On a recent Sunday night, Paul Merton was performing improvised comedy at London’s Comedy Store. It’s a gig he’s been doing on and off for the past 35 years and, as usual, he asked the audience for a subject to start him and his fellow players off.
‘Somebody shouted out “Erotic Chess,”’ he says. ‘So it became, “I’m going to move your… pawn”… and off we went.’
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On Have I Got News for You, another long-running gig, Paul generally plays it deadpan, sometimes appearing not to get his own jokes. But in person, and in particular when talking about things such as erotic chess, he is all smiles.
‘I never would have thought that there was a word that connects eroticism and chess, but “pawn” is there,’ he says. ‘So we started doing a scene on that. It’s stimulating for the people doing it and by that means it’s also stimulating for the audience – they can contribute.’
Paul loves ‘improv’, or ‘impro’ as he prefers to call it. ‘Everybody else uses the word improv. It used to be impro here and then the Americans called it improv. But if you’re going to abbreviate a word why not abbreviate it to its shortest, clearest meaning? So just to be different we are the only group that call ourselves impro.’
This month, he and his ‘Impro Chums’ most of whom are Comedy Store Players past and present – including Mike McShane from the ground-breaking 1990s Channel 4 show Whose Line is it Anyway? – will do ten nights at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as they do every year. Then, next spring, they’ll set out on a huge tour of Britain, from Brighton to Basingstoke, Guildford to Glasgow. Merton turned 61 last month and with regular gigs on radio (Just a Minute), TV (Have I Got News for You), and weekends at the Comedy Store, he has enough on that he doesn’t need to be touring at all: he does impro because he loves it.
'If you make people laugh then they’re on your side.'
‘I suppose it was something I was doing at school. When I was eight or nine, I started getting very interested in comedy, all aspects of it. It’s a great way to deal with making yourself popular. If you make people laugh then they’re on your side. I remember at that age I knew so many jokes that I’d picked up from comic books. I can remember saying to people, “Give me a subject and I’ll tell you a joke about it”.’
In essence that is still what he does now. None of Paul’s three main jobs involves any writing or much preparation. He is paid to wing it, and nobody does it better. Being the off-the-cuff king has also helped to keep his career alive: it’s less work, for starters.
‘Most people at my level wouldn’t keep going back to Edinburgh and doing shows because of all the hard work involved. I’ve always found writing jokes on my own hard. I wouldn’t be doing it if I was a stand-up and had to come up with a new act every time.’
Paul was once a stand-up, and a very successful one at that: his routines led to an eponymous Channel 4 series in the early 1990s. But he reckons a one-man show never really suited him.
‘When I started off doing [solo] stand-up back in the 1980s, it wasn’t because I particularly wanted to. This was the very early days of what was called alternative comedy and there was no “group” I could join. A bit like a musician starts as a busker, but not because he wants to be a busker – he just doesn’t know anybody else.’
‘I did a one-man tour 20 years ago and I got tired of hearing my own voice. I wanted somebody else to come on...'
Paul is also happier not working on his own. ‘I did a one-man tour 20 years ago and I got tired of hearing my own voice. I wanted somebody else to come on as a comedy butler, or whatever. Sitting in the dressing room at the interval listening to the audience on a speaker with a cup of tea by yourself. You don't want to be doing the sad parody of the clown with a tear in his eye, but it felt a bit like that. It’s so much better working with other people on stage. You can bounce off them. And then afterwards you have the social aspect of it, which is great.’
If you’ve only seen Paul on HIGNFY – curmudgeonly, a little dour – you wouldn’t peg him as a social animal. That Paul Merton, he says, is just a persona, and it’s true that in real life he is less intimidating and more engaged. Some comics demand centre stage. Paul prefers a full stage with ‘my mates’ batting ideas back and forth.
‘If I’m in a scene and somebody else is getting the laughs, that’s absolutely fine. It’s the general effect that you’re after rather than saying I’m meant to be the funny one. Some people thrive on the single voice of stand-up – you can spot them on HIGNFY because they’re the ones who don’t listen to anybody else. Professionally they’re not used to being on a stage when somebody else is talking. It can be like trying to work with a tsunami.’
That’s not his only complaint about the show that made his name. ‘Quite often my stuff gets cut. If a guest says something that’s amusing that will be in because they might not say much. Sometimes I do get a bit frustrated but I do understand – they’re trying to make it look like a balanced show. If I’ve had a particularly good recording and then it’s not reflected in the edit I do get a bit “aaargh”, though. That’s what I hate.’
Recently, bringing his surreal, timeless humour to the show has not been easy, he says. ‘Deep down I’m thinking, “Not another question about Brexit. Oh, my.” Or Donald Trump. It’s the first time in the history of the programme that two news stories won’t go away.
‘In real time [pre-edit] you might be spending an hour in the studio talking about Brexit or Kim Jong-un. And it just kills it. The audience don’t really want to know. We have to address it. But make it a question in the second round, so you’re doing it but you’re not killing the show. Or me – because I’ve got nothing funny to say about Trump or Brexit or Kim Jong-un.’
How has HIGNFY influenced politics, after a 28-year run? ‘It doesn’t have any power, does it really? TV satire never really has. Spitting Image was around for ages and it was savage – and yet the politicians featured would ask for their puppets. It didn’t cause Thatcher much difficulty…’
'Boris? The first time he was on, Ian asked him a few tough questions, which he didn’t like at all.'
Conversely, you could say that by featuring them, HIGNFY has helped propel the careers of controversial politicians such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
‘Well, Jacob Rees-Mogg… hopefully we’ve seen him off now. I was quite sharp with him last time he was on. Boris? The first time he was on, Ian asked him a few tough questions, which he didn’t like at all, and it was actually not very good for him. But then his friends started telling him he was really good on that and he realised it was a good thing to appear to be the jovial buffoon. It’s worked very well for him. What sways people is mind-boggling sometimes.’
In any case, Paul isn’t interested in the politics. ‘The comedy’s the thing.’ You can see the appeal for him of being back with his Impro Chums: the subject matter is unpredictable and he gets to work with people of his own choosing. He has learned friendship is the key to a happy workplace.
‘We all know each other so well that there’s no one-upmanship going on. That would become a bit tedious.’
One of those Chums is a particularly good friend – she’s Suki Webster, his third wife.
‘If she wasn’t any good at it, it’d be terrible. But she was an improviser before I met her. She did a West End run with Eddie Izzard back in the mid-1990s, so she’s very, very good at it. Normally with impro you can’t really discuss it afterwards. But now she’s with me, we do the gig together and our great luxury is we’ve hired a double-decker coach so we can always get back to London and sleep in our own bed. It’d be a strain, otherwise.’
Paul has somehow managed to come up with a ‘job’ that involves getting paid to mess around with his wife and friends while saying whatever comes into his head. You can’t help but think this has been a long-term goal: he worked in the Civil Service from the age of 20 to 23 and it left him fearful of being tied to a desk.
'I’ve still got that playfulness because it hasn’t been eroded through nine-to-five.’
‘I’m still more or less the same person I was when I first started doing this. I did a proper job, a nine-to-five in the Civil Service for three years, so I know that feeling of going in to work on a Monday morning. When I wake up on a Monday morning and I haven’t got to go to the Civil Service, already the week’s looking up. So I’ve still got that playfulness because it hasn’t been eroded through nine-to-five.’
It’s a playfulness that will be more than ever in evidence at Christmas, when Paul will be crammed into a Widow Twankey costume in the New Wimbledon Theatre for Aladdin, his first run in the panto season, though he’s a dab-hand at TV panto. You sense he’s really looking forward to it.
‘They kept asking me. I went to school in Wimbledon and grew up nearby. They said, “You could be a narrator figure or come on briefly”. I said, “What about Widow Twankey?”’
It’s classic Paul – his first exposure to comedy was at the circus, where you could ‘see these adults behave in a way that was not typical of what adults did – with big shoes and buckets of water and sausages and cars where the doors fell off.’
Hearing that many people laughing, he says, made him want to be part of ‘whatever the creative force was that made that noise’.
Fifty years later, be it dressing up as Widow Twankey, playing moody Paul Merton on HIGNFY or cheery Paul with his Impro Chums, it’s still what he does.
Paul Merton’s Impro Chums are at the Edinburgh Fringe, 9-18 Aug, and are touring the UK next spring (mickperrin.com)
This article is from the August issue of Saga Magazine.
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