Saint or Sinha?
A fat, gay, Asian doctor? Sounds like material for a comedy act. But Paul Sinha prefers to joke about minor moments – like being on a quiz show with Pat Kenny. He talks to Brian Boyd
IF COMEDY prizes were awarded to the best line, then Paul Sinha would have won last year’s If.Com award (formerly the Perrier) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. A coruscating routine about how the media report murder cases finished with a line about the coverage afforded the violent death of model Sally Anne Bowman. That unprintable line alone, should have been enough for the If. Com panel but the overall award went to Phil Nichol.
There was some surprise that BritishAsian thirtysomething Sinha had even been nominated for the award. Viewed as a journeyman club comic who had underwhelmed on his last appearance on the Fringe with his Aspects Of Love, Actually show in 2004 (a comic deconstruction of Richard Curtis’s vile Love Actually film), he skipped 2005’s festival, and returned last year with the finely tuned and commendably lean Saint or Sinha show. It was Sinha’s long day’s journey into comedy light.
“After the Aspects show in 2004 made no impact with either critics or audiences, I realised that having an OK show simply isn’t enough to compete with the very best in Edinburgh,” he says. “I needed a passionate piece, and found that in a largely autobiographical show. I worked and worked on it to get it just right. It was largely a question of moving from what I usually do on the comedy circuit, which is to play 20 minutes to drunks, to doing 60 minutes to sober people at Edinburgh. The fringe is a meritocracy – it’s not what you do on the circuit for the rest of the year, it’s what you do in your hour here that counts. Also because most of the press don’t cover comedy except for August in Edinburgh, I was new to them and came with no baggage. Hence the surprise in certain quarters about my nomination.”
Most of the press coverage around Sinha fixates on his “I’m a gay, Asian, overweight doctor” status – almost to the point of tedium. “I suppose I’m very much aware of the fact that you do need an angle for an Edinburgh show,” he says. “But with the Aspects show, I did completely break free of that – of that ticking those four Asian/gay/overweight/doctor boxes. But then some people said to me after that show: ‘I really preferred the other stuff.’ So it’s hard to know, but I do have to speak about who I am.”
Ironically, his best material lies outside his labels – there is little about his Asian background in his material; his daytime work has no real relevance to his act (and ethically, doctors can’t tell tales out of school); he’s not unconscionably fat and the material that is informed by his sexuality can be somewhat relentlessly self-deprecating.
When he bounds free of the socio-demographics though, he displays artfully sculpted lines that precision bomb legitimate targets. Whether taking the pulse of an ailing society (sorry) or just kicking through the fallen leaves of celebrity culture, Sinha can be mordantly penetrative.
In this year’s show, King Of The World, he celebrates two of his peak experiences. “It’s essentially two long anecdotes,” he says. “The first is about me appearing on an obscure satellite television quiz show in 1990 called Intellect, which was presented by (RTÉ’s) Pat Kenny, and how I correctly answered a question about the currency and national emblem of Guatemala. The second is about a week I spent in Las Vegas in 2003 and where I won $2,500 on the roulette table. The show is about those moments in your life when you’re feeling your best.”
Away from the narrative structure, Sinha also talks about binge drinking, social awkwardness, and his consuming obsession with trivia.
No longer a surprise package, he had to work harder this year to retain interest and he delivered in a briskly paced and tersely written show. Stagecraft, though, obviously isn’t a priority for him: he tells rather than shows.
As a non-camp gay comic, Sinha has confused people force fed on a diet of shrill se- quin-shirted gay performers. Twelve years ago, when he had just started out as a comic, a well-known and key comedy booker saw his act and said to him afterwards: “Whatmade you chose this pretending to be gay thing, Paul?”
Disturbingly, it has taken the emergence of Sinha as a comic of real merit to highlight the fact that the interests and ideas of gay men in the performing arts run farwider and deeper than are still generally assumed. “I think there are an awful lot of non-effeminate gay men out therewho simply aren’t represented in the arts, media and culture,” he says. “Because they don’t imbibe gay culture they can feel excluded – for example, in last year’s show I talked about being a gay football fan. I do get e-mails from people who have seen the show about this. You can be gay and be something else as well. You don’t have to sign up to any stereotype.”
Not that Sinha would canvas for a figurehead role in the putative New Jerusalem of a “post-gay” society. “To be honest with you, I do comedy as an artistic statement and to make people laugh,” he says. “I don’t set out to inspire people or make people feel better about their lives. If those are by-products of what I do, then good, but it’s really not what I’m setting out to do. All I’m trying to do is to be Paul Sinha the stand-up comedian.” Paul Sinha plays the IFI, Eustace Street, Dublin on September 15th and September 16th (10.15pm) as part of the Bulmers International Comedy Festival. www.myspace.com/paulsinha