I suppose it makes sense that comedians can sometimes find themselves on the edge of madness. Spike Milligan was a famous case in point. Maybe it’s the pressure they put themselves under to succeed that causes a breakdown.
In the case of Paul Merton, long-standing team captain on the BBC1 comedy Have I Got News for You, it was shortly before he became a household name. Back in 1990 he suffered a mental breakdown (reportedly caused by working too hard, overexcitement at reaching his personal goal, exacerbated by taking anti-malarial pills) and checked himself into Maudsley psychiatric hospital for six weeks.
If that’s what it took to convince him to keep going, I’m glad he persevered. His surreal, deadpan take on the week’s current affairs is the reason I love the satirical, light-hearted show that has become so popular over the past couple of decades.
He has the ability to take a theme in a completely different direction. Often quite quiet for periods of the show, he suddenly latches onto a particular topic and gives it an utterly unexpected twist, going for the absurd rather than the obvious. His wit neatly complements the serious nature of Ian Hislop’s political sniping and means that guests have to be on their guard, especially if they have ideas above their station.
Merton doesn’t do pompous. And he’s quick to belittle anyone who does. He also demonstrates that an inventive brand of improvisation works better than a rehearsed script and provides the funniest moments simply because of total unpredictability.
As if to cement his comedic stature, Have I Got News for You no longer suffers from its lack of a long-term presenter following the much-publicised departure of host Angus Deayton back in 2002. After a series of sleazy allegations printed in the tabloids and, infamously, on a Paul Merton T-shirt, Deayton was forced to leave.
At the time Merton dealt with the incident in his own immutable style, referring to the former host as “Angus with a silent g” and telling Michael Parkinson: “He never invited me to any of these parties. I was a bit upset by that.”
Some of the best illustrations of his singular bravado over the years include when Anne Robinson presented the show and Merton twice shouted “Bank!” at random moments. He concluded, “I only watch the last five minutes of the Weakest Link because The Simpsons is on afterwards. It’s nice to see some animation on the television screen.”
And after Robert Kilroy-Silk claimed Arabs had contributed nothing to society in the last 500 years, Merton asked him, “What’s your contribution been, Robert? When you weren’t doing that crap show, what’s your contribution been to society?”
He insisted that Iain Duncan Smith was in fact two people, Iain and Duncan Smith, and gave “Is it Lulu?” as a stock answer until he was correct in 2006. He then started saying “Is it Eamonn Holmes?” instead.
Finally, in one show, when two responses didn’t get a laugh in the odd-one-out round, he quipped, “Shall I go for three in a row?” Pause. “I can’t think of anything that’s not funny. Over to you, Angus.” Martin Clunes almost wet himself with hysterics. The BBC would be bananas if they ever asked Merton to stop.