Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Open Letter Of Admiration About Paul Merton

I started watching Whose Line Is It Anyway some time in the mid-90's when Comedy Central was running it here in the US. This was the original UK version, hosted by Clive Anderson. I really enjoy the US version hosted by Drew Carey, but it's an entirely different show, catering to a different level of humor. The UK version aspired to a higher level of cleverness, and the audience didn't applaud each and every little thing like it was the funniest moment in the history of the universe. They just laughed at things that were funny.

So I've been recently moving all of my VHS tapes (remember VCRs, kids?) of those old UK shows over to DVD, and seeing things I haven't watched for quite a while. I forgot just how much I prefer the UK version of the show, excepting of course for most of the first 2 seasons. It's actually a miracle the show lasted, because the first 2 seasons really don't have much to offer in the way of humor. Thankfully, they have more patience in Britain, and the show was given time to develop, and it turned into something wonderful starting with series 3. Had it started in the instant gratification capital of the world that is the US, it would have been cancelled halfway thru filming the pilot.

Perhaps the brightest bit of the show for me was Paul Merton, which is an ironic statement considering his somewhat dour demeanor. I don't mean that as a bad thing, that is just his way. Regardless, he always had the quickest wit, and the most unique way of perceiving situations. His ability to understand and play with language is on a par with George Carlin, except that Paul was usually doing it on the spot. Not to downplay George's ability with words, but his wordplay was carefully crafted in scripts that he prepared before he would go and perform, and he would hone the bits over repeated performances. I would have loved to have seen a mind as brilliant as Geroge Carlin's in a Whose Line improv situation, I think it would have produced some interesting results.

My enjoyment of Whose Line led me to a British radio program called Just A Minute, which started back in 1967, and is still going strong today. Paul first came on the show in 1989, and is pretty much the reason the show is still on the air today. In JAM, one of 4 contestants is given a random subject, and 60 seconds in which to speak on that subject without hesitating, repeating any words (other than those in the subject), or deviating from the subject. Of course, this is nearly impossible, so if anyone spots a JAM sin, they buzz in, and can take over the subject. And this is where the comedy begins. Listening to the arguments over whether or not what was just said was deviation is quite enjoyable, and often hilarious. Following the thought process, particularly Paul's, is a thing of beauty. Some of the challenges border on sheer genius. And the bizarre stories he will come up with off the top of his head when he has the subject are astonishing in their surrealness, as well as tremendously high in humor value.

Many an hour has been spent listening to JAM, especially when I'm working. While delivering mail at the large apartment complex on my route (my final stop of the day), I'm often in the mailroom for an hour and a half at a time. While putting mail in hundreds of mailboxes for 90 minutes or so may sound exciting, it can actually become quite tedious. I know, sounds far-fetched, but it's true. Having Paul Merton, especially when teamed with the recently deceased Clement Freud, is like having some very witty friends around having conversations and trying to top each other in the "Cleverest Boy In The Room" competition. Other favorites include Graham Norton, Ross Noble, Stephen Fry (possibly the most educated and well-read human I've ever encountered), Linda Smith, Tony Hawks, Peter Jones, Tony Slattery, and Steve Frost. There have been dozens of performers over the 40 something years the show has been on the air, but Paul Merton is my absolute favorite of all of them. The amount of enjoyment I've derived from listening to his "flights of fantasy", as chairman Nicholas Parsons would put it, is immeasurable. I think I've even learned a thing or 2 from listening to Paul and the others over the last decade or so.

Basically, I just wanted to thank Paul Merton for making me laugh and think at the same time. While simple, broad humor has its place, I feel I get so much more out of humor that challenges you to keep up with it, and isn't going to stop and pick you up if you fall behind. Seeing as my chances of actually meeting Paul in this stage of existence are slim, I'll just take this opportunity here to say "Thank you, Paul".

Blog Post Soundtrack; The Doors live in Pittsburgh, May, 1970, Queens Of The Stone Age self-titled first album.

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