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Audience suggestions can be scary; comedy Paul Merton is coming out from behind his desk and hitting the road with his impro show. Brian Donaldson learns more.

Byline: Brian Donaldson

IN A showbusiness world where gossip and conjecture often reign supreme, PaulMerton seems to have got off relatively lightly. The most savage bit of whisper-mongering he has encountered in recent years was the scandalous claim from one tabloid that he and Noel Edmonds were going head to head for the Countdown chair.

"It's true that I was asked if I wanted to audition for it, but I said no and then this piece appeared. I was amused and flattered by it, but the reality of that show is that they record five a day for three weeks and then you have a whole series for six months or whatever it is," says the comic. "The people who watch and play the game take it very seriously. Even if you could think of gags in the course of three weeks for six months of programming, you couldn't think of enough and the people who watch it don't want gags, they just want the quiz."

I feel slightly guilty telling Merton that I have come from Edinburgh to meet him, with two sour experiences of the Fringe living vividly in his memory. In 1986, he was attacked while helping put up a friend's poster and the following year found himself in a hospital bed after breaking a leg during a comedians' football game, eventually contracting hepatitis A.

The reviews had been kind to him at that point but his premature Fringe burial meant a financial hit he found tough to recover from.

He can just about see the funny side now, which is fortunate as Merton has an appealing laugh, hearty and at its extreme end almost bellowing.

He recalls one of the inspirations for his own early stand-up, Liverpool-born Alexei Sayle. Merton saw him perform at London's Raymond Revue Bar at the dawn of the 1980s: "doing this extraordinary thing he called the stream of tastelessness which was every single swear word you could think of just put into a sentence without any other words at all and getting faster and faster with this aggression and his Scouse attitude.

It was hilarious."

With perfectly valid reasons, people find Paul Merton hilarious. Even those who have had their fill of Have I Got News For You concede that the bamboozled surrealist shtick he's cultivated is still enough to make them tune in from time to time.

Meanwhile, hardcore fans get dewy-eyed when dragging up recollections of his Channel 4 affair Paul Merton: The Series.

Merton and I are here today, though, to chat about his latest venture as he goes back on the road with his Impro Chums, which he brings to the Royal Court tonight as part of the Liverpool Comedy Festival.

Although Merton's face fills the poster, he is joined by ad-libbing colleagues Suki Webster, Richard Vranch, Lee Simpson and Mike McShane, who replaces Jim Sweeney, who is now too unwell with the multiple sclerosis he has suffered from since 1985 to carry on touring.

So, why improvisational comedy?

"I compare it to the years when I did stand-up in the early to mid-80s," says Merton. "Bits of it were fun, the bits on stage, but when I'm sitting in some dressing room backstage at half-time and hearing the buzz of hopefully excited people and I'm here on my own, I think 'why am I here on my own?' Compared to that, there are five people on this tour and we travel around on a coach with each show being different every night.

"If you get an idea that you think is funny, you don't have to pitch it, you just do it and find out there and then if it's funny. Normally it is, but if it isn't, then this person on stage with you will have a better idea and if they don't, then another person will and it'll happen given time."

Of course, improvised comedy does give rise to the potentially dreaded "audience suggestion".

Merton must have heard a few crackers in his time? "The things that people write down in the dark under the cloak of anonymity can sometimes be quite scary. If you ever see someone pick up a card and say 'I can't do that one', it's almost always on the grounds of taste.

"There was one where, within a month of the London underground attacks, we had a card that said: 'travel on the underground with a rucksack stuffed with explosives'. Now, that's just not going to work and if we tried it we'd end up being booed for someone else's suggestion"

Merton once told Melvyn Bragg that many people were unaware of his previous life as a stand-up comic, and believed he was "born to sit behind a desk and make quips about the week's news".

Now, of course, there is also Paul Merton TV traveller, following in the footsteps of Michael Palin by heading off to very distant foreign soil accompanied by a camera crew and interpreters.

He recently visited China for Five, and will soon be on our screens for a gruelling two-month stay in India.

Such programmes can only work with a steady stream of oddballs and eccentrics falling into the presenter's path. In India, Merton struck gold with BB Nayak.

"He holds the world record for receiving the highest consecutive kicks to his groin, which numbered 44. He'd picked out five people to kick him ten times each, but the fifth guy didn't turn up. So we went down to see him and he asked me to kick him in the groin which I did with a steady rhythm; he congratulated me for my accuracy.

Later that day, he established another world record at a local sports stadium by doing a series of cartwheels by using only the knuckles on one hand and he did 30 of those in a minute."

Having celebrated his 50th birthday last year, Merton is showing little sign of slowing down. Once the Impro Chums tour cranks out its final ad lib at the end of June, he'll be getting ready to direct and appear in a documentary for BBC4 about the British movies made by Alfred Hitchcock.

"Maybe I've changed physically, but I don't feel any different. I feel 30. But there were people I went to school with who when they were 16 were really 40, while there were people I worked with in the Tooting employment office, like this 60-year-old guy who had the spirit of a 20- year-old, so it's just how you feel, really.

"There's a Dave Allen line that says it's better than the alternative. I'm still pleased to be working and doing it."

PAUL MERTON is at the Royal Court, Liverpool, tonight.

CAPTION(S):

Paul Merton in his familiar Have I Got News for You role, alongside singer Charlotte Church; Comedian, panelist and TV presenter Paul Merton is appearing at the Royal Court, Liverpool, on a new tour
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:May 30, 2008
Words:1155
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