Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

December 02, 2007

Sad news on JAM guest

JAM guest Jim Sweeney is standing down from live comedy performances, because of multiple schlerosis.

Jim, who appeared in the radio version of JAM in 1993, and on the TV version in 1994 and 1995, is a long time veteran of the Comedy Store Players improv troupe where he appears regularly with Paul Merton, Steve Frost, Richard Vranch, Neil Mullarkey and Lee Simpson.

For the past three or four years, he has done the show from a wheelchair because of his disease.

He says the disease has now progressed so far that he won't be able to perform on stage.

All the best to Jim - I really hope your condition improves and you'll be able to return to "work".

here's an interesting piece on Jim from The Daily Telegraph in 2004

Cracking sick jokes
(Filed: 29/11/2004)

Comedian Jim Sweeney is used to making people laugh, but his one-man show, about his MS, has been making audiences cry, too, he tells Bryony Gordon

Jim Sweeney is used to making people cry with laughter. As one sixth of the Comedy Store Players – the improvisation group that also counts Paul Merton as a member – the award-winning comedian has done just that for the 19 years that they have been performing. But Sweeney is not used to making his audience cry tears of sorrow. When he took a new one-man show to the Edinburgh Festival this summer, that was how some of the crowd reacted.

This is perhaps not surprising when you learn that the 49-year-old's show, My MS and Me, is about the condition from which he has suffered for almost 20 years. But Sweeney never intended it to be moving, only amusing. That's why the show's opening song is Elvis Costello's I Can't Stand up for Falling Down.

My MS and Me won rave reviews and will be broadcast on Radio 4 in the New Year. There are even suggestions that it will be made into a book. All of which seems to have surprised Sweeney.

"All the way through rehearsals, I kept saying to my director: 'Is this boring you?'" he says, when we meet for lunch. "It wasn't until I saw the reviews and the reactions of the audiences that I realised there were bits that people found incredibly touching. There's a section of the show that seems to really get them. It touches on a time when I fell over one night and couldn't get up.

"I was lying on the floor for quite a long time and like anybody who is awake at 3am, there were all these thoughts going through my head, like, 'I'm going to spend the rest of my life lying here on the floor'. Which, of course, I wasn't, but you know."

I don't know, but this is typical of Sweeney. He plays down his multiple sclerosis throughout our conversation. He seems to be the kind of chap who just wants to get on with life.

"It was very strange to have people in the audience fighting back tears. And I thought, 'Oh, it's not my fault, I was just telling you about my thing'."

His "thing" has, in the past few years, left him almost unable to walk. The left side of his body is the worst, but he thinks his right side is gradually catching up.

"My balance is just non-existent. I wobble all the time. But the thing is, when I'm sitting down, nobody knows about the MS," he laughs. "I can give everyone a show when we get up."

He uses a walking stick, but it is obvious that he is struggling. He has a wheelchair but is reluctant to use it.

"It is really only a matter of time before I have to start," he says. "I was thinking this morning that I should take it out today, because I've never been to this restaurant before. But for various stupid reasons, I'm holding out until next year. Then, it will have been 20 years, and also I think it's really important to keep walking until I absolutely can't any more."

His vision has also been affected. "Your head is a black dot," he says to me, covering his left eye with his hand. "Otherwise, it's just blurred. Short-sighted people understand. It's like when you take your glasses off for a moment and everything shifts into a nice, comforting blur. Well, my vision is like that all the time."

Living with MS means that he also has to "live under a kind of benevolent house arrest", he says. "But I don't really mind. I've done so many things. I've stood on the Great Wall of China and walked through Tiananmen Square." To get about, he takes taxis. "They're tax-deductable now," he says, cheerily.

When I tell him that he seems remarkably relaxed about his condition, he is defiant. "I could spend hours wallowing in self-pity but, absolutely genuinely, what's the point in me doing that? I do have moments. I was watching a programme about space travel a few nights ago, and I thought 'I'm never going to be the one they pick'. And then I thought, 'well, nobody is!'"

He doesn't take prescribed drugs for MS. "The doctors could only offer me steroids and I didn't want to look like an East German shot-putter," he says. But, like many MS sufferers, he does smoke cannabis. "It relaxes my leg. Every night, I have a third of a pure cannabis joint."

Sweeney wishes it was legal. "It's ludicrous for a man of my age to be sidling up to people in pubs asking for dope. After one show in Edinburgh, a woman who was suffering from MS came up to me and the first thing she said was: 'Where can I get grass?'

"I do resent the fact that there will never be a proper discussion about it, because people buy into the tabloid mentality that if you smoke dope, you'll end up injecting heroin. That's as stupid as claiming that if you drink a half pint of bitter, you'll end up on meths. It's only a gateway drug for the predisposed."

Does he worry that one day, he will no longer be able to perform as a Comedy Store Player? The show, which is entirely improvised, can get quite physical.

"I've been thinking about this a lot," he says. "Tiredness can hit me about halfway through the second half. Three years ago, I brought it up with the others. I told them, 'It may get to a stage when I can't stand to perform any more, and I think I'll know when that happens, but if I don't, please tell me.' They all looked at me with blank faces and said: 'Well, we'll get a wheelchair, obviously', and then carried on with the conversation.

"They are typical boys in that they just do things beautifully for me without any fuss – one of them always walks behind me on stairs to make sure I don't stumble, and there's always someone outside the venue to walk me to the pub. There may well be a point when I feel I can't do it any more, but it's not now."

The only thing that bothers Sweeney is that the onset of MS coincided with the birth of his first daughter (he has two daughters, aged 18 and 19, with his girlfriend, Carol). "I think that the wickedest and most devious thing about MS is that it tends to hit at around 30, when people start having kids."

Sweeney, of course, does not allow himself to become too negative. "I'm lucky because it has only crept up properly over the last five years, and I'm sure my daughters weren't aware of it as children. I almost certainly wasn't. I just carried on with my life."

And with that, our lunch is over. We spend a while looking for a waitress to ask for the bill. "Shall we just make a run for it?" suggests Sweeney, before pausing for a moment. He looks at his walking stick and back at me, and begins to laugh. "We wouldn't get very far, would we?"


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