Interview: Paul Sinha, comedian
By brian pendreigh
Paul Sinha is British-Asian, "openly gay" (his phrase), a qualified doctor, a stand-up comedian with a show at the Fringe and one of Britain's top quizzers - a skill which has just got him his own TV slot.
He declares most of this at the start of his show at the Stand Comedy Club, then complains that journalists always ask him the same questions, beginning "What's it like to be ... " He then proceeds to run through the list of questions I had for after the show. Journalists are always very interested in his parents, he says. "What do they think of you? Do they know you're gay? Do they know you're Asian?" And I cross another topic off my list.
Afterwards I meet Sinha in the Cumberland Bar, just round the corner from his festival flat, and, hey!, it's quiz night. This could be the last chance for Sinha to play a pub quiz as just another anonymous punter. The comedian is the new resident professional quizzer on The Chase, ITV's hit teatime show, in which members of the public set a target for a professional quizzer to reach and thereby deprive them of several thousand pounds. His first shows will be broadcast within the next few weeks, making him a regular teatime visitor to several million British homes.
We enter the quiz under my regular name of The Dude Abides (it's a Big Lebowski reference, but you knew that). Sinha became an "obsessive" pub quizzer while at medical school, he explains. What was the attraction? "Self improvement," he says simply. Many comedians fancy themselves as quizzers, he continues. Five years ago, he was part of a team of comedians on University Challenge: The Professionals. They got hammered by a team of civil servants. "That day changed my life," he announces dramatically. He determined to put in the serious hours on battles and ballets to compete at the top level.
He jokes that he has met all sorts of people through quizzing - "civil servants and retired civil servants". I should own up that I first met Sinha through quizzing - there is a whole grand prix circuit in England, attended not just by civil servants, but by doctors, dentists, lawyers, academics, IT people and professional quizzers.
The Cumberland Bar quiz is a mix of general knowledge questions and quirky lists. There is a round on models of Lotus car. Like me, Sinha has no interest in cars, while there is a team of policemen who have probably stopped every Lotus model there is. On the music round we have to identify the singer from the song title and then get the link between the five answers. The first song is Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, at which point, after just one song, Sinha correctly predicts the link will be US presidents.
The only other song we know is George Harrison's My Sweet Lord, but Sinha can make a decent stab at listing all the presidents and we end up with four out of the five artists by guessing Bryan Adams and Rita Coolidge.
In the last round we are asked for the top ten gas-producing countries in the world and Sinha is confident the former Soviet "stans" will be there. They are not, but we win anyway, because we got virtually all the general knowledge answers. Sinha maintains he has no life plan, but enjoys the privilege of standing in front of an audience and saying whatever he wants, and he enjoys getting paid to pursue his hobby of quizzing. He hopes television exposure might encourage more people to come and see him on stage.
Sinha's material is essentially autobiographical and contains repeated references to his sexuality, including a story about how he was on a TV show with James Corden and Stuart Broad. Corden embarrassed Sinha by telling Broad that Sinha found him attractive, except Corden was rather more graphic. But he sometimes gets called a political comedian. The title of his Fringe show last year, Extreme Anti-White Vitriol, came from an accusation levelled against him when he appeared on Radio 2 with the BNP's Simon Darby.
While he gets angry about various things, though, it is not the vitriolic fury of some comedians. He comes across as a pint half-full sort of guy, although he never seems to reach the end of a pint, Landlord or Peroni. I have never seen a slower drinker.
In his new show he describes getting mugged, but they are robberies without violence. The first time was in a library when he was doing trigonometry homework and some young ruffians demanded his protractor, compass and set square, and he meekly handed them over. "I reject victimhood on my part," he says. "My life has not been defined by being British Asian or gay. My life has been defined by having aspirational parents." His father was a doctor, like his father before him, and his mother was a nurse.
They arrived in England from Calcutta in 1968, two years before he was born. Sinha points out that the city is correctly spelled Kolkata, as I jot down the details. Yes, but the name did not officially change until 2001, Paul.
He went to Dulwich College, a private school in London, and there was a "general understanding" that he would become a doctor. It is significant that he trained at St George's Hospital medical school. He arrived just as Harry Hill left and found there was "a buzz about the whole concept of comedy".
There are many links between medicine and comedy, from Jonathan Miller, Graeme Garden and Graham Chapman to MASH and Sirens. "There's a mordent humour in medicine that lends itself to comedy, and there's a nerdiness about comedy that lends itself to quizzes," says Sinha.
"I like comedians who have life experiences. There's two aspects of it - a, the things you can talk about; b, the perspective. I've had to deal with death and grieving relatives, and that gives you a perspective of how relatively unimportant comedy is."
Essentially he does not so much rail against life as laugh at it, with himself as the central character. "It's almost like being a sitcom writer," he says. "There are one-liners there, but I try and write jokes that are funny within the context." Last year it was Paul Sinha and the BNP; this year it was an encounter with right-wing comedian Jim Davidson. Previously it was his adventures in quizzing.
At the Cumberland Bar the quizmaster asks Sinha to autograph one of the flyers for his show, "in case you ever become famous". So was that his last ever pub quiz as an anonymous punter? Not exactly. Looking for the most recent internet entries on Paul Sinha, I come across someone called Doug Robertson tweeting from the Cumberland bar.
"Paul Sinha has walked into the pub. We've got no chance of winning the quiz tonight," he wrote. You got that one right, Doug.
• Paul Sinha is at the Stand Comedy Club until 28 August. Today 10:40pm.