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Paul Merton is back on stage doing stand-up for the first time in nearly 15 years. Katherine MacAlister tracks him down to find out why.
I was nervous. But then it was Paul Merton and I was expecting to be shredded like a piece of meat in a mincer, slowly but painfully, as the interview developed.
But nothing could be further from the truth. He was happy, chatty even, and enthusiastic about his new show Out Of My Head, without a hint of the deadbeat sardonic humour and put-down one-liners that we have come to expect.
Which begs the question, who is the man on Have I Got News For You then, his idea of a sadist? “No”, Paul laughs, “and it’s not a performance, but it is a persona maybe. I just think ‘why are they asking me questions about these people I don’t care about’ and I suppose it shows. And when you do so much of it, people assume that it’s you.
“And maybe because of that I’m keen not to be typecast, so with the travel, film series, comedy and radio....” he trails off. “Yes, it’s good to diversify and divide,” he finishes meekly, as if scared of blowing his own trumpet.
Not that anyone could have missed Paul’s enormous work schedule or current TV dominance. So how does he fit everything in? “I do make a conscious decision to do lots of different things and change is good. But I’m not going to write a musical or anything,” he says lamely.
So does he just have too much energy? “I’m a good sleeper so I don’t think I’m hyper. It just seems like that when things come out at the same time, so after this I’m just looking forward to playing Edinburgh and having some time off.”
In fact, the only time Paul sounds vaguely jaded is when I ask whether he sees HIGNFY as being his day job. “It’s great that HIGNFY is still going and getting good viewing figures, so you just have to keep standards up and make sure not to tell the same joke twice and keep your eye on it so things stay as fresh,” he says resignedly. “And there was a time, a long time ago, when complacency set in as if the programme made itself, you know ‘and this is the bit where Paul makes a joke’ sort of thing, but since then they’ve pulled their socks up.”
So they didn’t appreciate him. Did he feel the same when Angus Deayton was axed? “No, I had no worries about the programme sinking without Angus. His was of course a big contribution, but there is also news and guests, and Ian and me, and three writers who scripted Angus’ lines. So while it was a shame that he had to go, he was the only factor that needed replacing, and it’s good to have a guest host because it keeps things fresh.” And then Paul adds, in that characteristically innocent manner of his: “Interesting that the tabloid that made such a big impact on his career is now defunct,” as if he can’t help make the cutting remarks he is so famous for.
So is Paul’s news knowledge a natural interest or does he need to work at it? “I always used to buy two or three tabloids a day, but then realised I was just reading the same nonsense over and over again, so now I stick to the Guardian and Telegraph. And there’s only a third of the show you can guess, the rest will be from Fancy Kitchens Weekly, so it’s usually pretty obvious what the topics will be, but it’s good to be prepared.”
The fact that Paul’s not interested in celebrity must help, because he remains steadfastly unimpressed by most of the HIGNFY guests.
So how has he managed to avoid the same celebrity trappings? “London is full of good restaurants which don’t have photographers outside and I don’t like living my life under a flashbulb. I find it funny that red carpets seem to give people status as if they are saying ’look up to me, I’m fantastic’. But then some celebrities can’t help themselves and I’m sure the red carpet thing is very seductive.”
And then Paul grins, “I remember the Empire film awards where I was presenting something, and I managed to sneak into The Dorchester through a side entrance, present the award, and then escape again afterwards and get home without any record of me being there at all,” he laughs, delighted.
Not that Paul hasn’t been tabloid fodder. A “manic bout” saw him admitted to the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in 1990 which was well documented, as was his divorce from first wife actress Caroline Quentin, the subsequent tragic death of his second wife Sarah Parkinson, and his now happy marriage to fellow comic Suki Webster. Not that he seems to care much, or partake in, what the papers think.
And whether it’s his newfound piece of mind that has ensured that Paul Merton is finally back on stage again, or whether he’s just mellowed, remains to be seen, although the fact that he’s bringing his friends and family along with him for the ride, says a lot. “The good thing is that I can do that,” he says shrugging. “We are a group of people who have been working together for a long time. So I can go on tour with my wife, rather than saying ‘I’m going on a 50-date tour, see you in a few months. And I enjoy other peoples sketches and a variety of stand-up. So we are including all sorts of different acts, magic and special effects in Out Of My Head, and it’s all coming together, so I’m really excited.”
But why the entourage, inset? Paul pauses again to think about the answer. “I did a stand up tour in 1998 but I found it rather dull and rather cliched, you know sitting back stage hearing the roar of the audience as you sip a cup of tea on your own, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should. I’m not a fan of listening to my own voice,” he says conversationally. “Put it this way, it’s not about being competitive. Other comedians have support acts, but this is much more of a social thing. It’s easier for me being with other people.”
And by keeping his hand in doing weekly improv at The Comedy Store, he’s straining at the bit to show us what he’s got. “Improv is a way of keeping yourself match fit. Even if I take a few weeks off filming it takes me at least half a show to get back up to speed. So if I hadn’t done any for a couple of years I would be much more nervous about doing this. But because I don’t have the fear it’s liberating. So I have no trepidation.”
But doesn’t being up there on stage make him feel vulnerable at all? “You can’t go out on stage feeling vulnerable. Vulnerable isn’t great as a comedian,” Paul says misunderstanding me, “because the audience wants you to be in charge and to entertain them, so it would be too risky.”
No, by putting himself out there? “Well of course, because the adrenaline is coursing through and there is so much to consider. And there have been moments since I started writing the show when I’ve thought ‘this is murder what am I doing?’ And you do ask yourself whether it will work and if there are any question marks, whether you trust your own judgement and what it is that makes this funny. And in the end that is yet to be proven. But the new show is everything I hoped it would be,” he says, sounding like a small boy on Christmas Eve. ”I just hope it works.”
* Paul Merton is appearing in Out Of My Head at Oxford’s New Theatre on Monday, April 16. Go to atgtickets.com/oxford or call 0844 8713020. Left from top, Paul hosting Room 101, Paul and Ian Hislop on the set of Have I Got News for You, and Paul with his Bafta in 2003 for his work on HIGNFY