Comedian Paul Sinha, a star of quiz show The Chase, has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He speaks to Hazel Davis about the past 12 months, ahead of a show in Harrogate.
The last 12 months have been, in his own words, simultaneously the worst and best of comedian Paul Sinha’s life.
He’s getting married in December, he’s the popular star of ITV’s The Chase, he’s on fire on the British quizzing scene. He’s also just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
The former GP turned comic isn’t minimising his condition when he says: “With two elderly parents and a severely autistic nephew, I’m only the fourth most unwell member of my immediate family.”
Instead he’s approaching the news as any comedian would do. “One of my better-known routines in 2007 was about being punched in the head in Glasgow by a complete stranger on a Friday night,” he says.
“By Saturday morning I was already writing a routine. It’s your job as a comedian to make light from darkness and I now have something I really, really want to make funny in an honest and truthful way – not just something about having the shakes.
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“There are two sides to Paul Sinha as a comedian – oh, God, I just referred to myself in the third person,” he laughs.
“There is the side of me that stands on stage on Friday and Saturday nights and delivers jokes to drunk people and there is the longer-form version that stands on stage for an hour and a half painting bigger pictures.
“And I am really proud that I have been successful at both. The longer-form version deals with honesty and truth and there is no doubt that every comedian I can think of who, if they were diagnosed with something bad, would be thinking, ‘How can I make this funny?’ I’m not ashamed to say it was one of my first thoughts too.”
Sinha was born in the UK to Bengali parents and started stand-up as a medical student. In 2006 he was nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for his second full-length show Saint or Sinha? – an insightful delve into his sexuality and lad culture.
After the nomination he left medicine to become a full-time comic and popular headliner on the UK and international circuit.
Since then he’s also become a household face and voice with appearances on QI, The News Quiz, Just A Minute, Would I Lie to You? and Taskmaster. You’ll probably know him as a general-knowledge expert on The Chase, hosted by Bradley Walsh, which he’s appeared on since 2011.
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Sinha’s first inkling that there was something wrong came after a frozen shoulder he’d had since September 2017 failed to get better, even after an operation. His physio suggested it was a neurological problem and, says Sinha: “I knew something was up and I had to get it seen to as soon as possible.”
Two days after his 49th birthday he got a diagnosis which will mean parts of his brain become progressively damaged over the years.
Though he says he “shut down” for a couple of weeks while all other conditions were excluded, he says there was a degree of relief in the eventual diagnosis. “At the end of the day, there are lots of neurological conditions that are worse. I finally had some control, some agency.”
The rest of the story he describes in his show, A Hazy Little Thing Called Love, which is at Harrogate Comedy Festival on October 15.
He cancelled his Edinburgh show after his diagnosis but kept the name because, he says, “it’s still relevant to what’s going on in my life at the moment and what’s going to keep me going over the next 20 years is the love and support of a huge variety of people”.
Fundamentally, he says, “it’s the story of the strangest two years of my life. It’s not mawkish and not overly sentimental. The idea is that it’s funny.”
The quizzing will continue, of course. Sinha has been an avid quizzer all his life. “It’s a huge part of who I am.” As a student in the 90s he says he was earning £50-£60 a week “fleecing” pub quiz machines and he represented his junior and senior school at quizzing.
He appeared on Celebrity University Challenge in 2007 where “we got battered and that’s when I vowed to get better. I had no idea where it would take me but in 2010 I finished 31st in the World Quizzing Championships. Not bad really.
“One thing I absolutely need to do more of is quizzing,” he says, “as I have a constant assessment of my cognitive skills. Luckily my fiancé (whom he met on the quiz scene) is also a quizzer so I get him to fire questions at me.”
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The Chase has been supportive, Sinha says. “If I think I am not delivering the goods I’ll stop. I am a very proud quizzer but if my illness stopped me answering questions then there are very complicated insurance policies to do with financial losses and wins.”
Of the new show, which he’s touring for five dates in October and November, he says: “It’s just the show I was going to write, as well as all the extra pathos and ‘I’ve got Parkinson’s’ bits.”
He’s excited to be back in Yorkshire too. “I played Abanazar in panto in York in 2016 and one of my dad’s best mates from medical school lives in Harrogate and we spent many cherished Christmases there. I have a love affair with Harrogate that goes back 35 years.”
Far from daunted about this new post-diagnosis persona (if there is such a thing), Sinha says he’s excited. “I’ve got things to say. Every time I do a gig where I am feeling nervous I say, ‘Paul, you chose this. Nobody’s forcing you. This is a career path you chose’”
The idea, as it always has been, is to be funny. “Standing on stage in front of an audience and saying anything you like is thrilling.”
Well, perhaps not anything. “Filter is very important. It would be a wonderful world if we could all say what was on our mind but the world isn’t that simple.
“Sometimes you think of a joke and think, ‘Well I’ll have to keep that to myself’. That’s just the way it is. Life IS censorship. I did material last year about people who say, ‘I just say it how I see it’. Don’t. You can’t just go through life saying it as you see it. You’re just going to upset a load of people. Even the most outspoken comedians will self-censor. A lot of really funny jokes are fundamentally morally objectionable.”
Moreover, he says, it’s about comedic brand. “I’m Paul Sinha, the cuddly chaser from the ITV quiz show and though there are jokes in my set that are a bit brutal, they’re still consistent with my comedy identity.”
That conflict of cuddly TV persona and live, in-the-moment stand-up, can be a tricky one for fans to navigate. It’s hard for the comic too. “It can be a real pressure to know people might be paying decent money to come and see you and might not enjoy it. But you just have to be true to yourself.”
As for the future, who knows? “I’ve been more than a lucky person in my life,” Sinha says, matter of factly, “and I don’t have time to wallow. Self-pity isn’t going to help my health.”
Instead, he says: “I would like to be the poster boy for the general concept that you shouldn’t let ill-health stop you living the life you want.”