I’d be wearing the most awful clothes on stage if it wasn’t for my wife Suki...
HAVE I GOT NEWS FOR YOU? PAUL MERTON TELLS MARION McMULLEN WHY HE’S HOPPING HOP ON THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL TOUR BUS WITH HIS COMEDY CHUMS
Do you enjoy touring with your Impro Chums?
I’VE not done it for a couple of years. It really all started with a gig in India in 2004. A bunch of us went over there to do impro and it went very well.
It was an extraordinary reaction from the audience. They had seen the American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and we had standing ovations at the end of the show ... every night.
I asked the guy who had brought us over if this was a normal thing and he said standing ovations were as rare in India as they were anywhere.
I remember we did a Bollywood dance and we were taking it very seriously, but the audience found it very funny because we got it so wrong.
Some of the best gigs we have ever done have been the ones in India.
What was your first reaction when you were invited to go there?
I WAS very nervous going on a long haul flight. I’d had a bad experience on a flight four or five years earlier when we hit clear air turbulence, which is quite rare. It put me off flying, the plane drops and people without seat belts were injured, so I was not keen on flying.
But I went to Heathrow and did a fear of flying course. They show the extremes of turbulence that you get and show how no jumbo jet ever crashes through turbulence.
I went to the cockpit and saw what the pilot sees. You are high above the clouds and there’s no sense of speed.
It’s very serene and peaceful. (Laughs) I’ve just come back from a 12-hour flight so the course works.
I used to say I could go anywhere I wanted to in Europe by train.
Trains are my favourite form of travel.
What are the travel arrangements for the tour?
IT’S a bit of indulgence, but we’ve got a bit of a rock ’n’ roll tour bus.
It’s a double decker and on board there is a kitchen area, toilets, bunk beds and there’s a space at the back were you can watch DVDs.
In some areas, if the backstage is not particularly nice, we can stay on the bus, and we can get back to London afterwards, even if it’s two in the morning when we get home. It’s better than staying in a hotel.
The bus has many benefits and it gives everyone a bit of space.
It is important that you all get on when touring. You don’t have to be the best friends in the world but you have to enjoy each other’s company and trust comes into that.
The thought of impro terrifies many comedians. What is the appeal for you?
I WENT to see impro in 1985, more than 30 years ago now, and I thought ‘this is impossible. It can’t be done’. I remember talking to a waiter once in an Italian restaurant about what I do and he was saying ‘this is impossible’ and he was right.
But we all use impro in life. You never write down the words you are about to say before you say them.
The very nature of conversation is impro ... we just add the extra element that it had to be funny to a paying audience.
Your wife Suki Webster is part of the tour. Do you enjoy working together?
I DID panto in Wimbledon recently and was leaving at 10.30 in the morning and coming back at 10.30 at night so we were apart for a long time; like a lot of couples doing separate jobs. It’s good that we can do this together and everyone in the show is there on merit. You’ve got to be up to scratch.
Is there one thing you always take on tour?
I’D BE wearing the most awful clothes on stage if it wasn’t for Suki. I’m a bit clothes blind.
I know people notice what you are wearing on stage, like if your shoes don’t match, but the thing is I don’t look at what I’m wearing.
I would struggle to remember what colour trousers I am wearing now if I didn’t look down.
(A quick pause) They’re actually black, which goes with anything, and I’ve got a blue jumper on. They were just the nearest clothes I put on today, but they could be orange with a green jumper. I just don’t take notice of clothes.
I did an edition of Just A Minute recently and started with ‘I was talking to my tailor’ and Nicholas Parsons interrupted me to say: “I can’t believe Paul Merton has a tailor’ and the audience roared. I found it rather insulting, but Suki stops me looking a complete twit when I go on stage.
What ideas do people suggest for the impro comedy routines?
PEOPLE often shout out things or places they are scared about – cemetery, operating theatre, abattoir. It can be quite dark.
(Laughs) We always reserve the right not to take the first suggestion.
I go on for five minutes beforehand just to get the audience used to what the show is about and to reassure everyone that we are not going to pull out anyone on stage. We are not going to pick on anyone.
We ask sometimes for a character from history ‘like’ Henry VIII or someone from fiction ‘like’ Harry Potter. That stops anyone suggesting those two otherwise we’d constantly been doing Harry Potter and Henry VIII.
Do you ever get nervous beforehand?
BECAUSE the show does not exist in any form until we say it, there’s nothing to worry about. No impro is the same.
I’ve never had a bad impro gig. It might not be the best sound or staging and the venue might not be right, but it terms of what we are actually doing you always find something quickly that works.
Any favourite comedy moments?
LEE (Simpson) once did a thing years ago. He was doing a caterpillar coming out of a cocoon and turning into a butterfly while singing like David Bowie.
It was just an extraordinary thing, beautifully done and very, very funny. I’ve never forgotten it.
■ Paul Merton’s Impro Chums tour with Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch, Suki Webster, Mike McShane and accompanist Kirsty Newton runs until June 11. Go to paulmerton.com for ticket details.
Paul Merton and his Impro Chums (clockwise from left) Richard Vranch, Lee Simpson, Mike McShane, and Suki Webster (Paul’s wife)
Paul (centre) on Whose Line Is It Anyway? in the 1990s with Mike McShane, Julian Clary, Josie Lawrence and host Clive Anderson