Comedian Paul Smith: From online jokes to playing arenas

Paul Smith on stage at Hot Water Comedy Club in Liverpool
[Hot Water Comedy]

Online videos of Paul Smith roasting his audience members have made him a stand-up comedy star. He's now able to fill arenas and has just headlined the launch of the UK's biggest comedy club, on home turf in Liverpool.

It can be a common sight at comedy gigs for the front seats to be conspicuously empty, avoided by punters who don't want to get picked on.

Paul Smith's early stand-up shows were no different. "People used to come in and we used to have to really cajole them into the front row," he says.

About five years ago, that changed.

"When the videos went on [social media], there was this almost overnight shift where people were like, 'I want the front, I want to be in a video.'"

Attention-seeking audience members realised a spot in the front row could make them the star of a viral clip. The only catch was that Smith would publicly make fun of their job, relationship or other distinguishing features.

Comedian Paul Smith
Smith started comedy in 2006 by going on a four-week stand-up comedy course [Hot Water Comedy Club Liverpool]

Staff now look out for those who are a bit too eager. "If someone's too keen to be at the front, we're going to probably sit you at the back," he says.

As well as changing the audience behaviour, the success of Smith's videos also changed the course of his career.

His new tour is his biggest yet, a mixture of theatres and arenas, lasting more than a year. Some fans have booked the front seats specifically and have been gearing up for a battle of banter.

"People have been mentally prepping for, like, eight months for it," Smith says. "A lot of the time it's fine because I expect that.

"I'm really good at reading body language, so I know the people who are waiting for me and the people who aren’t.

"But sometimes people have caught me out. Like one guy who pretended to be deaf for an hour. And that was, to be fair, very funny."

Entrance to Hot Water Comedy Club
The new Hot Water Comedy Club is in Liverpool's Blackstock Market development [BBC]

Smith is speaking in the Hot Water Comedy club in Liverpool. His dog, a cockapoo called Cyril, has been dutifully following him everywhere and eventually curls up in between us as the interview goes on.

The club opened its new 589-capacity venue last month in an old transport depot just outside the city centre, and was billed as the biggest comedy club in the world.

"It's second now," Smith says in mock disgruntlement after the discovery that the Laugh Factory in Long Beach, California, is slightly bigger.

"So we’re the biggest in Europe."

Hot Water Comedy began in a nightclub in 2010, and is now at the heart of the new £7m Blackstock Market development. The club's expansion has gone hand-in-hand with Smith's own success.

He started in 2006 by going on a four-week stand-up comedy course - a radical solution to chronic shyness, he explains.

"It just seemed like bungee jumping for confidence. I was like, if you can do that, you can do anything. I never had any intention of doing it [as a career]."

To his surprise, he found he was strangely comfortable on stage.

"I just became this different person, larger than life - and it's quite addictive, that. So I haven't been able to go back since."

Paul Smith on stage at Hot Water Comedy Club in Liverpool
Smith's own family feature heavily in his stories [Hot Water Comedy Club Liverpool]

He did give up on stand-up for a spell after struggling to make his name on the circuit for the first few years.

"I just had a bad time. It's quite a lonely job, comedy, especially when it's not going that well. Especially when you're fairly new and you're getting a Megabus to London and then you’re dying on your arse for 10 minutes and getting a Megabus back.

"It became quite demoralising. A lot of hotel rooms alone. Which is why I've got the dog," he says.

When brothers Paul and Binty Blair launched Hot Water, they persuaded Smith to host the open mic night once a week. It went so well that he ended up as resident compere - providing ample opportunity to craft his crowd skills.

When Hot Water suggested putting the clips online, he was initially reluctant.

"I argued that," he admits. "But, yeah, they were correct, and over the last five years it's snowballed.

"It's become this monster, this huge thing that can fill arenas. It's crazy."

'I'm not that harsh'

Smith's audience interactions usually start with an innocent "Hiya mate, what's your name?" followed by "What do you do?"

From there, it quickly escalates into a character assassination delivered with a smile. He is cheeky rather than cruel. That's how he sees himself, anyway.

People who stop him on the street often have the impression that he's more cutting than he actually is, he says.

"It's weird. People have this perspective. If I walk around town, people will be like, ‘Take the piss out of my mate and say this about him’. And I'm like, it's not really what I do.

"I think people's perception of me is a lot more harsh than I actually am. If you actually watch the videos properly, I'm not that harsh."

Some of his victims might beg to differ, and Smith does volunteer an example of one front row member who said he wasn't working because he had cancer.

Getting into trouble

That sparked a tirade from Smith about how "selfish" the man was for bringing up his illness - before a pause and a laughter-punctuated apology.

"I only did that because I could see his family laughing, and I could feel the energy in the room, and I knew that was a fine thing to do in the room," he says.

"When the clips go out, it's weird because you’re cutting a lot of the context of the whole rest of the show out, and what's been established before and after."

Clips like that can get him into "a little bit of trouble" when they're posted online, he says.

"There's been a couple of them when I’ve watched the clip back, going, 'is that going to come across OK'?

"But if I know I've done the right thing in the moment, I'm all right with it.

"And with that one, I had his family message me going, 'That’s the first time I’ve seen him laugh in a year'. So I was like, if he's fine with it, then we're probably fine."

Funniest city?

Smith's own family aren't spared either, and feature heavily in his stories. He says he runs his material past them first, and claims they're also fine with being included.

However, it's hard not to wonder what his children will really think about some of the things he's said about them and his wife.

"The stories about my wife, for example, although they're quite open and explicit, she always wins. Which is true in real life.

"She's quite happy with that. I'm usually the butt of the joke in the story, at the end of the day."

Smith is the biggest star to have emerged from the Hot Water stable, and the likes of Adam Rowe, Jamie Hutchinson and Tony Carroll have also come through the venue.

"Now I would go so far as to say is Liverpool has probably got the strongest stable of comics in the country, if not Europe, if you had to put a team together," Smith says.

"I imagine a lot of the London comedians would argue with that. But if they want to fight, we’ll fight them."

That, again, is delivered with a smile.

Paul Smith is touring the UK until 26 June 2025.