Paul Merton met his wife while observing an invisible magician after having diarrhea


Forty years ago, Paul Merton stumbled onto the stage of a bearpit comedy club and knew his life was at a crossroads.

Ever since he was fascinated by circus clowns at the age of four, all he wanted was to make people laugh.

Having been bored for three years as a clerk at the unemployment office, he also knew that a nine-five job wasn’t for him.

The 24-year-old spent six weeks honing a three-and-a-half-minute sketch of a police officer on acid testifying in court, even buying a cop’s helmet from a tourist shop and a notebook as props to beat the nerves.

It was midnight in April 1982 at Soho’s Comedy Store when the newcomer regaled the drunken, noisy crowd with his hallucinogenic monologue.

And to his eternal relief, he smashed it so much they asked for an encore, which was a tough request as he had no other material. So he did his sketch again and they loved it even more.

A very young Paul with his parents


BBC/Wall to Wall Media Ltd/Angela Martin)

The London Tube driver’s son says: “It felt extraordinary. After that, at half past one in the morning I walked the seven miles from Soho home to my bed in Streatham feeling elated.

“I got home at 6am and I was in heaven because on my first attempt on a London stage I succeeded in doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I had to learn a lot, but it was no accident. What I found funny had been funny.

“Unfortunately none of the gigs were that good in the next 18 months. I would start well then the next 15 minutes would fall apart. When you have three bad gigs in a row in comedy, it really robs you of your confidence. Luckily it never became more than three.”

Paul Merton on life and how important it is in a marriage to trick one another


BBC/Hattrick/Ray Burmiston)

Paul became a comedy legend thanks to TV shows like Have I Got News For You, which begins its 63rd season tonight.

After that first appearance, he gave himself five years to see if he could make it and luckily Channel 4 offered him an appearance on Whose Line Is It Whatever? just before the deadline. He was on his way to household name status.

Now back on the road for a nationwide tour of Paul Merton’s improv Chums, he’s returning to his true love of comedy – wild, impromptu, audience-led highs.

It’s Burnley Mechanics tonight and the threatened Leadmill in Sheffield tomorrow. Joining him will be his 13-year-old wife Suki Webster, who recalls the unusual way the couple fell in love: drunk on brandy while watching an unseen magician after being stricken with diarrhea.

Paul and his wife Suki in the Lake District


curve media)

The 57-year-old writer-performer says: “It was a Comedy Club Players tour of India in 2004 and we both got Delhi Belly. Everyone else did tourist stuff and we were left at the hotel.

“I suggested that drinking lots of brandy and coke might be a good idea, because coke kills every dead germ, right? We ended up getting squiffy together and there was a magic show in the garden which we couldn’t see as it was so dark and the magician was 60ft away. We couldn’t stop laughing.”

Five years later, Suki became Paul’s third wife. He was married for eight years to actress Caroline Quentin and writer-producer Sarah Parkinson, who died of breast cancer 12 weeks after they tied the knot in 2003.

Paul, who changed his name to Merton when Equity told him that a Leeds juggler was already called Paul Martin, says: “The most important thing a couple must have in common is a shared sense of humour. Can upset each other. If that gets lost, you’ve got a problem,” he says.

Do they ever have big impromptu arguments, I ask? “Rarely. And when we have a fight, Suki apologizes,” Paul replies menacingly.

“You keep telling yourself that,” says Suki. “If we don’t agree, we usually don’t speak to each other for an hour and then sort it out. We are not screaming people. Besides, you can’t go on stage together and enjoy it when you’re both in a bad mood.”

It’s been almost three years since Paul, Suki and Impro Chums Mike McShane, Lee Simpson and Richard Vranch have toured with music by Kirsty Newton and post Covid they are itching to hear live laughter again.

Paul and his improv friends – Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster



Paul adds, “Comedy is a basic human need. There’s always a time when you need to get away from the bad news and just take yourself somewhere else for a while. It really is therapy. When people laugh, their brains don’t have time for anything else. There are no problems.”

I’m asking if comedians need therapy too, since they’re basically just grown-up versions of the kids who’ve made their classmates laugh, yet need attention to stay sane.

Paul replies, “I wasn’t actually the funniest boy in the class. I was funny, but I tended to make soft comments in the back row. Other people, much more identifiable as class comedians, mailed off-license beer bottles.

“But when I do these shows, I feel like I’m a nine-year-old again when I’m playing. And the appeal to the audience is that we adults act like children.”

Suki warms to the subject: “This form of comedy is really youthful and light-hearted. Because you can’t predict what the others will say on stage, all you can do is think about the now and have as much fun with it as possible.”

Paul on Do I have news for you in 2010



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After 40 years of making people laugh like this, the boy from a Fulham council house is recognized as one of Britain’s greatest talented comedians of all time. I ask Paul what the secret of his longevity is.

In a flash, he says, “Don’t die.” Then he adds, “I try not to get too complacent about things.

He’ll be 65 in July, an age when many think about retirement, but the memory of his days as a clerk at the Tooting unemployment office banishes any thought of waltzing into the sunset with a gold watch.

Paul explains, “When I was 19, the manager called me into his office and said, ‘That may sound premature, but we have a wonderful pension system, you know.’

“The mere thought that I’m still here and getting to that fills me with fear.”

So does he plan to carry on as long as Nicholas Parsons, his old friend and fellow Radio 4’s Just A Minute?

“Well, if I do that, it means I’ve got another 30 years ahead of me, which is stunning, but why not?”

  • Paul Merton’s Impro Chums UK Tour continues until June 14 at venues across the country (paulmerton.com).

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