Stephen Merchant's looking for love

By Russell Baillie

He's the taller, quieter half of Britain's most successful comedy partnership of the past decade but now Stephen Merchant is heading here on his lonesome.

Stephen Merchant might have started out as a stand-up comedian but proper jobs kept getting in the way.

Jobs like hosting radio shows with Ricky Gervais, who he first met at London radio station Xfm back in the late 90s. Jobs like creating, with Gervais, the ground-breaking hit sitcom The Office, which in turn kicked off the whole Gervais-Merchant comedy industry, its chief products being Extras (with Merchant playing the hopeless agent to Gervais' struggling actor), the film Cemetery Junction and, more recently, An Idiot Abroad and Life's Too Short. It's all made a star of Gervais and, to a lesser degree, of Merchant too.

Now the two-metre-tall Merchant has headed out on his own with his stand-up show Hello Ladies, which is themed on the lanky 37-year-old's past failures in the girlfriend department and the hope that a future Mrs Merchant may be found in the audience.

As he brings the year-old live show to New Zealand, Hello Ladies is also being developed into a sitcom by HBO. TimeOut's call finds Merchant somewhere in Los Angeles, where he is working on the series pilot ....

So will you be in the sitcom version and how will it work?

Yes. It's me failing to meet women in Los Angeles. Whereas the stand-up is me failing to meet women in London. It's all variations on a theme basically.

The live show publicity ["so this tour is a great opportunity for me to get out there and meet my fans. And make at least one of them my wife"] sounds like it's turning celebrity stalking on its head.

The original idea was a joke about searching for a wife on stage. But increasingly the more I mentioned that in the press, the more it got kind of creepy. People would start sending emails and letters to me with love resumes with offers. I started getting a little bit unnerved by that and I was worried they would show up at the show in a bridal gown - choose me! - so it's not really that. It's a dissection of my failings in love over the years.

What does stand-up mean to you? Because while you started out doing it, a big part of your career has been doing anything but. Is it like the Shakespearean actor-turned-movie star going back on the boards?

Well, I like the suggestion I am like Sir Ian McKellen going back to King Lear but basically it's a tall bloke telling knob jokes. I started it when I left university and I did it on and off for a couple of years and I was solid enough to make a living from it - or certainly to get paid.

When the TV stuff happened I stopped doing it and I just wasn't taking enough pleasure from it. It's not something that I needed to do because I needed the fix or the love of the crowd.

Are you braver now than when you started out?

I'm probably not as brave as when I started, because I now have the fear of failing much more than when I began because now I am in the public eye much more. With the advent of YouTube and blogging and tweeting, it's hard to make mistakes. So I am not as audacious as when I first began and I didn't really care if I failed miserably.

But now people are going because presumably they are fans of your television stuff.

That's true but at the same time they have expectations. And because I didn't make my name as a stand-up, it took me a while to develop the stand-up show in a way that kind of satisfied the audience who know me from all kinds of different things. In a way, this is really me defining my stand-up persona and my stand-up attitude, because I don't think you will have seen it in quite the same way before. It's much more physical, it's quite confessional.

Is it confessional of you or a character you've created with your name who looks a lot like you?

No, it's confessional of me but obviously when you tell stories you are presenting the worst aspects of yourself - or at least I am. When people see it, they come away thinking I am just a tragic lonely figure and I am a tragic lonely figure but I have other things going on as well to compensate.

You mentioned your comedy heroes were all stand-ups. Who are they?

People like Woody Allen would be chief among them. I was also a big fan of Bob Hope, which people think is quite unusual but his on-screen film persona was always so funny to me - the would-be ladies man.

John Cleese was another big hero of mine and he actually grew up not a million miles away from where I grew up. So he was always someone I idolised when I was young. I used to say to people I want to do what John Cleese does - which is perform and write a sitcom and do movies and stuff and I have managed to do many of those things. He always managed to combine a thoughtful sense of humour with physical pratfalling and I always admired that.

You've made jokes about riding on Ricky Gervais' coat-tails but do you feel you're in his shadow? Or is it actually a handy spot to be in?

It's not from any game plan on my part. He was on screen for the first project we did and that made him a household name. I have never done anything with fame as a pursuit. I know that seems weird when you think of what I do ... but any celebrity that comes with that is a by-product. I am only in his shadow if you assume my want or desire is having people know who I am. But when we work on the projects, we write it together, we direct it together, we edit it together. I am not sat in the carpark waiting for him to finish it. So in that regard, I have never felt that I am in his shadow really.

Who: Stephen Merchant
What: His Hello Ladies stand-up tour
When: Opera House, Wellington Monday Dec 17; Auckland Town Hall, Wednesday Dec 19 and Thursday Dec 20

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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