Paul Merton, the droll absurdist from Have I Got News for You, has just edited a doorstop of a book called Funny Ha Ha, filled with stories, sketches and scripts by writers like Richmal Crompton, Dorothy Parker, SJ Perelman, PG Wodehouse, Leonora Carrington, Jack Handey and Joyce Grenfell.
Merton is a bit of a scholar when it comes to comedy. He has also written a book and produced a three-part documentary series about silent cinema. In the 1990s he re-enacted the classic sitcom scripts of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson for Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's…. In person, when we meet in the library of the Ivy Club in London, he recounts Laurel and Hardy sketches, gags from long-gone vaudeville acts and an entire Somerset Maugham story that "isn't funny until the final line". (It's in the book.)
Does he remember the first time he saw something funny? “The circus,” he says. “Seeing clowns come out with the make-up on… Cars where the wheels fell off, custard pies, buckets of water that they’d throw at each other, I mean it was just hysterical. And being caught up in the atmosphere of 1,000, 2,000 people laughing all at the same time is incredibly infectious.
“I was four. I wanted to be part of the mechanism of making people laugh. If I could have been one of the guys that brought on the bucket to give to the clown, that would have been enough for me… If I was to become poetical or w*nky for a moment, it was almost like something entered my soul. It was just a white-light revelatory moment… All of these people screaming with laughter because a man has hit another man over the head with a bucket.”
In his teens he bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder so he could tape comedy from the radio. He recalls holding the microphone to record a Hancock’s Half Hour episode, Sid’s Mystery Tours, which he reprints in his book. He loved The Beatles initially, he says, not for their music but for their jokes.
They were "being interviewed by Brian Matthew, and he's explaining to the listeners that he's interviewing The Beatles in London, but by the time the show goes out they will be in America… At one point Ringo makes some jibe at John, and John says, 'I'd punch you in the face, if I wasn't in America.'"
He remembers the first time he did something intentionally funny. “Walking into the living room wearing some of my dad’s clothes. So, you know, a baggy pair of trousers and a jacket that’s too big, and a hat… I wasn’t coming out with Oscar Wilde-like epigrams… Making your mother laugh is a wonderful thing for a child to hear.”
His mother was from Waterford, and recently Merton participated in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? in which he discovered that his long-dead grandfather James Power was a British soldier turned revolutionary.
"He's in Dublin during the Easter Rising. They're sending him on the streets to fire at his fellow countrymen in his capital city, when he thinks he's joined to fight the Germans in France. Then he's sent to Jerusalem, I think, and I can't remember where else… and when he comes back from there, he's – the modern word would be 'radicalised'.
"He joins the IRA, the original IRA… Watching it with my Irish cousins, I wish I'd put a camera on them, because it was a real sort of roller coaster. When he's joining the British army: 'Ah, Jesus Christ!' Then he gives the medals back: 'Ah, hey!' Then a member of the IRA: 'Yay!'"
Merton was raised a Catholic, but it didn’t stick. Before his first confession a priest told him, “Your soul will be cleansed, you’ll be pure, you’ll feel like you’re walking on air,” but when it happened he felt nothing.
"The first time I did feel like I was walking on air was when I came out of a cinema on Oxford Street called the Academy Cinema, where I'd just come out of a showing of Buster Keaton's film The General with live piano accompaniment… My feet weren't touching the steps."
Merton became part of the alternative-comedy scene that grew around Soho's Comedy Store in the early 1980s. Soho was "a different place to what it is now, full of strip joints and illegal activities… I saw Alexei Sayle on stage in a tiny venue in 1980... He was just astonishing. He was just incredibly funny… and aggressive. I'd never seen anybody like him before."
British comedy often seems to be dominated by middle-class people who come straight out of the Footlights club in Cambridge. How did working-class Merton fit in? He laughs. “There were people doing jokes about wine bars and things that I wasn’t really familiar with.”
Ann Widdecombe was the worst guest host we ever had on I Have I Got News for You. She was just dreadful
But he says that the middle-class domination of comedy is actually a product of the television age. "There's very few [middle-class comedians] before television… Peter Cook is a marvellously funny man, but if Peter had been 10 years older when he left Cambridge he would have become a diplomat… But they did Beyond the Fringe, which transferred to the West End, and then TV offers started coming in… So there was money to be had.
“If the life of a comedian was traipsing around the country for 50 weeks of the year, they probably wouldn’t be doing this. I’m waiting for the first middle-class boxer. That’ll only happen when they stop hitting each other in the face. Health and safety. You just have to waft feathers at each other.”
Did he feel at a disadvantage because of his class? "My knowledge of the history of it was, it had always been working-class people. Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Tony Hancock, certainly some of the Goons.
"The first time it really hit me that it might be a problem was in 1984. I went to Edinburgh, and I was in a show with three other male stand-up comics… There was a radio show called Aspects of the Fringe on Radio 4, and despite the other three comics the year before all having done it, I wasn't used or considered. And the producer said to me, 'Well, yours isn't the sort of act that we expect to hear on Radio Four.'"
Five years later he started to appear on Radio 4’s Just a Minute, and a year later on BBC1’s comedy news review Have I Got News for You. He’s been on that show every year since, barring one season in the 1990s when he felt they were getting lazy. The show’s week-by-week success is often down to whoever the guest host is.
"The recording is an hour and 45 minutes long," he says. "If you have someone like David Tennant, who's played Hamlet on stage, you don't have to tell him about stamina; he knows all about it. But if you have a stand-up that's used to doing 20 minutes or an hour perhaps, they start to flag. Ann Widdecombe was the worst we ever had. She was just dreadful. She said to me, at one point, 'Come on, be funny, that's what you're being paid for.'"
How does he respond to the accusation that they sometimes help facilitate dubious political careers, like that of the former Have I Got News for You regular and current prime minister, Boris Johnson? “Well, you know he was last on it in 2006,” he says.
On Johnson's first appearance, he says, Ian Hislop interrogated him viciously about the time he had discussed the hypothetical beating of a journalist with a friend. "He wasn't very happy about that. But then I think what happened was relatives or friends said, 'Oh, you were good on that,' and the next time he came on it was much more jolly and fun."
He doesn’t think this dynamic is unusual in satire. “When Spitting Image was running, the politicians would beseech the producers for [their] puppets… If a politician can align themselves with something that’s humorous, that’s very good for them, because generally we like people that make us laugh.
"Boris does have a good sense of humour. He has a good turn of phrase. The whole bumbling bit, he's carefully worked on over the years… He's stopped being funny now he's become PM. What happened to…" He momentarily does a hair-tousled impression of a bumbling Boris. "What happened to him?"
He recalls the Tory minister Cecil Parkinson’s appearance on the show in the early 1990s. “He had had a child with his secretary… And Ian again tried to sort of get at him, and he smiled and he had lovely combed hair and he had a pocket handkerchief, and everybody said afterwards, ‘Oh, wasn’t he charming, wasn’t he lovely?’ despite the fact that he’d brought out an injunction denying the existence of his own child. And I think word got back very quickly to the Conservatives’ central office, ‘If you can go on this show and be charming...’”
Throughout this Merton does his best to be neutral, he says. “It’s not my responsibility to unmask villains.”
His main loyalty is to the joke. Comedy makes life joyful, he says a little later. “You know that moment when we’re laughing at something and our brain is flooding with chemicals, endorphins, naturally produced by us. And at that moment, let’s say somebody’s going through a divorce or something, [and] they roar with laughter.
“At that point, the divorce is gone… We’re not thinking, That’s a very funny joke but it reminds me of the divorce. There is no part of our brain that is not completely given over. It’s like our brain’s been dipped in laughter juice.”
In 2003 Merton's wife Sarah Parkinson died of cancer. Even in the midst of his terrible grief he returned to the Comedy Store. "She died on a Monday, and the following Sunday I was at the Comedy Store, not to be on stage but just to be in the room. Going back to being in the circus, just being in a room full of laughter… I certainly remember just standing in the back, anonymously, soaking up the show, soaking up the laughter. Not laughing myself, but just being in a room where all those good vibes are happening."
The people that give out awards, who will decide who is in the literary canon, are suspicious of comedy because they think it's about puncturing pomposity
He rejects the idea that comedians are particularly susceptible to depression and pain. Tony Hancock, one of his idols, took his own life, but Merton believes that Hancock is more of an exception than a rule. In 1990 Merton had a breakdown and booked himself into Maudsley psychiatric hospital, in London, but this incident, he says, was triggered by anti-malarial medication. How did it start?
“I was having these manic episodes where I can remember sitting in the bed, sitting thinking, I know what tune’s coming up on the radio… I could see people standing on a roof doing some building work 400 yards away, and I thought they were spying on me.”
He talks about the strangeness of sitting in a psychiatric hospital as episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, in which he starred, aired on the television.
Once he stopped taking the medication, he says, the problem never recurred.
He certainly seems content with his life now. He has been appearing on Have I Got News for You and Just a Minute for three decades, and he still performs every Sunday with the Comedy Store Players. He frequently performs with his wife, the comedian and writer Suki Webster. They have written a film script together, and this year he starred in My Obsession, a Radio 4 play she wrote.
He enjoyed putting this book together. He talks about the rhythm of a funny sentence, the pacing of jokes and the strange juxtapositions he found by just placing the authors in alphabetical order. (Successive stories have, he says, "a talking baby, a talking monkey, a talking dog and a talking cat"). He loves Irish humour (the book contains stories by Flann O'Brien, Oscar Wilde and Kevin Barry). He thinks funny writing doesn't get enough respect.
“The people that give out awards, who will decide who is in the literary canon, are suspicious of comedy because they think it’s about – which it is in some respects – puncturing pomposity.”
We talk for a while about whether good comedy loses its impact over time. I note that nobody laughs at Shakespeare's jokes nowadays. "Maybe they didn't at the time," says Merton. He tells me a Max Miller gag from 1936: "I went home the other night. I said to the wife, 'Here,' I said, 'I hear the milkman has made love to every woman in the street bar one.' She says, 'I bet it's that stuck-up cow at number 54.'"
I burst out laughing, and he smiles. “That’s funny, and that’s the 1930s.”
There’s nothing better than making someone laugh, he says as we’re leaving, “It’s lovely when you can put images into someone else’s head.”
Funny Ha Ha: 80 of the Funniest Stories Ever Written, selected and introduced by Paul Merton, is published by Head of Zeus