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Paul Merton: “I wanted my dad to be a hero, but he was very distant”

Paul Merton discusses the death of his wife, the “ecstasy” of his first stand-up gig – and what happened when he auditioned for Rada

My main preoccupation at 16, and for my entire life, was to be a comedian. I practised being funny with my friends at school. I was writing comic short stories, trying to perfect the craft. I was consuming books about comedians like Jack Benny. I was desperate to do it but I had no idea how it might be possible. The route then seemed limited to working men’s clubs, holiday camps or Cambridge University. I didn’t have access to any of them.

I think the initial spark for me was seeing the clowns in the circus when I was very young and hearing the loud, joyful sound of 3,000 people laughing. I immediately wanted to be part of that process. I think the first time I ever actually made anyone laugh was when I was about four, and I’d dressed up in my grandfather’s trilby and my dad’s clothes. I came out from behind a door, swamped in my dad’s trousers, big jacket, and my mother went into peals of laughter. Hearing your mother laugh, that’s something isn’t it? It makes a big impact. And I think my aunties Margaret and Betty were there too, and they laughed. That was my first time experiencing the power of the comedy costume.

My dad specialised in trying to annoy me. I remember once my mum was in hospital for two nights, so we were left alone. Nightmare. We were watching a programme on folk rock and Bob Dylan appeared. You can’t mistake Bob Dylan, right? So Bob Dylan appears, and my dad says, who’s that? Bob Dylan, dad. Ten minutes later, Bob Dylan comes back on. Who’s that? Every time. He only did it to annoy me. We never had an argument, though. I had a sense of humour about him.

When I started reading about people like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, I think they almost became father figures for me. People to look up to. In a way, I wanted to admire my dad, I wanted him to allow me to admire him, to be a hero. But he wouldn’t. He was a distant man. He wasn’t very encouraging, he didn’t say encouraging things. Then after he died I found a stack of videotapes of all the things I’d done on Channel 4, and books full of cut-out newspaper articles. It was extraordinary, very moving, to see this stuff hidden behind a door. But even if I could go back to when he was alive, I would never have been able to change our relationship.

I wouldn’t even have been able to write my autobiography when he was still alive. It would have been too much, he wouldn’t want the world to know. We couldn’t even have talked about it. I couldn’t say, look dad, I’ve written this, what do you think?

I was extremely shy as a teenager. Talking on the phone was a trial, the thought of talking to a pretty girl was a no-no. Despite my shyness, though, I was ambitious and keen to perform on a stage, try myself out. I booked myself an audition at Rada. I thought it would be a good test, to walk out in front of three professional actors and perform two pieces of drama. Would I bottle it, would I remember my lines, would I enjoy it? I needed to know if I had the temperament for the job. And when I did it, I felt calm, even though my heart was racing. I felt in control. The horse was moving quickly but I was holding on.

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If I wanted to impress my 16-year-old self, I’d tell him I’ve just overtaken Kenneth Williams’ number of appearances on Just a Minute on Radio 4. Joy of joys. My 16-year-old self would have been listening to it back then. I love it so much, I still can’t believe I’m doing it. My teenage self would be absolutely gobsmacked at the career I’ve had. Though he might want to know why I’ve never made a film. I’d say to him, look… that’s a very tough, precarious market. And I am working on a screenplay. That could be the next big thing. But that would have been the teenage Paul’s big dream: a film. That immortal piece of art.

I’ve had to deal with grief… but I truly believe in the power of laughter.

If I could go back to enjoy one of the best moments of my life it would be my first ever stand-up gig. I got the idea for my three-and-a-half minute routine when I was standing at a bus stop. I suddenly remembered a documentary about the police busting an LSD factory and unwittingly ingesting LSD dust. I remembered one of the policemen very formally saying: “I first noticed something was wrong when I was in the pub and noticed my pint of beer was getting bigger.” I immediately saw the comic potential of it. So I wrote it up: “…35 minutes later, while sitting onboard an intergalactic spaceship bound for the planet Zanussi, I observed Constable Parish approaching, disguised as a fortnight’s holiday in Benidorm.” I did it at the Comedy Store and the crowd absolutely loved it. Ahh! They were laughing at the straight lines. I’m feeling it now, the walk home, seven miles from Soho to Streatham, across the Thames, on pure ecstasy the whole way.

I’ve had to deal with grief. [His second wife, producer/actress Sarah Parkinson died of cancer aged 41]. But I truly believe in the power of laughter. The chemical changes in our brain that it releases, the flood of endorphins. When you’re laughing, nothing else exists. You’re surfing a wave at Stockport beach but in that moment Stockport doesn’t exist, the sun doesn’t exist, only the wave exists. So, of course, the grief doesn’t go away but as a way of coping with it, that kind of life-enhancing laughter does help.

Sarah and I shared jokes about her illness that only she and I understood because of the nature of what we were going through. Other people might have thought, oh that’s a bit off. But we agreed ‘laughing at it’ was one of the things we could do. You go through the whole gamut of emotions, of course, but when we were laughing at it, we gave it a good old kicking. I remember we were waiting to see the oncologist in a hospital waiting-room full of people. Someone recognised me and I said something and some people laughed. Then someone else made a joke, and within a minute the atmosphere had changed. The nurse came back to this room and must’ve thought, what the hell is going on? Some of these people won’t see Christmas. Why are they all laughing?

Paul Merton is performing at the King’s Theatre on March 26 as part of Glasgow International Comedy Festival

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