Paul Merton: one of the ten greatest wits of all time
He has been described as “one of the ten greatest wits of all time” and his latest show has been dubbed “an absolute must-see” by a critic who “laughed so much my face hurt”. Now Paul Merton is coming to Buxton with a group of friends who share his love of improvisation.
Paul Merton’s Impro Chums is a totally unplanned show which brings out the best in Merton, widely respected as one of the team captains on the BBC TV programme Have I Got News For You? for more than 20 years.
The Impro Chums have performed at the Edinburgh Festival as well as on tours around the UK.
They create a unique comedy each night based entirely on suggestions shouted out from the audience. Their finely honed improvisational skills and an almost manic compulsion to show off lead to an unforgettable evening’s entertainment.
The bonus is that his chums comprise Mike McShane, the heavyweight actor and comedian who was a big hit on the Channel 4 series Whose Line Is It Anyway?; Richard Vranch who supported Merton on his Out Of My Head show; Lee Simpson, like Vranch a regular with the improvisation-based Comedy Store Players; and Suki Webster, co-writer of some of Merton’s television documentaries who four years ago became his third wife.
So what is the secret of their success? Paul believes it is because the format requires no preparation.
“I haven’t written a joke for 25 years,” he laughs.
“In Edinburgh one year we were in a bar 20 minutes before the show was due to begin. We wanted to write down which impro games we would be doing in the show but we realised we didn’t have a pen or paper. So we had to borrow the waiter’s pen and notepad.
“That’s the great thing about this show – there’s no stress involved whatsoever. We don’t have any script or props.
“On one occasion I remember the comedian Owen O’Neill was astounded that with absolutely no preparation we were about to do a show in front of 1,000 people in Glasgow that would have them cheering from the rafters.
“Now other comedians like Phill Jupitus and Marcus Brigstocke have started doing impro with us. ‘Hang on,’ they say, ‘you don’t have to write any jokes and you do it with your mates? Where do we sign?’”
Paul James Martin was born in Parsons Green, London to an English father and an Irish Roman Catholic mother.
He has often said he was inspired to go into comedy at an early age after watching clowns at a circus.
On joining the actors’ union Equity he found that someone else had already registered the name Paul Martin, so he changed it to Merton – the district of London where he grew up.
His television breakthrough came in 1988 with Whose Line Is It Anyway? Before the series finished he was also demonstrating his verbal dexterity on Have I Got News For You?
He then replaced Nick Hancock as host of Room 101 for more than 60 programmes; became a regular on the radio shows I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and Just A Minute; presented a four-part documentary series Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns featuring the work of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; and presented a documentary on the British films of Alfred Hitchcock.
For the moment, though, he is relishing being on tour with friends who include his wife Suki.
Merton, 56, married actress Caroline Quentin in 1990 but they separated seven years later.
He then had a relationship with producer and actress Sarah Parkinson. They were married three months before her death from breast cancer in 2003.
Suki Webster who became Mrs Merton in 2009 shares her husband’s views about improvisation.
“The only skill you have to learn is don’t plan and don’t worry. The key is simply listening and reacting to what the other person has just said.”
Paul agrees that “planning doesn’t work because it throws the other performers who don’t know what you’ve planned. It sounds very difficult and crazy to go on stage with nothing planned, but that’s the show’s strength.
“We’ve all worked together for a long time and know we can rely on one another.”
Mike McShane agrees: “We know how to play to each other’s strengths. If it goes belly up, someone will cover you.
“Deep in your heart you’re always aware that it’ll never fall apart – someone will stick their neck out and help you. We all support each other. It’s about constantly reviving the dying patient on stage!”
In a public poll in the Guardian in 2007 Paul Merton was voted one of the ten greatest wits of all time.
Two years earlier Channel 4 asked comedians to list their top 20 greatest international comedians in history; among them was Paul Merton.
He has been nominated for numerous awards, mainly for Have I Got News For You? He won top TV comedy personality in 1992, best comedy entertainment personality in 1999 and best entertainment performance in 2003.
But I get the impression he is not in show business simply for awards.
His passion for improvisation, especially the show with his chums, continues. That is largely because they are constantly able to keep it fresh.
“As a performer,” says Paul, “you can never be bored because you’ve never heard it before and you’re doing something that five seconds ago you didn’t know you were going to do.”
“You never see tired impro and that’s what audiences love,” says Paul.
“At The Comedy Store we’ve had the same people in the front row for years. We’ve even had marriages between fans. It’s great for them because they know it’ll always be different.
“It’s such a joy performing with the Chums. Our motto is: if it’s funny, it’s justified.
“That spirit of ‘anything can happen’ will continue. With good health, we can carry on for years.
“To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if you’re bored of impro, you’re bored of life!”
• This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Country Images magazine