Paul Merton interview

We talk to the master improviser and 'Have I Got News For You' panellist

He's famed for his improvisational skills, but can Paul Merton keep his head with his first scripted show in over a decade? Ben Williams finds out. Plus, watch video clips of Paul Merton's favourite (and least favourite) 'Have I Got News For You' guest hosts in a new round that we like to call 'Good News or Bad News?'.

We all know that Paul Merton’s off-the-cuff wit is sharper than Cheryl Cole’s singing voice. We’ve seen him in action on ‘Have I Got News for You’ and as part of impro troupe The Comedy Store Players. But for the first time in 14 years, the 55-year-old is going back to live ‘scripted’ comedy. Many sketches are inspired by his time in the Maudsley psychiatric hospital where, in 1991, he was treated for ‘manic episodes’ caused by an anti-malarial drug. We talked to the surreal comic about his noggin.

Your time at the Maudsley sounds like a scary point in your life…

‘It doesn’t sound like rich comic material, but a sense of humour is very important. In a psychiatric hospital a lot of people believe that people on TV are talking to them directly through the screen. I’m with about 500 of these people, and I’m on TV every Friday night. As I was queuing up for breakfast one morning one guy nearly jumped out of his skin. My first thought was to go “Woooo!”’

This is your ‘return to stand-up’ but there’s a cast of three. Why not do a full-blown solo show?

‘When I first started doing stand-up in clubs the camaraderie was fantastic. But when I toured a solo show back in ’98… One hates to fall into romantic cliché, but you’d be in the dressing room on your own with a cup of tea.’

It’s lonely, then?

‘It is. Once, in Kings Lynn, I walked on: no applause, they just looked at me. They’d bought tickets to see me, my face is on the poster, I look like me, I am me, but they just stared at me. With five of you, you feel that you can outnumber them. But when there’s just one of you there, you really are on your own.’

Good news: Paul Merton's favourite 'Have I Got News For You' guest hosts

Brian Blessed: 'He was just so completely over the top. He was great.'

Rolf Harris: 'He started off the recording by singing "Two Little Boys". Extraordinary.'

Bad news: Paul Merton's least favourite 'Have I Got News For You' guest hosts

Ann Widdecombe: 'The first time she does it, she’s great. The second time, she’s telling
the writers how to rewrite the jokes, telling the producers how to make the show…'

John Sergeant: 'He came on a second time and more or less said, “Give me the job”. They decided not to.'

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