Paul Merton: interview

In a rare and candid interview, Paul James Martin tells Time Out how Catholicism, the Comedy Store and Charlie Chaplin helped create the inimitable Paul Merton in advance of his 'Silent Clowns' show at London's Hackney Empire

  • Was there a lot of laughter in the Martin household when you were growing up?
    ‘Quite a bit. I think I made my mother laugh, and kids love to hear their mother laughing, it encourages you. And like the old stereotype, I overcame my shyness by making my friends laugh. Lots of kids do that, but as a seven-year-old child I can clearly remember thinking: Well I’m making the kids at school laugh now, but I’ll have to raise my game next year when they’re older. I’ll need to improve and have better jokes. There was already something inside, pushing me onwards, some internal drive to be funny.’

    In your recent documentary about Alfred Hitchcock you said you could relate to his feelings of being an ‘outsider’?
    ‘Absolutely, but that’s not a negative, I think having an outsider’s viewpoint is interesting and good, especially for a comedian. Growing up as a Catholic did set me apart a bit. But I think I was just different from other kids right from the start. I had this thing about circuses and clowns. It amazed me, seeing adults behaving like that, running around with big red noses and floppy boots, pouring buckets of whitewash over each other. At the age of four, or whatever it was, I was knocked out by it. But more than their antics, it was the sound of people laughing, the sheer power of laughter that grabbed me. I knew I wanted to create that sound. I was hooked on the lovely thing that is comedy – in all its forms.

    When I was nine I spent a lot of my time reading books about the history of comedy, or listening to the Goons or Hancock, humour from previous generations. I’d sit in my room with my 8mm projector  flickering images up on my wall, watching home-movie versions of silent movies like Keaton’s ‘Cops’. You couldn’t get a lot of them but I had about three or four of his films. I had about the same number of Chaplin, and a couple of Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd. I’d sit there on my own, mesmerised. That sounds a little sad, but that’s not how I felt. I just mean it wasn’t what most kids were doing in 1971. Most of them were into David Bowie, not Snub Pollard. Can you still hear the derision in my voice? The mad fools. Where’s your Gary Glitter now, then?’

    When you were creating ‘Paul Merton’…

    ‘What in a laboratory? A bit of Johnny Immaterial down here, bit of Jeremy Hardy up there. Like a comedy monster constructed from various comics?’

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    Not exactly, but what were the processes that led to you becoming the performer you are today?
    ‘It came from several things, I think. There used to be a thing in my family where we all looked down on comedians on telly who laughed at their own jokes. Perhaps that’s why one of my earliest and strongest influences was Buster Keaton. His thing was that he hardly responded facially to anything, however extraordinary his acrobatic artistry was or however bizarre the situations were he found himself in. So that was in the back of my mind as a template, if you like.

    ‘The first thing I wrote that was really successful was a stand-up piece in 1981, which I performed at the Comedy Store, about
    a policeman on acid. Basically, it was this guy giving evidence in court oblivious to the fact that anything he was saying was remotely funny. He’s just describing this acid trip in the standard, stereotypical policeman way: “Thirty-five minutes later, I was sitting aboard an intergalactic spacecraft bound for the planet Zanussi, when I observed Constable Parish approaching me disguised as a fortnight’s holiday in Benidorm.”

    Even then I realised the key to making it funny was to deliver it straight. I’ve kept to that right up to today on “Have I Got News for You”. The kind of stuff I do isn’t generally about the news at all, it’s a story in Devon where a penguin successfully lives as an OAP for four years or something. But it’s funny because I don’t acknowledge it’s funny. And if I then look like I don’t understand why people are laughing, I can extend the laugh.’

    How important was the Comedy Store to your development?
    ‘There was nowhere else I could possibly have gone to do what I did. We were lucky to have a space like that, which let us experiment and develop. The Store’s great fortune was to find people like Alexei Sayle and Keith Allen and all those other hugely talented people at an early stage in their careers, which helped put them on the map. Suddenly, comedy sort of mirrored what had happened in music with punk. That’s how it felt in those early days – all very anarchic.’

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    It’s interesting, though, that your influences haven’t come from your contemporaries but are from further back.
    ‘I served an apprenticeship in a way. Like a correspondence course except there wasn’t any correspondence. I learned everything from watching movies and reading books, like Buster Keaton’s biography. I took on board his way of approaching work, being a perfectionist and always trying to improve and get something right. In fact, I don’t watch a lot of contemporary comedy for fear of being influenced by it. I suppose I’m slightly wary of picking something up. Like when Eddie Izzard came along. His delivery is as unique as Louis Armstrong first playing the trumpet in the ’20s. Suddenly, there were a lot of comics who, quite unconsciously, sounded like him. For that reason I haven’t seen many episodes of “The Office’’ and missed “Black Books” entirely, even though I hear they’re brilliant.’

    Do you think that work ethic has helped keep ‘Have I Got News for You’ fresh?
    ‘Well that and the fact that the raw material is the news, that’s always changing. Very early on there wasn’t a great deal of chat or banter, it was treated as more of a quiz – well, it still is – but you really answered the question back then. I mean that was it. In the first few shows there wasn’t really much more than just trying to get the question right. But it sort of grew into what it could become fairly quickly. And as long as we keep the standard up, as long as I keep up what I’m doing and I don’t get lazy, it can run for years. But you’ve always got to try and do better.’

    But you took a break in 1996?
    ‘I took a break then because I thought we were getting a bit complacent, assuming the programme made itself. And I was beginning not to enjoy it. So I decided to leave for a little bit to see what that would do. What actually happened was the production team had to work a bit harder because I wasn’t there. They may see it completely differently. But it felt like we were relying on me a lot and there was a certain laziness going on. Which then disappeared when other people came in to do it because they couldn’t rely on somebody knowing what they were doing. Then when I came back I thought we hit a new standard in the preparation and I think we’ve hardly deviated from that since.’

    Do you spend a lot of time researching the news for the show?
    ‘I used to for the first couple of series. With my competitive streak, I’d read every tabloid every day, but in the end you go a bit mental. ’Cos you’re reading the same stuff five times. It’s bad enough reading it once. Then after a while you kind of get to know. Something pops up and you think: That’s definitely going to be in. Like when I saw that a man had thrown his girlfriend out of the house ’cos he’d rather live with a pot-bellied pig than her. And you think: Well that’s probably gonna come up. I concentrate more on keeping things fresh and not trying to repeat myself, another thing I learnt from Keaton.’

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    Why do you think silent movies have had such a profound effect on you?
    ‘There’s something about the immortal in them. Perhaps it ties in with the whole Catholicism thing a bit. We had various “rehearsals” or “goes” at confession before we actually did our first confession when we were seven. I thought we were having two dry runs on the day but had made a mistake; we were only having one. So I came out of what I thought was the second dry run and the kid next to me said: “Well how was it? What does it feel like?” And I said, “Wasn’t that a practice?” To which he replied “No, that was it.” I’d been told by a priest that when I came out of my first real confession my soul would be cleansed and I’d feel like I was walking on air.  But I just thought: Is that it?

    However, when I came out of the Academy Cinema on Oxford Street after seeing Keaton’s “The General” on the big screen aged 15, I flew down the steps of Tottenham Court Road station. The feeling the priest told me I would have, I had – but it happened after coming out of a film. And a film made 55 years earlier. The Catholic Church is always talking about immortality, and there it was, somebody made this film in 1926, and here I was in 1972 with a cinema full of people cheering. I can’t express the huge effect that had on a teenager who was already into comedy. I said to myself: Imagine having something you’d done still being loved 50 years after you’re gone. What a kick!’

    Is it this kind of experience you’re hoping to share with the audiences who come to see your ‘Silent Clowns’ shows?

    ‘Certainly. If you haven’t seen silent comedy live with a big screen, a big audience, the right music, you haven’t seen it. You may think you have, but you haven’t, because it’s about seeing it live with a whole bunch of other people. And when you’ve got – what, 2,000 people – all laughing at the same time it’s a very powerful thing. And because it’s all visuals, the laughter doesn’t stop. You’re not listening for dialogue. We’ll have Chaplin clips, some Laurel and Hardy, we’ll have a couple of rare French films I’ve recently found. And the second half’s going to be “Steamboat Bill Jr”, the Buster Keaton film where the side of the house falls over.’

    Okay, last question…
    ‘What’s my favourite sausage?’

    No. You seem to be enjoying life at the moment – are you?

    ‘Absolutely. The teenage boy who wanted to be in comedy is extremely pleased. I’ve learnt a lot technique-wise from Keaton, but my heart is pure Charlie Chaplin, because he was sort of a working-class Londoner. And I lived in Morden at the end of the Northern Line and he grew up around Kennington. It was a boost that somebody as great as that could come from the same kind of impoverished place and make a career out of making people laugh.’

    Paul Merton’s ‘Silent Clowns’ is at The Hackney Empire on Sunday May 10. He performs with the Comedy Store Players most Sunday nights.

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