Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

April 17, 2010

great article on Paul

from The Times....

Paul Merton looks me in the eye. “I’ve not written a joke since 1988,” he says. This is a fib. In the early Nineties the comedian was lead writer on his own Channel 4 sketch show and in 1998 he embarked on a stand-up tour. On the other hand it is true that his best jokes have for many years been the ones that neither he nor anyone else has written down. Since he is one of the funniest comics around, you can see how rivals might resent that.

We meet one morning in the Ivy Club in London’s West End. Merton, friendly, funny, dishevelled in a black velvet jacket and large patterned floral shirt, sprouting facial hair in unusual places, explains how even at 52 he sometimes feels that an “impro guy” is an outsider in comedy.

“‘Oh! Improvisation!’ they say. They dismiss it because it can be naff in the wrong hands but also because you don’t have to do any work.”

At the age of 8, Merton claims, he had an encyclopaedic memory for jokes he had read in the Beano but by 13 he knew he had to raise his game to keep his friends laughing, and that spontaneity was the way to go. Although he has endured all the heartbreak that cliché could hope to associate with comic genius, he has remained spontaneously funny ever since: on Whose Line Is it Anyway?, Have I Got News for You, Just a Minute and even on his excellent travel documentaries for Five, where serendipity forever peels him from the tourist trail. But if you want to see his talent at its purest, head on a Sunday night to the Comedy Store in Leicester Square where he has led an impro troupe for decades.

Alternatively, Paul Merton’s Impro Chums begins a two-month national tour later this month. “The great luxury is to go into big theatres with big stages, you can be much more mobile. You can be much more visual. You can sort of walk into a scene with an attitude, a physical attitude, which you can’t do at the Store where you are basically appearing on a platform the size of a bar of soap. It is a more theatrical show when it’s in a theatre.”

Critics who have scolded television for not finding a more formal vehicle for his talents rather miss the point they made themselves when they said his Channel 4 shows, while original, were not as funny as Have I Got News. Merton takes spontaneity very seriously. During Have I Got News he monitors how he is doing. If he has been a little flat in one round he determines to “win” the next, not with points but with laughs. One week, after two decent jokes fell flat in succession, he paused, looked up, shook his head and admitted to the audience that he just couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t funny. Even in stand-up he was best on the hoof. The funniest moment, when I saw his 1998 set, was when he humiliated a latecomer with a brilliant, breakneck, 60-second resumé of the first ten minutes of his act. It was almost as if he harboured contempt for even having a “routine”.

As for impro, there are, he explains, rules. You do not repeat gags from one night to the next. Sometimes you deliberately wrong-foot another member of the troupe, but you do not contradict, “you build”. He gives an example. If he comes in and says “Hello, doctor”, Richard Vranch, Lee Simpson, Mike McShane or Suki Webster (his wife) — or whichever troupe member he is addressing — should never reply: “That’s funny, because I’m a plumber.”

“Because then where do you go?” Merton says. Suddenly his mind points him in exactly the right direction. “Well, I supposed I’d say, ‘Oh good because my sister’s incontinent.’ Perhaps the only golden rule is that whatever you do it has got to be entertaining to the audience.”

It is the hardest one, as ITV discovered two years ago when it persuaded Merton to star in a new impro show, Thank God You’re Here (the viewers weren’t). “To the higher-ups at ITV, it made sense to have someone in the programme who couldn’t do it but was well known. So we had a couple of people — soap-opera stars, young actresses — who really shouldn’t have been in it. You really need to have experience and confidence. And a couple of them didn’t, and it wasn’t their fault.”

The Comedy Store Players, which he helped to found in 1985, three years after a sensational debut at the club in which he cast himself as a hallucinating copper giving surreal testimony in court, form a major part of a remarkably static CV. He wrote to the producer of

Radio 4’s Just a Minute in 1989 after the death of Kenneth Williams and has been a regular ever since. Have I Got News began the following year and he opted out of only one season.

In contrast his private life has been filled with vicissitude. At the end of the Eighties he had two spells in Maudsley psychiatric hospital in South London. He now believes his acute mania was brought on less by overwork than by the side effects of an antimalarial pill he had taken and were then compounded by a mistake in the administration of drugs in the hospital. In 1998 his marriage to the actress Caroline Quentin ended after eight years. Then, in September 2003, his second wife, the writer and comedy performer Sarah Parkinson, died of breast cancer. A statement said that she had died in his arms.

I was amazed that only a few weeks later he was returned for a new series of Have I Got News. “If I’d had to sit at home and watch somebody else doing it, that would have been depressing,” he says. “I think it was about three weeks after. If it had been three days after, or a week after, it wouldn’t have been right at all. But three weeks?

“I went down to the Comedy Store shortly after she died, not to do the shows, I thought that would be misunderstood, but I did go down on the Sunday and just hung around. It wouldn’t have been right for me to go on stage, although some people do.”

Parkinson can be seen on the net talking in an old South Bank Show about Merton. She was obviously very much in love with him. “It was awful,” he says simply. “I spent a lot of time with the Comedy Store Players after Sarah died and they were a support group. It is wonderful to be with a group of people in a room with 300 people laughing in it.”

It was through the Comedy Store that he met Webster, the 38-year-old comedian whom he married last year. “She used to do the Comedy Store Players but I didn’t really know her that well at all.” So how did he get to know her better? “Oh, just you know, just gradually. As I say, I spent a lot of time at the Comedy Store.” I congratulate him. “Thank you and we’re having a good time.”

Children? “It was never a key thing for me. I sort of made that decision rather grandly, a bit like a man in the middle of the desert making the decision not to have any more fine wine. But I knew that a family early on would just be a terrible burden, the old phrase about the bar to creativity is the pram in the hall.”

As one of his Impro Chums, Webster will perform with her new husband during the coming tour. She also works on the BBC Four films he makes from time to time about his great obsession, silent movies and has co-written a forthcoming series on the early days of Hollywood. “I know all this stuff but she’s like ‘What are you talking about?’ So I realise I can’t just throw out names like Francis X. Bushman.”

His enthusiasm for early cinema is matched only by his ignorance of most contemporary comedy. He has still not seen Gavin and Stacey, for example because, he says, he does not want to be influenced: “It is easier to be in an isolation chamber.” The obvious danger is that he may lose touch. Will Self, an occasional panellist on Have I Got News, recently called on Merton and Ian Hislop to quit on the grounds they were “plump, middle-aged multimillionaires sitting behind a desk making jokes about Clive Anderson’s hair style” and that was no satire: “Leave it to younger people who are hungry and savage.”

Might he have a point? “He’s a bit upset, Will,” Merton replies, “because the last time he was on the show it didn’t go very well for him and he did a joke about fisting which nobody liked and he got quite angry it was cut out of the show.”

Is he a multimillionaire? “I should hope so or I’m in the wrong job. But that hasn’t changed my attitude to how I do the show or anything. You can’t be — well, I can’t be — complacent.”

So he’ll keep on with Have I Got News, with Just a Minute and the Comedy Store, keep on making it up as he goes along? “The Comedy Store Players have been going 25 years this October and, yes, we’re going to keep doing it until we get it right. Until somebody laughs, I mean.”


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