Paul Merton and his Impro Chums
After more than a decade of TV appearances including on popular panel show Have I Got News For You, comedian Paul Merton is a household name. But despite his fame, he is still happiest performing as part of a group, prompting his decision to go on the road with new show Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, as he told Kathryn Tye.
After more than three decades as a stand-up comedian, Paul Merton still genuinely loves his job.
There could be no better evidence than the fact that he spends every Sunday evening performing as part of the Comedy Store Players, an improvisation troupe based at the London comedy club.
The 56-year-old said: “I have been a member of the Players since 1985. It is hugely enjoyable and also keeps you alert for things like Have I Got News For You when they come along, as you have been working that muscle.
“By doing a show every Sunday you just keep yourself in practice, match fit you might say.”
And he will be drawing upon those finely honed skills for his latest venture, Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, which will see him join four other comedians to create a new comedy show every night, based entirely on suggestions from the audience.
And he admits that one of the best things about the show is that it is impossible to prepare – or get nervous.
He said: “There is nothing you can do in terms of actually preparing as you don’t know what the suggestions are going to be, so you don’t have anything to worry about. Of course there will be something that doesn’t work in the course of a two-hour show but you just make sure you find something that does work, very quickly.” Paul will be joined by long-time friends and colleagues Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster – who is also his wife.
He said: “It is handy to have my wife there – but I wouldn’t employ her if she couldn’t do it! She is very good, she worked with Eddie Izzard long before I knew her.
“But it helps to really know the people you are on stage with so you are on the same wavelength with them. Working with people you haven’t met before is quite tricky when you are doing improvisation.”
It is a dream job for Paul, who realised early on in his career that he most enjoyed performing as part of a group.
He said: “I was a stand-up for six or seven years before I started doing the improvisation thing and stand-up immediately lost its attraction. It is much more fun to be on stage with other people. I find listening to myself talk for an hour and a half a bit dull.”
He also enjoys the offstage benefits of performing as part of a group. He said: “After the show we can all have a drink, and we travel around together on the road. It is completely different to a solo stand-up tour, when you are on your own. I remember being in my dressing room in the interval, listening to the buzz of the audience on the intercom and thinking everyone is having a much better time than I am. I’m on my own with a cup of tea.”
Ian Hislop and Paul Merton
Paul also cites his enjoyment of working in a team as among the reasons for his regular participation in shows such as BBC1’s Have I Got News For You and Radio 4’s Just A Minute.
He said: “I love the camaraderie and team spirit of it and also the joy that the audience gets from your performance. It never becomes tedious or something you have to fake your enjoyment of. On Have I Got News For You, the raw materials are always changing and of course everybody that hosts the show will do it in their own way. My favourites have definitely been Brian Blessed and Bruce Forsyth – strong, one-off characters. I just sit back and really enjoy it.”
He added: “I can understand why some people would be terrified of going on stage or screen without a
script but if you can do it and be comfortable and be good at it then there is no better feeling.”
Paul Merton’s Impro Chums will be at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre on Saturday, October 5. It starts at 7.30pm. Call 01227 787787. It will also be at Tunbridge Wells’ Assembly Hall Theatre at 7.30pm on Sunday, November 10. Call 01892 530613. Tickets for both shows are £21.