The Office cocreator looks for love and physical onstage in Hello, Ladies.
Wed Dec 7 2011
Best known as cocreator of The Office, cohost of The Ricky Gervais Show and costar of Extras, Gervais's angular sidekick, Stephen Merchant, has been introducing himself to audiences around the U.K. this fall as a stand-up. His live show, Hello Ladies, touches on adventures romantic and pedantic, providing a portrait of the wiry, physical comic on his own. We caught up with Merchant on the Dublin leg of his tour, even as his third documentary-style TV collaboration with Gervais, Life's Too Short, airs on the BBC.
I don't want to scare you, but we do thorough research here, and to wit, I've read your Wikipedia page. Your entry says you received a "moderate amount of success" doing stand-up in the mid-'90s.
Yes, that would be about right. It culminated in a four-hander at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival with Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr and Robin Ince. After that I couldn't be bothered. The TV stuff was taking off, and I didn't want to schlep up and down the country. And I didn't miss it. I don't get this overwhelming sense of joy and excitement when I'm onstage.
What excites you about it then?
The constructing of the act is interesting to me. The mechanics of building it, seeing what works and what doesn't. When people say, "I'm only alive when I'm onstage," that's very alien to me. It's sort of sad. What happens in your quieter moments? Or the time when they don't let you onstage anymore?
What's your relationship with physical comedy?
I love it. I grew up as a big fan of Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. I liked the fact John Cleese was very tall and he used his body brilliantly. I marvel at the precision of [physical comedy]: It bypasses the intellectual part of the brain and gets you on a gut level. If I'm 6'7" and kind of weird-looking, why would I not make use of that?
Most of your audience is familiar with you as a writer and an actor. What do you feel is their expectation for you as a stand-up?
When I got started with it again, I literally asked people in the audience, "What are you expecting?" I very rarely got a coherent answer. I'm sure I will lose some people who are expecting droll observations on the political climate or whatever. But I like comedians who, even as they're passing judgment on the world, they're clinging on by their fingers, trying to make sense of it. I like the idea of being hopeless. Even if I'm talking about lovemaking, I want the audience to feel I am out of my depth.
How would you define your stand-up persona?
I'm such a fan of the arrogant nerd. I remember hearing two proper comic-store guys on the tube once and one of them mentioned something really tedious about Star Wars, and the other guy picked him up on it, saying, "I'm sorry? Really? Oh, I thought he died in Return of the Jedi; you seem to think he died in Star Wars. Haha." I want to go up to that guy and say, "You're twice as heavy as you should be, you've got greasy hair and you're in a Hellraiser T-shirt. You've got no authority and you're not George Clooney."
Given that part of the premise of Hello, Ladies is wanting attention from women, have you been receiving any on the tour?
You know what? I think I made a huge error at the beginning of the show when I said I didn't want a groupie. I did it as a joke and I feel actually they're taking it seriously. There are lots of women that would probably come backstage, but they'll think, Oh, he said, "No groupies," so we'd better go home and avoid it.
Have you received any heartfelt letters, though?
I have received letters and cards and bouquets on occasion, but I'm too scared that these people are crazy. But even if I were happily married with two kids, I wouldn't tell you, because I've been working on this show for so long and that would undermine the conceit. It's like I have to keep my wife and kids secret from you until the show is finished touring. [Laughs]
So you're saying you have a secret wife and kids.
And I can't tell the world about them. [Pauses] I'm saying if I did, I couldn't.
Again in Life's Too Short, you have convinced serious actors to mock themselves. How do you get Liam Neeson to demand "improvisational comedy"?
Liam made the mistake of telling me he was a fan of Extras, so I turned it on him and said, "Would you like to do something on this new show?" He was too sweet not to say yes. You'll notice we don't approach comedy stars: Knowing Liam has that sincere persona gives you more to play with.
Do you plan at some point to rise up and destroy Ricky Gervais?
You mean, like Godzilla versus Megalon, or something?
I don't see why Godzilla and Megalon can't live in peace. One has half of New York and one has the other half.