the mainstream comedy on television. He’s fighting against the fact that one or two massive comedy agencies control the stand up that you see on TV, which is why there are the same faces again and again. It’s become a problematic thing. Not necessarily for me, as I don’t think my material is completely accessible for the likes of Mock the Week, but there is a repetitiveness to the names that keep appearing on the panel shows and Live at the Apollo, where it seems pretty obvious to anyone that’s paying attention that certain small agencies have a stranglehold. More than anything else, the Alternative Comedy Experience is an alternative to that. I think that’s what really links the acts that are on: we are all studiously ignored by the powers that be.”
For Sinha, though, the live stand up scene is both richer and more diverse. Citing names like Daniel Kitson (“the king”) and Simon Munnery, he says “I like comedians who carve their own world.” And this, Sinha says, is what he is striving for: success on his own terms. How does his role on The Chase, then, affect this? “In many ways it hasn’t affected my stand up career at all. But on the other hand it really has. I’m now able to do a tour where people come because they’ve seen me on the show. The flip side, of course, is that people come and see my show without researching what sort of comedy I do.
“I did a gig in Liverpool where 85% of the room was lovely, but there were some people who just wouldn’t stop heckling stuff about The Chase. It was really tedious. I had to up the degree of how much I was taking the piss out of them and get the rest of the room on side. However, the tour thus far has gone well and I’ve been able to bring what I do to a more mainstream audience. It’s one long comedic experiment.”
Paul Sinha is a Stand up Comedian comes to The Wardrobe on 27 January. Tickets priced £12 and available from: https://www.lunatickets.co.uk/event_page.php?eventID=2608