The Big Interview: Paul Merton

Paul Merton
Paul Merton
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Have I got news for you: Paul Merton explains why he’s back on the road as a stand-up for the first time in nearly a decade. He talks to Chris Bond.

Paul Merton’s latest comedy show promises a little bit of everything. “There’s stand-up, sketches, music, magic, variety and dancing girls, although two of them aren’t in fact girls... how does that sound?” he asks.

The 54 year-old comedian is speaking during a break from his latest comedy tour, Out Of My Head, which arrives in Yorkshire next month. For someone regarded as one of Britain’s most popular comedians, it’s surprising to learn that this is his first stand-up show he’s done in more than decade.

He has written it with fellow comic performers Lee Simpson and Richard Vranch along with his wife, Suki Webster, who all appear with him on stage. “The important thing is the show, it’s not important who comes up with the gag, it’s about whether it’s funny, it’s not about egos,” he says. “I like bouncing ideas off other people and I like seeing the audience’s reaction, so it’s going to be a journey of discovery.”

Merton is a fan of early music hall acts and the show doffs its cap to vaudeville, although he doubts he would have suited that life. “I’m not sure I could have survived back in the 1890s because a lot of the performers were raging alcoholics. Theatre managers were very keen on the public meeting the people they saw up on stage and the performers would go to the bar afterwards and people would buy them drinks all the time, so I would probably have picked up some bad habits.”

But he has clearly revelled in the process of putting together a show that is fully scripted. “Working on a tour that starts off as a mere jotting on the back of a fag packet and develops into a spectacular show is a sheer joy.” He has also enjoyed collaborating. “I’m different from some other comics I suppose. I’ve done plenty of solo shows over the years and it sounds a bit of a cliché but at the interval when you’re sat in your dressing room on your own, all you can hear is the buzz of people laughing at the bar, so you’re probably the most miserable person in the building. Also, I don’t like the sound of hearing my own voice for two hours.”

Merton grew up in London and was fascinated by comedy as a youngster. “I remember a kid at school telling me about this weird TV show he’d seen on Sunday night called Monty Python, although by then I was already a fan of the Goons and old school comedy like Max Miller, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.”

Though he had harboured ambitions of becoming a comedian since his school days, it wasn’t until the early 80s that he started getting gigs on the cabaret circuit.

“Back in the 50s, before the age of TV, you were expected to perform your routine whatever it was, you couldn’t deviate from that because it could get you the sack, you didn’t suddenly bring in a bit of juggling. I had a 17 minute routine and once I had enough jokes that worked, I kept them. I suppose it was the old way of doing things which was fine on stage but once you’re on TV you have to have new material.”

In 1985 he helped set up The Comedy Store Players, an improvisational troupe, whose recent members include Josie Lawrence, Phill Jupitus and Marcus Brigstocke, and he continues to join his fellow players as often as he can to hone his improvisation skills. “Doing The Comedy Store Players every Sunday means you’re match fit all the time. It’s a performance muscle. If it’s not getting flexed, it gets flabby. That’s why people who haven’t been on stage for a while struggle when they go back to the theatre because it’s a completely different discipline.”

Performing with the Players helped him perfect the off-the-cuff style of humour for which he’s become renowned. “You just ride the wave of laughter and then you might come up with something equally funny. Ralph Richardson used to talk about pushing a huge ball up a hill to the point where it suddenly gains momentum and starts rolling down the other side. That’s what live comedy is like. The only snag is, you have to do it while trying to look completely relaxed.”

In the late 80s, he made his TV breakthrough on Channel 4’s influential Whose Line Is It Anyway? along with the likes of Clive Anderson and Tony Slattery. But although he enjoys improvising on stage it has its downsides. “It can be exciting but I don’t remember the details afterwards which can be frustrating. I remember the audience laughing, but when you’re doing impro the brain makes decisions that you don’t need to remember and afterwards it’s like your head’s been wiped clean. Which is why I like the new show because you have lines to learn and they sink in.”

Since the early 90s, Merton has been in great demand both on the radio and TV. “When you start doing something you never think it will last but I’ve been extremely fortunate. With I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue I came in after it had been going for 20 years, so I was able to slot right in. But there’s something Jack Benny said in his autobiography that has stayed with me, he said ‘always work with talented people’ and he was right. If you have good people around you the show becomes better.”

The show which made him, and Ian Hislop, household names is the BBC’s hugely popular panel quiz show Have I Got News For You. It’s hard to believe the show, which has just started its 43rd series, has now been going for 22 years. “I’ve heard that some people who miss the news will actually watch Have I Got News For You to see what’s been happening that week,” he says.

So there’s no plan to call time on the show just yet? “If you get bored then the audience becomes bored, so as long as it stays fresh and me and Ian still enjoy it, then there’s no reason why it can’t keep going for another three weeks,” he says, laughing.

But he is, in all seriousness, delighted by the show’s enduring success, pointing out that the last Christmas special they did attracted 5.8 million viewers. So what is the show’s appeal? “I think the format with me and Ian seems to work and I try and treat each show as a one-off because that way I know I have to be as good as I can be, also I think having a different host has helped create a different vibe. It’s familiar yet different at the same time and there’s enough to keep people interested.”

He talks affectionately, too, about his fellow team captain. “Ian’s a very funny man although he doesn’t always get enough credit for it.”

But as editor of Private Eye, Hislop has made a few enemies over the years, although as Merton points out none of them have been able to uncover anything scandalous. “He told me once that reporters had even phoned his priest to try and get something on him but they didn’t find anything. He’s unbearably squeaky clean but as editor of Private Eye he probably needs to be like that. There are some people who would like to say ‘what about the love child in Llandudno?’ But they can’t because there is no love child in Llandudno.”

Although he’s more than happy to continue doing the show, in recent years Merton has branched out with a series of TV documentaries on the early days of cinema and Hollywood, as well as carving out a successful career as a travel documentary presenter which has seen him visit places like India and China. But it is comedy that remains his true calling. “There’s no rule book, there’s nothing you can’t do as long as it’s funny and it’s entertaining, you don’t have to play safe,” he says.

“Years ago, I went to watch Dave Allen, it was just him telling jokes on his own for two hours with what looked like a glass of water and he was hilarious. He then started to tell this creepy story that had the audience hanging off his every word and you realised what a supreme storyteller he was. I came out afterwards feeling 10 feet tall, it was totally life-enhancing and that’s the kind of comedy I like, comedy that makes you feel a better person.”

Paul Merton’s Out of My Head tour – Grand Opera House, York, May 4, tel 0844 847 2322; Victoria Theatre, Halifax, May 12, tel 01422 351 158; and The Lyceum, Sheffield, May 21, tel 0114 249 5999.