Karl Spain: The Candy Man who can't

Recently diagnosed diabetic, Karl Spain, didn't have a problem finding something to talk about in his solo show, Life is Sweet

Feature by Emma Ainley-Walker | 18 Aug 2008

The blood balloons out of the finger and is sucked into the plastic stick, it then seeps into the calculator; 6.1 it beeps. Comedian Karl Spain fiddles with his glucometre in tense competition. Finally he jabs his finger, the process begins again and the machine beeps; 5.6.

“Read it and weep!” Spain cries with mock glee.

Having tested our blood sugars for the day, it seems the comedian and the interviewer are perfectly aligned with the rest of the non diabetic world, whose normal levels will only vary between 4.0 and 8.0. But to a trained eye, this ritualistic blood-letting experience is part of the trials of diabetes. When diagnosed a year ago Spain’s reading was up at 21.0, eight years ago my own was 28.0; read it and weep we did. For having a serious, life altering illness isn’t a funny business. But it is a laughing matter in Spain’s Fringe show; Life is Sweet.

Finding a comedian with the same illness is as thrilling as discovering you live in the same village as someone famous; you may have nothing in common, but you can speak the same slang. The run of symptoms which are now more commonly known through health campaigns and advertising are the first point of recognition. “I knew the unquenchable thirst was something to be addressed but it took me over a week to do anything about it,” says Spain of the most obvious signs. A constant need to pee and lack of energy also became apparent, but Spain says his reaction was typically male. “I had the kind of guy attitude; if I ignore it, it will go away. I’ll walk it off”.

Spain's career had been going strength to strength in his native Ireland, including appearances on a popular panel show (ingeniously titled The Panel) hosted by Dara O'Briain. In 2006 he starred in his own TV series Karl Spain Wants a Woman, which threw him into the uneasy and often comic world of speed dating and personal ads. It's no wonder that the inconvenient truth of bad health wasn't foremost on Spain's mind, despite the intrusions it made into his performances. “It was actually affecting the gigs,” Spain admits “I couldn’t do a 40 minute set without going to the toilet. So I’d go off and come back, pretending it was the encore, but that was out of embarrassment.”

The need to cope is part of the reason Spain's in Edinburgh with his solo show. “I just needed to laugh it off,” he says describing how good friends like to follow him around with biscuits and throw sugar at him in cruel jest. During the hour of his personal observations and brutally honest admissions, Spain mentions footballer Gary Mabbott, a type one diabetic, who had chocolate bars thrown at him from the opposing team's fans, shouting “eat!”. The story still makes Spain laugh today but now he gives it a positive spin, “it's one of those things, if you're given a challenge in life, it can make you a better person.” In the comedy game, Spain even suggests that each hindrance is a help, “there's the great comedy detective game when you meet a comedian and you wonder about what makes them do it, like 'oh he's 5ft 2, that's what gave him the comedy muscles, oh he's working class and from a really tough background, that's what gave him the comedy muscles,' It's part of who you are.”

Only a year since Spain's diagnosis, he admits he still doesn't grasp the nutritional information on food packets (does anyone? - ed.), but his acceptance of his new challenges is admirable. “When I went to the hospital, I was almost euphoric. I had a feeling that this was the best thing that’s ever happened to me, I feel better now, and long may it continue.” Life is Sweet shows Spain coming to terms with his responsibilities, but it is also a comedy, and there is more than an edge of Homer Simpson about Spain's mischievousness. “I was at a hotel that didn't do food late at night, so I said 'look, I'm diabetic'. I didn't mention I'm type two and was just a bit hungry, but they rushed me up a sandwich and didn't charge for it. I almost added 'this is a medical emergency... can I get some cheesecake too?'”

Mmmm cheesecake... With the thought of such delicious forbidden fruit circulating round us in the upmarket Italian cafe, it seems like a good time to leave. A healthy diet and exercise is needed for both type one and type two strains of diabetes, which is difficult to maintain in the 24 hour a day party atmosphere of the Fringe. Let's just hope laughter counts as exercise.

Karl Spain, Life is Sweet, Stand 2, Until Aug 24, 14:40, £8/£7