Paul Merton, who was introduced to Just A Minute following the death in 1988 of Kenneth Williams, has radically changed the style of the show’s humour. His use of surreal fantasy has been copied by most of the other younger panellists. Before he joined the show, its style of humour was more anecdotal; but the show was not more serious, it just employed a different type of comedy.
The show has never been serious. To be successful on the show (i.e. to be asked back) it has always been necessary to be witty. Those panellists who were asked back were, in the main, the ones who were the wittiest – though some, such as Amy MacDonald, were invited back because they were humorous in other ways (Amy specialised in self-deprecating humour), or because they enabled the regulars to be affectionately humorous about them.
Originally, the regulars tended to be actors. Clement Freud was the only regular who wasn’t, but like Kenneth Williams and Derek Nimmo he was a raconteur. And because three of the regulars were raconteurs, the style of humour tended to be anecdotal.
Once Paul Merton joined the show, and demonstrated what a stand-up comedian could achieve on it, stand-up comedians were used a great deal more. This came about only because of Kenneth Williams’ death, and the need to find a fourth regular panellist to replace him. Stand-up comedians had appeared successfully on the show before, Bob Monkhouse and Tommy Trinder for instance; but always at a time when there had been no regular vacancy to be filled.
Stand-ups tend to be quick on their feet and able to improvise, so they do well on the show. Also, they tend to use material which draws on a wide range of topics, whereas Derek Nimmo and Peter Jones tended to recount show business anecdotes, or describe some personal experience which had happened to them during their careers.
Derek Nimmo was one of the most skilful players of the game, in the days before “bonus points” made up the majority of points awarded; and Peter Jones could be the funniest.
Kenneth Williams was extremely well-read and erudite, and could talk intelligently on the most obscure subjects; so much so that subjects were deliberately included which would enable him to do this. Yet because of his experience as a raconteur and comedian, he could talk in such a way as to make even the dryest and most obscure subject hysterically funny.
Kenneth could also become hysterically funny by going into a wild, emotional rant, that raised the tempo of the show, by complaining vociferously (but not seriously) about one of his “pet” hates, such as having women on the show. These rants were always simply for humorous effect. Sometimes Kenneth would initiate one himself; but if the producer felt a particular show was too quiet he would give Kenneth a signal to raise his game, and Kenneth would thereupon start such a rant. Then when the producer gave him a cue to stop, Kenneth stopped immediately.
Paul Merton introduced wild flights of fantasy, employing a very surreal style; yet he was only building on a foundation which the regulars had established in the first twenty years of the show. The difference was that prior to Kenneth’s death in 1988, such flights of fancy were usually challenged as being deviation from the subject on the card; whereas after 1988 that challenge was usually not made, or if it was made it was usually disallowed.