Stand up comedian and quiz genius on The Chase, Paul Sinha is a man of many talents. Since giving up his job as a doctor, the comedy he describes as “honest storytelling mixed with proper jokes” has made him a favourite on the stand up circuit. He was nominated for the If.Comeddie Award in 2006 (now the Edinburgh Comedy Award) and can regularly be heard on Radio 4’s The Now Show. Since joining the formidable team of Chasers in 2011, Paul ‘the Sinnerman’ Sinha has made a name for himself with his intimidating knowledge of subjects from art to biology. It is a rare opportunity to be able to interview someone who can blow your mind with facts and split your sides with laughter, before medically treating your afflictions.
Sinha was a comedy fan from a young age, but it took a bump in the road to get him to actually consider taking to the stage. “The spur for trying it myself was having six months off after failing my medical finals in 1994 and going to a lot of comedy clubs, and becoming increasingly fascinated by whether it was possible for me to replicate what they were doing. I thought I ought to try it once. I thought I would never forgive myself if I’d never tried it.” His first gig wasn’t either of the clichés so often told of comedians having a riotously successful first gig, nor was it a horrendous experience of talking whilst three men and a dog sat in silence.
Instead it was “a really bad first two or three minutes that were genuinely terrifying, then it sort of came together in the next two or three minutes and it was a gig that was neither good nor disastrous. It was sort of somewhere in between. There were quite a few disastrous gigs in the first few or so I did, but they were always interspersed with quite good ones as well. So there was always just enough to keep me going.” His stand up has changed a lot since those first few gigs. “I used to just do jokes; that was all I did. It all started coming together in the mid-noughties. There’s this cliché about ‘finding your voice’. I think that started happening about six or seven years ago when I started moving from pure joke telling to more storytelling.”
The key to success also lay in taking more risks in his comedy. “I think it’s very important to get rid of the fear of failure and to just try other stuff. I think a lot o f people don’t take too many risks at the start because they just have to get booked. There’s a practical pragmatic approach to stand up comedy where you have the do the job and do it well to keep gigging and keep getting booked back at various venues. It’s quite hard to take risks and that’s where things like Edinburgh come in, because you have an hour and it’s your hour and you can do anything you like with that hour. Artistically speaking I’d always recommend people go up to Edinburgh, because it makes you develop as a comedian.”
Edinburgh, of course, went very well for Paul Sinha in 2006 when he was nominated for the If.Comeddie Award for his show, Saint or Sinha?, alongside acts such as We Are Klang and Russell Howard. Whilst he maintains that this was a highlight of his career, he also mentions that, “at the time it was incredibly stressful to go from not having any media attention to having media attention.”
Surprisingly, his parents were supportive of his decision to quit being a doctor and to try to make it as a full time comedian. “They are the classic template of an Asian parent. They’re interested in success. And the fact that I’m doing well is what is keeping them happy really. Heaven only knows what happens when I stop doing well. The career is a success so everything is fine.”
Luckily for Paul, it continues to be a success. This year, he will be appearing in three episodes of Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience on Comedy Central from February, as well as hitting the big screen in The Comedy Store: Raw and Uncut, which will be a series of stand up gigs, recorded at the legendary London venue, shown in cinemas around the UK from 22nd February.
He has not always been successful at everything, though. It took failure to lead him to getting so heavily involved with quizzes. “I took part in University Challenge: The Professionals in 2008, which was a spin-off of University Challenge, and I was in the ‘comedians’ team. We got absolutely walloped by a far, far more knowledgeable team and it was only then that I decided ‘I don’t like this feeling’ and that I’d like to take things more seriously. That was the moment that everything changed really and I decided that I wanted to take it seriously.”
This led him to learn about things he’d never given much thought to before. “Taking it seriously meant I needed to learn about the world of art and culture which as a medical student you kind of miss out on, with the very narrow way that you’re educated. I didn’t really know very much about literature and history of art and classical music and stuff, so I started getting myself interested in it. Bradley Walsh on The Chase now calls me ‘the art man’ because apparently I know more about art than any of the others. If someone had said that to me five years ago I would have laughed in their face as I had no appreciation for art at all. It’s just a case of broadening interests and broadening horizons. I was always going to get medical questions right or science questions right but it was the stuff that I didn’t know that I decided to work really hard on.”
There are some parts of Sinha’s knowledge that he didn’t have to work so hard for. “I can name every number one hit record of 1984, I don’t know why. I’ve never tried to sit down and learn a list of number one records of 1984, I just remember which songs were at number one when I was 14 years old. The developing brain is when things just stick, then as you get older you have to have a genuine keenness for knowledge, but one of the most artificial ways to gain a lot of general knowledge is to watch a lot of quizzes, of course.”
He had been dedicated to the quizzing world for a few years before an opportunity to try out for The Chase was presented to him. “I knew all the people on the show, because the quiz world is a world where you bump into people at events and at this that and the other. There were already three people on The Chase and I knew them all. ITV decided they wanted to bring on a fourth Chaser and I got a message on Facebook, of all things.” After rounds of auditions, he was selected. “I think they interviewed quite a few other quizzers, but luckily I was the one that they chose. I consider myself very lucky.”
And so ‘The Sinnerman’ was born. Unfortunately, he didn’t pick his own nickname. “I was ‘hands off’ from the whole thing. Because I couldn’t think of a nickname I just thought, ‘oh fine, you come up with something’. ‘The Sinnerman’ doesn’t really mean anything at all. It’s all right. I’m aware that because it doesn’t mean anything, people don’t realise that it’s a pun on my name. Some people think it’s something to do with cinnamon. We had someone on Twitter saying ‘Oh is his nickname ‘Cinnamon’ because he’s Indian?’ The answer to that is no. I don’t really concern myself with what I call producers’ decisions. I certainly didn’t pick the white suit!”
A lot of us might find being a professional quizzer a daunting experience, but for Paul it is a lot less stressful than other jobs he’s done. “My experience as a doctor has meant that The Chase doesn’t feel like real pressure. My experience as a stand up has given me the confidence to just express myself and say what’s on my mind, really. Everything you do in life shapes how you react to a certain situation, but when I’m in the final chase I just try to enjoy it, because I’m a very lucky man to be doing this job. It is a game show and we are meant to lose from time to time and whilst it’s very upsetting when we lose, if we didn’t lose then nobody would watch the show.”
Before I finished the interview, I had one question that I simply had to ask: “who would win in a quiz if it was the Eggheads versus all four Chasers?”
“I would have to say that in nearly all formats the Eggheads would win, unless there was an awful lot of pop culture. We’re stronger on the pop culture side of things but the fact of the matter is that the Eggheads contains two of the best quizzers in the world in Kevin Ashman and Pat Gibson, and no matter how good we like to think we are, we aren’t quite in their league. We could fancy ourselves against any of the others, just not Kevin and Pat.”
You can’t help but be amazed at anyone who’s so talented in so many areas. It is clear that Paul Sinha is determined to excel at everything he attempts, and excel he does. What I found most remarkable about him is that he uses failure as an opportunity, instead of just wallowing in it. Funny, clever, and a qualified doctor, I don’t think you can help but feel a little bit jealous.