PAUL MERTON may well be the greatest off-the-cuff comedy performer in the UK, and he says it’s all down to thinking he’s still in the playground.
“Improvisation is just doing what we all do as kids – playing endless, imaginative games,” says the comedian best known for his permanent presence on the TV comedy news quiz Have I Got News For You.
“As a child you don’t need much: I remember, as a young boy, pushing a toy car up an armchair… and suddenly it became a mountain. Kids often unpack a Christmas present and end up playing with the box.
“Impro is like playtime – the bit of school you liked! If you spark each other off in improvisation it creates a really good spirit. It’s the spirit of the playground.”
Fans have a chance to see his acclaimed improvisational show, Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, at G Live in Guildford tomorrow (Friday, May 22) and Woking’s New Victoria Theatre on Thursday, June 5. Paul and his Chums – Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster – have been performing to sell-out crowds across the country for more than a decade.
They take suggestions from the audience and turn them into funny routines via a series of impro games, making every show a new adventure.
Paul has honed his skill for the past 30 years by appearing every Sunday in London with the Comedy Store Players, and has thereby entered the Guinness Book of World Records for being a part of the world’s longest-running comedy show with the same cast.
The 57-year-old says he loves doing TV but he can’t wait to get back on stage every week. “It’s the most fun of all the mediums,” he says, “there’s no hiding place, no laughter track and no cutaways.
“People ask me why I do the Comedy Store Players and the Impro Chums, and the answer is that it keeps me match-fit. If I go away on holiday for two weeks, when I come back I find that everyone else has sped up 10 per cent.
“It takes me until the interval to catch up and jump on the bus. There is such a thrill in the notion of playing, say, a Bulgarian lion-tamer trying to explain in fractured Spanish that the yoghurt in the fridge has gone off. It’s a complete delight!”
Paul has no plans to give up impro, saying: “I still get the same buzz as ever from doing it. Once the audience’s trust has been won and the laughter has started, you can really start to play.
“There’s a tremendous thrill in seeing something completely unexpected unfold before you. You have taken a shouted-out suggestion, and it has turned into a brilliant scene. You have partly created it, and that’s really satisfying.”
Of course, each show is a total one-off, and he jokes: “I feel I should say at the end of every show, ‘Don’t worry – this will never happen again!’”
Impro also keeps you honest, reckons Paul, who adds: “If nobody’s laughing, you’re doing something wrong. You have to guard against complacency when you’re doing impro.
“In a learnt piece you could fall into the trap of reciting your lines exactly as you said them the previous night, but you can’t do that in impro. Every night is different, and that’s what keeps it so fresh.”