Edinburgh '98 Comedy: Unhinged on the Fringe

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HOW DO you break it to an established comedian that he is not on particularly good form? At the start of his first stand-up show for 10 years, And This is Me, Paul Merton has a gripe about the fact that, a while back, The Sunday People rejected an article of his about Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno. Bruno, he suggested, could claim the title of world's greatest boxer simply by sneaking up on Tyson in jail, catching him unawares and clobbering him. Boom boom.

The reason given for not running the copy was that it was not funny because it was not true. Rather than reading between the lines (that it just was not funny), Merton turns this into a formula (that which is true is funny) and tests it out with an hour of confessional material.

It is hard not to find Merton's more prosaic anecdotes about his life more amusing than his flights of fancy. We hear of the nun who taught him as a boy and tried to clamp his oddball imagination, his sexual awakening (seeing "a lion treading on a walnut"), and his time in Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital circa 1990, while in the grip of paranoia. The patients there, he says, "weren't all crackers. That would be glib. Some of them were bonkers."

That flippancy warns you off trying to read too much into the revelations, but the Maudsley episode defines the hit-and-miss nature of Merton's material. He can be inspired (imagining, say, an ambulance crew finger- puppet show in aid of a dying man) and extraordinarily pedestrian (contemplating hackneyed subjects such as Papal infallibility and PG Tips).

He often loses his bearings, which is fine on Have I Got News For You?, but makes for more depressing viewing live. "I'm fed up with doing this show and it's only three shows in," he announced, in that charmingly glum way of his. He was not jesting.