Getting into the head of Ipswich-bound comedian Paul Merton
Comedian Paul Merton talks to entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE and JAMES RAMPTON about his first new written show in 14 years and how he has a nun to thank for the idea.
PAUL admits to feeling very nervous about returning to his stand-up roots for the first time since 1998.
“Until you put it in front of the audience you don’t know whether it’s funny or not. You think you know, you hope you know, you trust your instincts - but you can’t say for certain,” he says.
“There are certain lines where you think ‘oh, they’re bound to laugh at that’ and then they don’t and then there’s another line which you put it because it’s just there to cover something else and they roar at it and you think ‘oh, what’s so funny about that’.
“In the end it’s them you’re trying to please and if they’re not laughing they’re not pleased,” he laughs, “so we’re not pleased. In the end you have to go where the joke is, but sometimes it does take a while to locate it.”
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Paul stays in the zone by performing every Sunday with the improvisational troupe The Comedy Store Players.
New show Out of My Head is much more hard work. Things can go wrong, lines forgotten, moments to iron out as the tour progresses.
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“You’re constantly looking at the same show, doing it again and again; thinking of ways of improving it. With improv you just turn up and do it. The only preparation needed is has anyone got a paper and pen; sometimes you haven’t even got that.
“I shall descend upon improv once this show has finished with renewed enthusiasm. If you can pull it off it’s the greatest thing in the world because you don’t have to do any work,” he laughs, “apart from when you’re on stage and that’s when you have to be funny.”
The real question is why he waited so long to return.
“The only drawback of improv is you never get the chance to do something again, you don’t get the chance to go back and hone or revisit something. I didn’t want to go back and just do a stand-up show because I did that in 1998 on my own and I find that… it’s rather a dull experience.
“The audiences enjoyed it but I’m onstage talking on my own for an hour-and-a-half whatever it is, then you go home with the driver and it’s just all a bit lonely really.
“You’re sitting there in the interval, a cup of tea in your hand, listening to the buzz coming over the intercom and you’re thinking well I’m just stuck here on me own.
“Some people seem to thrive on it, they go round and do stuff on their own and good luck to them but me, I always was hoping and waiting for that moment when somebody else would walk on you know.”
It’s better with company?
“I think so. People are introducing new ideas, doing new things; in no way are we doing the same show 50 times, we’re doing 50 versions of the show.
“It’s great after the show as well because immediately there’s a social set-up there as well. When I did a stand-up tour on my own in 1998 I used to beg Lee [Simpson, who appears in the show along with Richard Vranch and Suki Webster] to come along as the director and he would say ‘no, I’ve been along far more than any other director. I am not coming to Newcastle again.”
“Everything I do is team stuff. It’s much more fun if you’re not twiddling your thumbs on your own. All the same, I’m sure I’ll be sitting there on this tour thinking, ‘why did I bring those guys along’,” he laughs.
New show Out of My Head covers a variety of themes, including the class system and the spell Paul spent in hospital after falling ill from anti-malaria tablets.
The overriding theme, though, is imagination. Enter the nun.
“I went to a Catholic school. When I was ten, I wrote an essay which the nun who was teaching me really didn’t like because it was imaginative. She didn’t like imagination.
“The essay was called what I did in my summer holidays. I wrote about how I went to the seaside and it was lovely and when I went to bed that night my bed flew to the moon and I walked around on it.
“She made me stand up in front of the class and read it out as an example of a terrible essay and [how] you can’t write about things that didn’t exist. Just the humiliation of that at that time, it was one of those things that you know as a child is desperately unfair but can’t do anything about it because you are only ten.
“According to her, if you wrote something untrue, then it was a problem. For years I hated that nun, but now I realise that experience was very good for me.
“It actually gave me something to fight against; I knew she was wrong, you can’t say imagination is wrong.
“I’d never bought into the Catholic Church that much. Because that nun was so against imagination and I was so into it – I was already reading Spike Milligan – I just knew she was wrong.
“I began thinking ‘a nun who is wrong about something so fundamental might well be wrong about other stuff, too’. Imagination has built my entire career. This show is a celebration of imagination.”
Paul, who works with Lee, Richard and Suki in both the Comedy Store Players and Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, loved rehearsing for the show.
“It’s great to have no rehearsals, lighting design or costume fittings. Of course, it’s fantastic not to have to learn any lines.
“We go to Edinburgh every year with no preparation apart from turning up sober! Sometimes we have to borrow a pen and paper from the barman to write down the order of the improv games.”
But Out of My Head is a great opportunity to refine material.
“Here you get the chance to create a show over a sustained period of rehearsal – and that’s wonderful. This is about the art of creation over a good while rather merely saying the first thing that comes into your head. We have the opportunity and the time to fit together all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and throw out lines that will never be said again.”
Audiences can look forward to stand-up, sketches, music, magic, variety and dancing girls; although two of them aren’t girls.
“It’s about taking the plunge and devising a show that is fully scripted. It has interaction with the audience and a few things that will startle people,” says the comedian, who also enjoyed a highly successful second career as a travel documentary presenter on such memorable series as Paul Merton in China, Paul Merton in India, Paul Merton in Europe and Paul Merton’s Adventures.
“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!”
Paul relishes his connection with a live audience.
“It’s so inspiring. You just ride the wave of laughter; 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.”
His Comedy Store Players shows feed into everything else, says Paul.
“When Have I Got News For You comes around I don’t think ‘oh no, I’m a bit rusty’. Doing The Comedy Store Players every Sunday, 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 onstage for a while struggle when they go back to the theatre because it’s a completely different discipline.”
That doesn’t mean he’ll be leaving the hit BBC show, which started its 43rd series this month, any time soon.
“It’s been great. The first programme of the new series got 5.7million viewers; that’s an astonishing figure for a show that’s been running this long.
“If a new show opened up with those figures it would be hailed as the TV sensation of the moment, so it’s great to still draw that loyalty from an audience that obviously really love the show. In a way it’s humbling to be part of it.
Paul Merton Out of my head is at the Ipswich Regent this Monday.