Stuart Goldsmith will be performing his show, Compared To What, in Cambridge on 6th MayYouTube: Comedy Central UK

Sunday morning. The phone rings. Stuart Goldsmith, a stand-up comedian, is calling from outside the Sheffield Arena, having arrived overnight on a tour bus. He is tired, he tells me; last night he supported Jack Whitehall’s show at Wembley in front of 12,000 people. As opening lines go, that’s not too bad. I politely thank him for confirming the mundanity of my own academic existence.

Goldsmith is anything but mundane; even his route into stand-up confounds expectations. “For ten years, I was a street performer in Covent Garden,” he begins laconically.  “I started when I was about 16 and accidentally discovered the art of how to walk on broken glass – don’t ask for details.” Having thrown together a street-circus show with a friend, he began performing in Stratford-upon-Avon. “We made £30 from our first show, juggling and fire-breathing.  It wasn’t quite Shakespeare, but who cares when you’re 16? I went from there to Covent Garden, then to the Edinburgh Fringe. It was only a matter of time before my courage got the better of my fear and I swapped street shows for stand-up.”

“Most comics are either running towards something – fame, perhaps – or running away from something – like fear”

Stuart Goldsmith

With my curiosity piqued and my bitterness forgotten, I ask him what life was like as a London street performer. “It’s like being a bank robber,” comes the reply. I laugh, but he continues. “No, really!  I love heist films. I love the scenes where the conmen just blag their way through. And street performers are confidence tricksters; you have to reel an audience in. You just go out and start talking. And by an effort of courage and wit and chutzpah, you turn a street full pedestrians into a show. Or rather, you turn a street with no pedestrians in it into a show. You have to literally claw a performance together out of thin air. What’s so magical is that, on the one hand, it’s so base but, on the other hand, you genuinely get to make theatre happen. So, yeah: a street performer is a cross between an RSC actor and a conman.”

Is that how aspiring Cambridge comics should hone their craft, then - out in the market square, rather than the glittery ADC?  This time it’s Goldsmith’s turn to laugh. “They really might benefit from it! It does wonders for your confidence. If you can start a show in front of no-one, in the least theatrical environment possible, then Wembley seems easy by comparison.” I sense a sly grin on the other end of the line.

“In all seriousness, the best advice I can give is to be yourself as much as possible. That’s hard, especially when you’re young and you feel the pressures to fit a comedic stereotype. I wasted time trying to be what I thought a comedian should be. What you should do is be funny: be you, being funny. Comedy is a life-long struggle – a zen struggle – to be your most honest, most funny self.” There’s a pause, and the punchline follows: “My other advice would be to listen to my podcasts. We’ve all got to make a living somehow.”

Goldsmith’s podcasts are fast becoming the stuff of legends. On his podcast site “Comedian’s Comedian”, he has interviewed 200 comics. The last four editions featured Stewart Lee, Paul Chowdhry and Cambridge’s own Phil Wang. “I’m in real debt to them,” he explains, “I’ve seen how they create their material, how they cope with their creative life; how they manage their careers and their mental health.”

“The key thing I’ve learnt is that everybody suffers from uncertainty, anxiety and imposter syndrome – with the possible exception of Jimmy Carr, who is is an indestructible force of will.  But everybody else wobbles. Knowing that is very important, because fear and self-doubt are the enemies of good work.  Most comics are either running towards something – fame, perhaps – or running away from something – like fear. Focus on either one too much and you’ll go off the rails. Finally, I’ve seen how all comics have to compromise; you can be a comedian, a friend and a family man but which one takes precedence?”

It suddenly strikes me that Goldsmith’s rock’n’roll life as a touring comic is not so removed from the average Cambridge experience: anxiety, imposter syndrome, asking how far you are willing to go are (over)familiar to most here. 

“Comedy grows and absorbs the rest of your life; only do it if it's all you think about”

Stuart agrees: “When people feel a pressure to be the best, be it academic or creative, you have to make choices. And, having spoken to some of the most significant comedians of our time, I know that it costs you something. There are sacrifices to be made. I know some hard-working comics; I know some rich comics; I know some famous comics – and they’re not always the same people.” This begs an obvious, if sensitive, question though: has Goldsmith found his own sacrifices to be worthwhile?

“Yes!”, fortunately, is the exuberant answer. “I love it!  I love, first and foremost, the idea of making people laugh. I also love that I don’t have to live a monotonous, office-block, 9-to-5 life. But comedy grows and absorbs the rest of your life; only do it if it's all you think about. I’m obsessed with it, so I’m enormously fortunate to have turned it into a career. But there are people who think of creative careers, comedy among them, as a route to fame and riches. That’s not enough. A true comedian is somebody who walks on stage, gets no laughs, comes off and says “Let me have another go”. Take that ADC hacks, I think silently, as he continues.

“You have to prioritise driving half way across the country for a twenty-minute show, with no guarantee of success, instead of going to your best mate’s party. The first few times you miss your friends’ parties, it feels pretty sexy – “Sorry guys, can’t come, got a show!” – but by the fifth time, nobody notices you’re missing.  By the sixth time, they don’t even invite you. And that hurts. So, you’ve got to ask yourself – how far am I willing to go? In many ways, you’re escaping drudgery. But there’s an awful lot of road miles to cover too.”

Stuart Goldsmith will be performing his new stand-up show, Compared to What, at 7pm on Saturday 6th May at the Cambridge Junction. Tickets cost £11.50 and are available here