Free Time

Paul Merton

Paul Merton, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch, Suki Webster, Mike McShane and accompanist Kirsty Newton – AKA Paul Merton’s Impro Chums – are back on the road with another evening of mind-blowing impro. On 27 May, they hit The Cresset – and they have no idea what they’re going to be doing... Toby Venables caught up with Paul Merton at the very start of the tour to try to find out what on earth is going on.

This show is totally improvised and completely different every night. How does that work?
We play the same games every night, though I change the personnel of who’s doing what in each game from time to time. So, or example, you know it’s going to be the Film and Theatre game, but outside of that you don’t know what the situation’s going to be, the relationship between the two people, or what film and theatre stars are going to be suggested by the audience…

How do you gather those suggestions?
We used to ask people to write things down, but now they just call them out. There’s a game in the second half called ‘Meanwhile…’ where we used to have people write things down in the interval. But sometimes people would write the most extraordinarily awful things under cover of anonymity! Life-threatening diseases, news stories of natural disasters… Stuff where you’d think ‘How could anyone make that funny?’ So now they just shout stuff out, which makes people more reluctant to come out with that kind of stuff. But even then people will sometimes shout out locations that scare them. Last night, almost simultaneously, someone shouted out ‘crematorium’ and and somebody else shouted out ‘abattoir’. So we also reserve the right to choose… Because, you know, maybe an abattoir isn’t the funniest of places. It’s not that we can’t go to dark places, but it’s better if it’s our journey – so, rather than start off there we take it there as a result of the collective decision in the moment.

Is there anything you know in advance you’re not going to do?
The one thing that gets a big cheer right at the top of the show is that I say ‘We’re willing to consider suggestions on any subject, apart from two… This is a Brexit/Trump-free zone!’ The cheer that gets is enormous! But that’s our only rule. People have had so much of that they just want to forget about it for two hours.

But do people expect you to be political because of your long association with Have I Got News For You?
No, they’re relieved! Most of the jokes I do on HIGNFY aren’t really about politics anyway, they’re just silly stories… So that cheer is a cheer of relief, I think. I did do a scene in the second half of one show where there was an opportunity to make reference to the Northern Ireland border, which I did, and it got a big laugh but it also a groan.

How did you get started in comedy?
When I was about nine or ten I knew a lot of jokes which I’d remembered from comics, so I’d say to people ‘Give me a subject and I’ll tell you a joke about of it’. Then when I got to the age of about 12 or 13 I realised it wasn’t enough to be able to repeat jokes, you had to create them yourself. Although I didn’t think of it as impro, that’s when I started making funny comments off the back of what schoolfriends were saying. So from that age onwards, really, I was preparing myself for the professional life I now have, on radio, TV and stage. For Just a Minute, Have I Got News For You and Impro Chums I don’t have to write anything! I don’t have to learn anything, I don’t have to rehearse anything… So it’s actually quite a lazy thing to do! I did a solo standup tour about 20 years ago and it drove me nuts, just hearing myself speak for two hours.

There are 49 dates on this tour – do you need to get in training for it?
Doing it for over 30 years it’s a very familiar thing to be doing. The main thing is to not go into it tired, because that’s the one time when it can go wrong. If you’re doing a scripted show you can be tired but still do it, but in impro if you get tired the quality starts to drop immediately, because you’re just not firing on all cylinders. An audience gives you a certain amount of license, so if one bit doesn’t quite come together it’s OK. It shows that it is improvised. It reassures the audience, in a way. It’s like the juggler dropping the ball to show the trick is harder than it looks! having said that, you wouldn’t be very happy of the juggler couldn’t juggle at all… Certainly impro frees you up and you’re capable of playing any part. Yesterday I was an Irish nun for ten minutes… Anything can happen!

Is this basically the A-Team of improv..?
There are some very good improvisers around and we only have six of them, but yes, they are are very good. It’s really important that everyone is of equal ability in this, because you don’t want to feel that someone is a passenger in scenes, or is a weak link. It’s hard to hide that, and that would be a problem for the show. So, everyone has to have full confidence – which I do – in the people you are with. Some comedians are concerned about working with other people who are good, because they might be getting laughs that the comedian feels they ought to be getting. But I knew from a very early age is that the best thing is to work with the best people you can. It makes you better, it makes the show better. In a play, if the butler is a bit miscast, you can get past it, but in an improvised show, if somebody can’t do it, your show is in trouble!

Is it hard ensuring that everyone has an equal share of the stage?
No, not really. Even though it’s called ‘Paul Merton’s Impro Chums’ we all get paid the same. At any one point anyone can be on the stage on their own or the centre of attention, and they are the show for that moment. Everybody’s got a big responsibility, and you have to be able to rely on those people so it’s not embarrassing, or bad taste, or just something that doesn’t work. I do do a little bit more in the first half, just because it’s my name on the show, but it is a democracy, certainly.

When it goes well do you ever think about writing it down afterwards?
Occasionally – and then you forget! Your brain doesn’t really take this stuff on board when you’re doing it. I was doing a panto at Wimbledon Theatre – 50 shows, with a bit of ad-libbing but basically scripted – and you’d wake thinking about what you’re going to say, or what you forgot, and how you’re going to get it right. With impro there’s nothing to do to prepare, except turn up sober! We do a little vocal warm-up to begin with, but that’s it. In a sense, there’s nothing to worry about with this show, because it doesn’t exist yet…

Paul Merton’s Impro Chums
The Cresset
27 May, 8pm

Photo: Dean Chalkley

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