Top 10 tips for being a successful comedian

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Paul MertonImage source, Publicity
Image caption,
Paul Merton says he was inspired by his good-humoured father

Paul Merton is a Bafta award-winning presenter, writer, actor and comedian, known for his improvisation skills and deadpan humour.

In a 2007 public poll, he was voted as one of the 10 greatest wits of all time.

He is well known for his regular appearances as a team captain on the BBC's Have I Got News For You and has also appeared as a regular panellist on Radio 4's Just a Minute. He has won Top TV Comedy Personality at the British Comedy Awards and after several nominations, he won a Bafta in 2003.

Here are his top 10 tips for being a comedian.

1. Make people laugh

My Dad had a lively sense of humour, he was always cracking jokes. I think perhaps that gave me the idea that being funny was a good way to behave, but I think it was going to the circus and seeing the clowns that had a big impact on me growing up.

When I was about 10 years old, I used to know a lot of jokes culled from children's comics and things, but eventually I got to an age where I realised that you have to write your own stuff.

Making your friends laugh at school or in the office is not the same as getting up on stage and making a bunch of people who don't know who you are laugh. But it is a step in the right direction and being funny around your friends is certainly one way of practising.

Get on stage and give it a go, that's the first thing you should do. That will tell you a lot. You could try it with a bunch of jokes which you've cribbed from the internet and pretend they're your own the first time.

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Paul Merton has an easy approach to hecklers - just telling them to shut up generally works

If you felt that it worked and you enjoyed it, then it would maybe give you the confidence to try and write your own stuff, because eventually that is what you are going to have to do in the end.

Getting up on stage that first time will tell you if it's for you. If it's a horrendous experience, you won't want to ever do it again. It will tell you a lot about yourself, so just get up and try, everything else stems from that really.

It's like most things, thinking of something funny to say, quickly, requires practice. It's like a muscle I suppose, the more you do it, the better you will get.

Like any muscle, if I haven't worked live for a few weeks or if I haven't done a gig for a while, I find when I come back I'm a bit slower and it takes a while to get back up to speed.

It's about practice and about having the dedication and the temperament to pursue what you want to do I suppose.

If someone heckles you, just tell them to shut up, or be quiet. You don't have to engage them in great battles of wits, because they are inevitably very drunk.

I was doing a charity gig the other night and there was a guy who started shouting things out from the front row, so one of us just said, "Thank you for coming, other people are trying to listen," which was a nice way of telling him to shut up and he did.

It tends to only happen when there is a solo comedian on stage and the person shouting at them from the audience is envious of the person on stage, that's all it is. I find you don't need to think of a funny put-down for a heckler, just tell them to shut up.

You still have to be on TV I think if you really want to make it in the business. That may change in years to come, but at the moment, television is still immensely important. It creates the opportunity for so many more people to see you.

The thing is, there's only a small proportion of people who actually like you, but the more of them that see you the better so that you can start to build up a bit of an audience.

Even with Have I Got News For You getting something like five million viewers, that's still 45 million people who aren't watching. That's an enormous number. You need to know that most people don't care or at best are sort of ambivalent and be OK with that.

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Image caption,
Paul Merton has proved his versatility and skill through his long-running success on stage and small screen

It's so important to learn from other comedians. When I first started I used to read autobiographies and watch other comedians on stage and watch how they were doing things.

If you think it is going to be a tough audience, watch and learn how a skilled comedian can turn that audience around. All that kind of thing can be picked up just by observing as well as doing it yourself.

I grew up loving comedy and great comedians, everybody from Charlie Chaplin through to John Cleese, they were important figures that you could be inspired by.

Getting awards isn't everything, they're not important. If you have a successful career in showbusiness you've already won the raffle.

I won a Bafta once and that was very thrilling, particularly as I'd been nominated 13 times, so eventually when I did win it, it was nice, because it was getting a bit rude. It's like being invited to a party and just before you turn up they say no, no, not today.

You can purposefully search for your own style of comedy or it develops through stage time, which is that key thing, being in a stage environment in front of other people as often as you can.

It doesn't come immediately, but everything comes down to that really, if you really want to do it, then you've just got to get on stage and experience performing live.

Your style will develop, the more you do it. When I first started I didn't have the style I have now necessarily, but it grows on you and you develop it over the years.

You had to be a member of Equity to appear on television when I was starting out; of course reality TV shows have put an end to that. There was another guy, he was a juggler in Leeds called Paul Martin and you couldn't have two people with the same name.

Because I always practised my signature as a kid, I didn't want to change my autograph, so Martin became Merton. I lived in that part of London and I remember thinking that was quite easy, just to change two letters and I soon got used to being called that.

When I thought of changing my name, I thought about changing it to a funny name, like Paul Funnybones or something, but you'd be sick of it after half an hour and be stuck with it. So the name is not so important, as long as it's not Captain Death or something.

My life hasn't always gone according to plan. The work is a therapy to the sadness and grief. When you are physically laughing at something, that's the only thing that you are aware of at that point and everything else, just for that moment, disappears.

I sometimes think laughter is probably the thing that stops us all going completely insane from the moment we are born. In the end, you have to please yourself as well as hopefully the audience.

If I could go back in time and speak to my younger self when I was just starting out, I'd say don't worry, it will all be alright.

Paul Merton was taking part in the Guildford Book Festival in Surrey.

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