Tonight we see Mr Merton and all his chums at the Music Hall – and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve now seen him live as every year we go to the fringe his Improv Show is one of the first I book for each day possible. Why everyday? Because of the fact the show is different each day and watching the improvisation develop between the group is fantastic and impressive and something I would love to be able to do. Add to hat the recordings of Just a Minute we’ve seen at the Fringe and the occasions that he has come to Aberdeen for either the Impro Chums show or his Silent Comedy show and I must have watched him on stage twenty something times – perhaps more.
The thing I love most about his comedy is the speed with which he can come up with ideas both funny and surreal at the drop of the proverbial hat. The freedom of his ideas have produced some of the funniest moments of TV comedy for me on Have I Got News For You for the last twenty-three years. Even on Friday’s episode you could see the way he dealt with the attention seeking windbag Gyles Brandreth was brilliant. He knows how to get an audience on side and rip the piss out of people without really bullying them and alienating the audience – a real skill. If it wasn’t for the combination of Paul and Ian Hislop the programme would not have survived as long as it has – the hard-nosed satirist and the silly comedian is a great combination.
Although we all know that Paul is anything but silly. It takes great skill to be as quick-witted as he is. This is never more the case than his regular appearances on Just a Minute on Radio 4 where he weaves stories and ideas very cleverly and has been a regular on the show for over twenty-five years. When interviewed he states that this has been his favourite part of his professional career – I think because of the freedom he gets to take ideas in all directions, but also the immediate reaction from the audience that he laps up. The flights of fiction he goes on are wonderful and can take the most straight-forward of subjects and make 60 seconds of sheer nonsense come to life.
There have also been various other shows both on TV and Radio like Room 101, his Channel 4 sketch show, I’m sorry I haven’t a clue and such like that have allowed his to try his hand at other things – but for me he is at his best when improvising and feeding off of other comedians or people allowing him to throw out lines that would be hard to script. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never understood he whole ‘scripted’ issue surrounding HIGNFY because you can see him thinking of the right line at the right time and his timing is perfect – something you can’t really rehearse. His writing is good, but compared to his instant ideas it doesn’t compare.
He is hugely underrated I think and because of his years of contribution to HIGNFY and Minute he is almost taken for granted by the public which is a shame because there are few comedians out here that can banter back and forth or interact with other performers as he can and he deserves credit for that. He also deserves a lot of respect for his battles in his personal life from mental illness to the tragic death of his second wife to cancer – he is a private person but occasionally in an interview you can hear the sadness of his life and the personal issues he has had to deal with.
I sometimes wonder if he was born in the wrong time as he has such a love of early comedy you wonder if he would have preferred to be around when Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton were around as he speaks so passionately about them. I’m glad he wasn’t, as we not only get to enjoy him on our radios and TV but like tonight we can see him live with his chums. Can’t wait.