Paul Merton on Impro Chums Irish shows and 29 years of Have I Got News For You
David Roy quizzes comedy legend Paul Merton about bringing his Impro Chums to Belfast and Derry for some Whose Line Is It Anyway? style fun
HI PAUL, are you looking forward to bringing your Impro Chums to Belfast and Derry?
Oh absolutely. We haven't toured in about three years or something and we're doing more dates on this tour than we normally do.
The thing with impro is that every show is completely different. I've just recently finished doing my first proper pantomime [playing Widow Twankey in Aladdin] in Wimbledon, which was 50 shows in a month, two shows a day – and there were days when you'd wake up and go "Urghhhh, here we go again."
With the impro show, because it is all completely new every time, there is nothing to worry about: if you hit a sticky bit in an impro show, you can immediately change it. You're not stuck with what you rehearsed.
It's a joy that it's always fun and different. You don't get tired of it.
You first encountered improvised comedy after joining London's Comedy Store Players in 1985. Do you still take part in their regular Sunday night impro show?
Unless I'm otherwise detained, I'm always there. I've not been since the beginning of December because of the panto, and then I took a holiday after that, but I'm back this Sunday.
It will take me the first half maybe just to get back up to speed again – but, having been doing it now for 30-odd years, I know it won't be long before I'm back in the swing of it.
Can you remember your first time doing impro?
It was in Edinburgh in 1985 with Mike Myers [Wayne's World, Austin Powers]. He was doing a double act with Neil Mullarkey at the same small venue I was playing and got talking to the American comic I was working with, Kit Hollerbach. They both knew about the art of 'improv', as the Americans call it, from Chicago, New York and LA. All these places had been doing it since the late 1950s, but of course we didn't have that culture at all.
They decided to do this thrown together [impro] show that wasn't even on the programme. It was only about 15 minutes and I was meant to be part of it, but I remember just sitting on the side of the stage looking at what Mike Myers was doing and thinking "How is he doing this? This is impossible!"
I kind of got the bit about making it up as you go along, but to make it funny, that seemed to be a kind of magic where I couldn't see how the trick was done, even though it was being done right in front of me.
From that, there was an idea to do it at the Comedy Store on Sunday nights. I think it helped enormously having Mike Myers with us for the first six months, because he was so enormously experienced – when you were stuck in a scene, he would come to the rescue and do something to make it work.
There were also impro classes being run on a Saturday morning, so I was going to them and just getting as much experience as I could. Mike left to go and do Saturday Night Live, and that's when I started to improve – because suddenly the safety net had gone. You couldn't rely on him to come up with something funny, you had to be one of the people coming up with something funny.
For this tour, your Impro Chums are your wife Suki Webster, comedian Lee Simpson and Whose Line Is It Anyway? veterans Mike McShane and Richard Vranch. Does everyone get to play to their individual strengths during the shows?
To a certain extent you do think "oh, so and so is very good at doing that, so I'll cast them in that game". For example, Mike McShane is an excellent singer, more so than any of the rest of us.
He's appeared in several musicals, so I will cast him in a game like Film & Theatre where musicals will come up – because I know he will be able to do it in a way that to me is like magic, because I'm not that musical.
I get how the verbal stuff works, but when I see somebody who is improvising a tune while improvising lyrics on whatever the subject matter might be, I'm still completely blown away – as are our audience.
What's your favourite impro game?
There's one I do quite often called Foreign Lecturer which I'm very happy with. There's two people on stage and you get a subject matter like 'building a robot'. The other person will start talking 'foreign' gibberish with various physical actions thrown in and it's my job as the interpreter to explain what they are saying.
At one point, you might pretend that they've said "oh that reminds me of my favourite joke" and the audience will laugh, because they think you've now put the other person on the spot – but then it's actually up to you to come up with something funny!
Most people in this part of the world were first exposed to impro comedy via the TV version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Would you do it again if they made another series?
I was in it from the beginning in 1988 for about two years I think – I left when Have I Got News For You Started because they were both Friday night shows and I was worried about over-exposure. I didn't want people to be going "Oh God, not him again!"
I don't think I would be so precious about that now and I did always enjoy doing it.
Can you believe that Have I Got News For You is still going after 29 years?
Oddly, the three main things I do are [BBC Radio 4's] Just A Minute which I've been doing since 1988, The Comedy Store Players who I've been with since 1985 and Have I Got News For You since 1990. That's 90-odd years if you add them all together – and even then I'm still not as old as [Just A Minute host] Nicholas Parsons.
That is extraordinary: you couldn't dream of having three regular jobs on stage, screen and radio that would last that long. I'm very fortunate in that none of them require anything other than the ability to be spontaneously amusing and entertaining.
Has the omnipresence of Trump and Brexit spoiled that aspect of HIGNFY recently?
It's the only time in its 29-year history where we've had two stories that won't go away. I went on holiday and when I came back it was still Brexit and Trump – and I don't have anything amusing to say about either one of those things really. It's painful for me.
Political humour has never really been my forte on that show anyway, I prefer the story about the dog who wears a hat. I remember a couple of series ago they led with a story about a shortage of hoovers in supermarkets. I was like "Oh great – I can do something with this!"