Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Paul Merton - Have they got cues from you

AFTER three decades as a professional comedian, improvisation is still Paul Merton’s first love.

AFTER three decades as a professional comedian, improvisation is still Paul Merton’s first love.

Best known as a long-serving panellist on the BBC’s Have I Got News For You, the London-born entertainer was introduced to the art in 1985 and has been a devotee ever since.

He is indulging that passion on his latest tour Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, which kicked off at the end of April and is coming to the Reading Hexagon on May 29.

Merton appears alongside fellow funnymen Mike McShane, Richard Vranch and Lee Simpson, all former co-stars on Channel 4’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? and his wife Suki Webster, a comic, actor and scriptwriter.

The five are regular members of the Comedy Store Players, who organise weekly improvisation nights at the Soho venue.

The show is now almost halfway through its 36-date run and has been praised by the Mirror, the Evening Standard and the British Theatre Guide.

Each performance is unique as the cast act out scenarios based on suggestions from the audience.

Merton said: “It’s going incredibly well and I’m really pleased. The five of us have performed together before but we haven’t done it for a few years so the first night was a bit rusty in parts.

“People were missing small cues here and there â?? you notice it when you’re running the show although no one in the audience would have spotted it.

“However, some really great, funny stuff has been happening since then. The past few shows have had moments that are just hilarious and life-enhancing â?? everyone’s completely drawn in and you feel like you’re part of the audience.

“At one point, in fact, I was quite literally in the audience watching it when I had an idea about how I could come back in with a punchline to wrap it up.

“When it’s working at its absolute best, it’s the most joyful experience. It’s really important to make sure the crowd is entertained and it doesn’t become too self-indulgent, but it’s very satisfying on a personal level to hit those heights. We come off stage as exhilarated as the audience.

“There’s still the odd line that doesn’t work but in a two-hour show that’s always going to happen. People like it as long as it only happens occasionally â?? it reminds them that you’re making all this stuff up in front of them.

“We’ve never fallen off the tightrope completely but we sometimes bounce about a little bit.

“However, the reviews have all been very positive so we’re full of enthusiasm and not yet jaded with life on the road!”

Merton fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a comedian in 1982, aged 25, when he performed his first stand-up routine at the Comedy Store.

He said: “When I was a kid, like maybe seven or eight years old, I could remember gags I’d read in the Beano or joke books and was good at retelling them.

“But I eventually wanted to start making up my own ones so I’d try to think of funny remarks I could make off the back of what other people were saying.

“I started practising that regularly without realising I was actually training myself for my future career.”

Three years after his debut he performed alongside Canadian comic Mike Myers, who was then unknown but would later star in films such as Wayne’s World and the Austin Powers series.

Myers was a fan of improvisation, which was popular in American comedy clubs, and the pair persuaded the Comedy Store to host it on a trial basis.

Merton was one of the first regular stars alongside Simpson and Vranch as well as the likes of Sandi Toksvig and Josie Lawrence.

“Mike was so good â?? it was like being in the hands of a master,” said Merton.

“He would set up the scene and take the lead so it was a really good demonstration of how to do it. He was with us for about five or six months and when he left it was a real test because there was nobody to hold our hands.

“It was a very useful education and I’m pleased to say the night is still popular.”

Merton said part of his show’s success was working with people he knew well.

“The thing that really helps is getting on socially as a group â?? it works wonders,” he said.

“You don’t have to be in each other’s pockets the whole time but you do have to feel happy and comfortable in each other’s company otherwise every scene can end up becoming a conflict.”

Merton and his wife are currently writing their first screenplay, a low-budget comic thriller set in London.

However, he has no plans to relinquish his role on Have I Got News For You, which he has held since it was first broadcast in 1990.

He said: “We’re lucky to have a very loyal audience and some huge viewing figures so I’m happy to carry on playing my part for as long as they want me.

“Things always develop and change â?? for one thing, the recording process for each episode is a lot longer than it used to be.

“However, the quality is still high and we feel confident we can keep it there, so there’s no good reason to end it.”

Paul Merton’s Impro Chums starts at 8pm and tickets are £23.

Visit to book or call 0118 960 6060.

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