A genuine Brit-comedy survivor, Andy Smart must be the first Circuit Training interviewee who died before we actually did the interview. Thankfully it wasn't immediately before - like, right outside the North London pub we met at; that'd be awkward - but back when he was a nipper. In fact, you can trace the whole trajectory of Smart's life and career back to those fateful few minutes, which happened in and out of a river near Aldershot.
The current Comedy Store Player, former street performer and TV Vicious Boy does act like someone who got an unexpected bonus life when it seemed to be Game Over. He runs with bulls, survives the infamous Shrovetide 'football' match every year (so far), and does a LOT of improv. Not long after this chat he was tweeting from the Hong Kong protests, having played over there and stumbled across them, as he does.
He also spent many early years hitchhiking around Britain and Europe, winding up in numerous scrapes and at least one political leader's house, overnight. Those thumb-based jaunts form the major thrust of his hugely entertaining - and frequently jaw-dropping - new book A Hitch In Time, which also recounts the drowning, the car crash and the snow-cow hunting. And he doesn't even get to the telly years: Get Fresh, American Football, and all that.
Perhaps the most affecting chapter involves his spell of homelessness, however, which occurred due to a lack of cash and a row with his parents. Smart is all-too aware that such circumstances can happen to pretty much anyone, hence the comic is an enthusiastic supporter of Crisis, which provides homeless people with vital support, particularly at Christmas. More on that below.
First though, that river rescue.
Let's kick off with the drowning story in the book, as I feel like that had a big impact on how you've lived the rest of your life?
Yeah, after that, what are you going to do? I drowned when I was seven, 1966, dad's birthday. We all went out, up near the Basingstoke canal, me and my brother wandered off, and I had these new wellies on, 'I'll test them, see if they're waterproof' - I slipped, suddenly I was in the water, couldn't swim, the wellies filled with water and dragged me down. I came up, shouted at my brother to get help - he was five - went under again, and breathed in water.
One of my first memories is something similar, but then my dad dragged me out pretty quick...
It must have taken a minute for my brother to get up there, and another minute to come back again. There was no sign, then a couple of bubbles that must've come out of the boots. My dad dived in and got me out - I'd been dead for about three to four minutes.
But my dad had been a diver, for the telephone company, laying cables, so he'd had full training. He put me on my front, forced all the water out, rolled me over, that's another 30 seconds, my mum gave me the kiss of life, my dad's thumping me on the chest - then suddenly I spluttered. I didn't come round but I was breathing again. They drove me to Aldershot military hospital. Then I woke up and threw up all over my mum.
I was in hospital for a week, as they pumped all the shit out of my lungs, put a pipe down there. It was horrible. I was in shock I think. But then it made me think, for the rest of my childhood, 'I'm invincible.' I'd jump off garages, climb the highest trees...
What's the worst that can happen, after that?
When we did The Vicious Boys [his early double act with Angelo Abedi], our double act, there was no health and safety in those days, we did all our own stunts, ridiculous things. One time we did some filming at St Catherine's Dock, and the running joke was that any water, I'd end up in it.
So I'm up the top of this rigging, a 60 foot drop into the water - beforehand they'd put cotton wool up my nose, in my ears, up my backside - you had to have every orifice blocked, mouth shut, because all the boats released their sewage straight into the dock. But I was ill for about three weeks afterwards.
Eeuw - it got in somewhere.
We did a motorbike stunt that went horribly wrong, and the famous one was when Angelo tied me to railway tracks. That was on Get Fresh, which was two hours live, with Gaz Top and Charlotte Hindle. For the rest of the show we had to go 'please do not tie anyone to railway tracks' - kids would do that!
So your career trajectory - you were street performers, then what TV did you do first?
We did Wake Up London, Get Fresh, then the American Football...
I don't suppose you get recognised for that stuff often, as you don't look anything like you did back then.
I had blonde hair in those days. And up until 28 I weighed seven stone. I was 6 foot 2, I just couldn't put any weight on. It was ridiculous.
I found the homeless part of the book particularly interesting. We did a piece with Kai Samra recently, who had a similar situation - it's important to destigmatise homelessness. It can happen to anyone.
It's why I do Crisis at Christmas every year, I do eight nights, I'm there from 10 'til eight in the morning, 260 guests. They get seen by doctors, dentists, hairdressers, new clothes, advice. We have three or four come back each year as volunteers. It's because I went through that, and the people you meet there... you're only two missed mortgage payments away from being there yourself.
What happened to you again?
With me it was stubbornness, my dad was furious with me for taking the dole, you had to wait three weeks for it, so I had to be homeless for three weeks. But I knew there was going to be an end to it, it's not like the people I meet now at Crisis.
How did the book come about - on AA books? I suppose there's a lot of roads in it...
They were listening to TalkSport - I've been a guest on the Hawksbee & Jacobs show for years - and the guy said 'I'd like to hear more of your stories, pick a restaurant.' I thought it was [improv mate] Stephen Frost winding me up, he's always going on about 'your bloody stories, how do you remember it all' - I've got the diaries!
Dramas like you've had, they would stick in the mind...
You don't forget dying, no! So I thought it was him mucking about, I turned up at this restaurant and ordered the most expensive things on the menu, £40 bottle of rose. When he walked in, I thought he'd got an actor to do it. Then he told me how much the advance was, and I said 'I'll get this!'
The ridiculous thing is, I've never planned anything in my career, but I always say 'yes', whatever it is.
Did you do regular stand-up? There are some bits in the book where you tried it as a teenager, and it didn't work out.
Yeah - Angelo and I split in 1990, he wanted to be a TV producer, I was drinking a lot and he was getting a bit pissed off with me turning up drunk every gig. I had so many friends in the comedy business. The East Dulwich tavern was just setting up, and needed a compere, they said 'come down and just talk in between the acts' - so I used to turn up, have three joints, go onstage and talk absolute bollocks.
But they'd write down anything that got a laugh, and after about five or six nights, they went 'there you go, there's your material' - I could hardly remember what I'd said. I used to tell these stories that'd happened, like the drowning, topical stuff.
So then I did solo stuff from '90 to 2006, big clubs, warm-ups for BSkyB at the Apollo. One night, this band were on and the drummer had got his heroin intake a bit wrong, so I had to fill for about an hour. Someone give me a tennis ball and a cricket bat, and I just played cricket with them, with the drum as the wicket. If I knocked the drink out of their hand I got four runs...
Have you been doing much promo stuff for the book, signings etc?
You should've got Rankin to do a bit of improv.
We try! Every time we see him, 'come up and do a bit,' because he loves it, but he won't get up.
I suppose he's got a serious reputation to think of.
He goes to see a lot of comedy. I met him years ago, because I took Frosty and some others to the Oxford Bar [in Edinburgh] to tell them all about the Rebus novels. I'm going 'the clock's always 10 minutes fast, so they chuck people out before the other pubs. That's Rebus' favourite...' Eventually I realised that no-one else in the room was talking, then they all burst out laughing, I turned round and there was Ian Rankin. This whole drunken speech in front of the bloke who wrote the books...
Back to your book: there's the time you get picked up hitchhiking, and end up at a potential Prime Minister's stately home.
I did a show about that for my 40th consecutive Fringe, because that happened at my first ever Edinburgh, getting picked up by his son. He turned round and said 'you must be the Hitchhiker' and I said 'you must be David Steel, leader of the Liberal Party...' People remember him from Spitting Image now.
There's also the car crash.
My brother and I talk about that quite a lot, because I still don't know how I came out through the boot. It was downhill, about 50 mph - being five, you bounce at that age. But my mum was in hospital for a good six, seven months, my brother was in for five months. I was completely oblivious.
Having survived all that, you're best known for improv nowadays. Or is it impro?
I call it impro...
It took a while to become a proper Comedy Store Player, didn't it?
I was only a guest up until '96, a full player from then. I was lucky because there were quite a few people they could have chosen. We do every Wednesday and Sunday [in London], which would be good enough, but we also tour all over the world: Azerbaijan, Australia, everywhere.
I'm very fortunate, really.