Every so often, we’ll have a little break from my gig diary. This is one of those.
Stand-up has been compared to a lot of things. Death. Sex. Having hot pins stuck in your eyes (my mum said that). But there’s one comparison I’ve heard over and over again:
IS STAND-UP LIKE BOXING?
Of course it friggin isn’t. Boxers train ALL THE TIME. Comedians inhale late night Ginsters pasties and beer. Boxers get PHYSICALLY hurt loads. Comedians… only sometimes. The end.
Still, the comparison gets made. Because of the potential public failure, the adrenaline rush and the fact that most people think you’re MAD.
“I’d rather do a round with Tyson Fury.” “It’s like walking into the ring.” “I was literally on the ropes.”
The best weapons are words and humour and comedians have a huuuuge freedom of public speech but is is comedy dangerous? Jerry Sadowitcz once got punched onstage twice after greeting a Canadian audience with “Hello Moosef*ckers”. Admittedly, this was not caused by knife-edge political debate. I’ve certainly seen a comedian or two betray the desire to collectively punch an audience. (Yep, that King Gong night.)
So, a week before I embark on my 2nd attempt at King Gong, I thought it timely to post this comparison of pant-staining terror comparisons. AND coz I actually know TWO WHOLE boxers. Coz I’m THAT ‘ard.
Paul Smith Jr. is a professional boxer and Liverpool legend from a family of legends. He and his boxer brothers, Stephen, Liam, and Callum became the first group of siblings to all win ABA titles (yeah, totally pretending I know what that means) and my heart goes out to his mum, Margaret, clearly the super legend behind them all, who must own the largest supply of band aids in any household.
Paul has held the English middleweight title in 2008; the British super-middleweight title twice between 2009 and 2014; and has challenged three times for a super-middleweight world title. I had the honour of working with him last year on ITV drama set in Liverpool, Little Boy Blue and, like most of the cast, couldn’t get enough of his tales of survival and water retention.
First up, I asked PSJ about the acting lark:
S-UV: Were you nervous at the audition or filming?
PSJ: Very. For one reason only. The actors I was working with are proper pros. I’ve watched them on TV and admire their craft and yet I’m now trying to hold my own with zero experience so it was scary, yes.
S-UV: Why d’you think comedians make parallels between stand-up and boxing?
PSJ: Because it’s technically the same scenario, on your own trying to please a crowd. Some crowds are tougher than others!
S-UV: Do they have a point??!
PSJr: Very much so. I’ve had fights the crowd just wasn’t getting. I’d hate to be on stage feeling that way.
S-UV: You regularly commentate matches. Would you ever do stand-up??!
PSJr: I’m not funny enough! I’m sharp with skirting friends but the first non interested crowd I got I’d shit myself.
S-UV: At best, a comic can get booed, heckled, have piss thrown at them – at worst, get ignored and make no impact whatsoever on humankind. Yet some stupid thing makes them do it anyway. Mostly self-belief laced with arrogance. (My mum says masochism). What’s your excuse?
PSJ: Desire to win and prove yourself at first. Now it’s a job and essentially although I still want to win and prove myself every bit as much; I need to provide for my family!
I ask the same question to James Simpson (JS), who is the grandson of a beloved ex-boss of mine and is currently trying his hand at amateur boxing. Which I think is MAAAADNESS but have massive admiration for. He has a very different answer:
JS: Oddly it’s quite refreshing getting punched in the face.
(Although James’ grandmother, my ex-boss is no longer with us, I can totally imagine her reaction to these words. She had a good measure of a person’s worth. She hired me to write advertorials for her newspaper. But used me mostly to send out for sweets.)
S-UV: I get a kick out of doing what most people can’t or won’t do. Is that maybe, a little bit why you guys got into boxing?
PSJr: I was shit at football! 😂 No, I loved the Rocky movies growing up, and The Champ etc. Always felt I’d box and wanted to be a boxer since I was about 4.
JS: It was time to stand up to me and face my demons. Fight or flight time. I choose to fight.
S-UV: Talking of fight or flight: before a gig, I hear a tiny voice saying “you’re clearly INSANE, run away, leave the country” Do you have that voice? What do you say to it?
PSJr: I’ve sat there before fights watching men in the crowd having a drink wishing I could swap places with them for a split second then I realise I’m being daft and stop. It’s all in the mind.
JS: No. Quite the opposite. LET’S GO! LET’S F*CKING HAVE IT YOU C*NT! You’ve done the hard work, now to BUSINESS.
S-UV: My teeth have actually chattered the day BEFORE a gig. How do you feel the morning of a big match? How does that develop during the day?
PSJr: The very second I wake up my stomach turns. It’s nerves. Not fear as such but the feeling of knowing tonight’s the night.
JS: I was anticipating my victory. I was a complete arsehole psyching myself up, thinking merciless thoughts. Hard when you’ve got so much love around you so had to take myself out the house and try and find calm. Was a crazy arse day. Put it that way.
(Yeah, this is where we part company in experience. OBVIOUSLY. I never face such defeat, such physical injury at a gig. So the psyching-up bit doesn’t need to be as epic. Saying that, I’ve never done Live at the Apollo. I should have got Sara Pascoe to talk to these men.)
S-UV: I meet a lot of unhinged comedians. We’re certainly a trolley short. Do you think boxers are wired differently to do what you do?
PSJr: I think we have to be. I’d like to think I was a nice person and a family man and decent etc but I know I could punch someone unconscious and enjoy doing it for the win. Which is a bit warped.
JS: I’ve struggled to find truth in today’s society. I’ve found that fighters are the realest of the real. There’s something truthful about getting smacked about the place, returning the favour then having a cuddle with the bloke you’re fighting afterwards.
(Ah. Now wait a minute. I have NEVER cuddled a comedian. This is a crucial difference. I would never want to, nor have I ever felt the invitation to. We are nice to each other, we offer support but secretly we are competition, the enemy. True camaraderie is build from mutual shared danger. Men and women in war, in the trenches, across the pitch, the inevitable bonding from having survived. Mind you, I’ve heard some comedians who’ve done corporate events say similar… And I’ve never done a Hen Do in Wolverhampton.)
S-UV: Comedians deal with nerves and adrenaline in many ways. Breathing techniques, mostly alcohol… How do you prepare mentally for a fight? Do you have a routine? Habits?
PSJr: I’ve had every superstition known to man, but a loss means I can forget them all. They obviously didn’t work! I rest, relax, have a little walk, drink a couple of coffees then sleep for an hour before leaving for the venue. All the while eating whatever fuel I need to fight. I wear the same colours every fight – my old amateur club colours.
JS: I tell myself that he hurt my kids and or at least tried to or I picture my dad and repeat LET’S GO CHAMP, LET’S GO CHAMP, LET’S GO CHAMP. But also anyone who steps in that ring deserves respect. We’re all winners.
(This last comment from James is straight up Method acting training. Taught at the Lee Strasberg Studio, at RADA… And here it is working in the boxing ring. Brilliant.)
S-UV: What do you feel about the possibility of failing? If it occurs to you at all?
PSJr: It’s never nice. Heartbreaking at times knowing you’ve put your heart and soul into this but fell short. You get the idiots sticking the boot in and laughing or giving abuse but I know they couldn’t do what we do in a decade of Sundays. They’re irrelevant.
JS: I’m comfortable with failure. It’s better to fail then never try. Embarrassment is slightly more demoralising. So best to train hard and fight easy.
S-UV: I’ve not yet lifted a car off someone before a gig but you must have a healthy respect for adrenaline poisoning?
PSJr: Adrenaline is great. I need it. Punches don’t hurt with adrenaline!! You can’t fight without it.
JS: You all share what it feels like. We pull each other through or challenge each other as a unit. You become a family very quickly.
(Yep, I’ve definitely felt camaraderie before and after a gig. Not from everyone but the faces you keep bumping into, you bond with quite quickly. A shared experience of adrenaline poisoning before “facing the crowd”. And the group high after survival.)