He may seem somewhat dour and straight-faced when satirising politicians and celebrities on the long-running panel show Have I Got News For You but Paul Merton is surprisingly cheerful in conversation.
His deadpan and at times surreal comedy has endeared him to millions over the years and has been his own therapy in times of trouble, he admits.
Having recently appeared in the 58th series of the TV news panel show, Merton, 62, has also found time to bring out a new book Funny Ha Ha, a collection of 80 funny stories by the great and the good, from Anton Chekhov and PG Wodehouse to Nora Ephron and Victoria Wood.
It’s a huge anthology, a hefty weight, he agrees, but one which is easy to dip in and out of, not to be read in one sitting. “I probably read four times the amount of stories that are in there. It took over two years.”
The stories span 200 years yet some comedy remains timeless, says Merton. “There’s a view sometimes expressed that comedy dates, but not necessarily. Some does, some doesn’t.
“If something’s very topical it can lose its appeal, or if it’s a parody of a novelist that we no longer know, but generally speaking there’s nothing in the book that feels old or past its ‘tell-by’ date.”
The book is dedicated to his third wife, fellow comedian Suki Webster, whom he married in 2009. They have been performing improvisational comedy since the late 1990s, touring as part of Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, and became a couple in 2004.
But there’s no competition between them, he insists. Touring with his wife has meant that they can share the humour as it happens spontaneously on stage.
“You can’t tell someone about what was in the show because it won’t seem to be amusing unless you were there. If I was touring or she was touring and the other one was staying at home, that would be more lonely. The fact we do it together is great. We both know what the gig was like and I’m working with somebody I love.”
Laughter has been a key part of his wellbeing through some tough times, he agrees. “Comedy always is important, though good times and bad times, laughter is a release. And in the general act of laughing, while we are laughing at something that’s funny, nothing else in the world exists at that moment. Your brain is full of endorphins. When you are laughing hysterically, you’re not thinking about the mortgage, the children’s education, the state of the country or how Arsenal are doing.”
It has helped Merton through his own crises including a short stay in the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital, where he checked himself in, in 1990. In his 2014 autobiography Only When I Laugh he describes experiencing a heightened state of excitement, but when he started rambling and crying, telling a concerned friend that he thought he was Jesus, it was time to seek help.
While some speculated he was suffering from depression, Merton has said his manic behaviour was down to anti-malaria tablets he’d been taking for a holiday in Kenya. Years later his life fell apart again when his second wife, producer, writer and actress Sarah Parkinson, died from breast cancer in 2003. Yet he was back at The Comedy Store the following week.
“To be in a room full of people who are laughing is a good place to be. There’s happiness in the air. Standing at the back where nobody can see you rather that just sitting on your own at home, it was a release, definitely,” he says now. It releases tension and makes you feel better, even if it’s only a temporary thing. It was a respite, an escape from harsh reality. It’s very good for your mental health.”
Funny Ha Ha: 80 Of The Funniest Stories Ever Written, selected and introduced by Paul Merton, is published by Head Of Zeus, priced £25.