It was pouring with rain as Sam Smith welcomed me into the 7 Days writers’ room. He has a couple of hours spare before he has to warm up TV3’s studio audience for The Project. He tells me he’s been busy organising a comedy fundraiser show for the Auckland MS Society, which he is an ambassador for.
That's something Smith and I – as well as 1 in 1000 New Zealanders – have in common. We have relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis. "There ain't no party like an MS Club party!" Smith says. He’s not wrong.
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological condition where the immune system attacks the myelin sheath that insulates the body’s nervous system. Symptoms vary from fatigue and brain fog to severe pain and disability. For Smith, MS affects his hands and most recently his vision. He has around 25% vision in his left eye and 75% in is right, with central vision loss in both. When he was diagnosed in 2015, he was forced to give up his successful career as a dentist. Luckily, he had comedy as a backup career, which he finds funny in itself.
When asked if he misses dentistry, he grins. "I occasionally miss pulling a tooth out!” With all of this talk of teeth, I suddenly remember it's been years since I've been to a dentist and become self-conscious of how my teeth look. Smith laughs. "Don’t worry I’m blind, it’s fine!”
An off the cuff joke about his MS is a theme throughout our conversation. It's obvious comedy has been an important tool for his acceptance of his diagnosis. He tells me about a time he couldn’t open the glad wrap around his sandwich in the Jono and Ben writers’ room and comedian Jamaine Ross had made a joke. At that moment he finally laughed about his MS. “That’s when I switched… This isn’t going to be a massive deal for me,” he said. “This can be funny.” He hasn’t looked back. Smith now uses MS as material for his stand up comedy.
Despite the fears for his future and the worries that being so open about his MS will prevent him from getting gigs, Smith takes it all in his stride. Perhaps that’s because this isn’t the first setback Smith has had to face in his life.
“It was going well until 2012 when some dick stole my name!”
Learn more about how MS has changed Sam's life (how he felt quitting dentistry, what it's like to be a new Dad with MS, winning the MS Society's Mastering Mountains grant, and, randomly, about the Sound of Music) by listening to our whole conversation over on That's So Chronic. Available wherever you get your podcasts!