Interview: Stephen Merchant on his upcoming UK tour
Comic and writer of The Office returns to stand-up for his Hello Ladies tour
Stephen Merchant is stepping out from Ricky Gervais’ shadow as a world-class stand-up in his own right. He tells Brian Donaldson about his romantic highs and lows
During the Edinburgh Fringe of 2001 a quartet of lesser-known comedians took to the Café Royal stage to perform consecutive sets under the umbrella show title Rubbernecker. The first three of these gents were Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr and Robin Ince. They revelled in off-colour one-liners and impersonating people with learning disabilities.
The fourth played a West Country character veering between extreme nervousness and misplaced arrogance. To some onlookers, the 6ft 7” Stephen Merchant stole the show that night, but while his buddies have gone on to play Edinburgh Castle (Gervais), Edinburgh International Conference Centre (Carr), or talk about bad books and hang out with Josie Long (Ince), Merchant more or less halted his stand-up career. In its place, he concentrated on the TV and films that have helped make Gervais a household name and Merchant his more than capable and arguably funnier wingman.
While he has played the odd gig down those intervening years, Merchant is now thrusting himself at the public for his first national tour, entitled Hello Ladies. ‘I was so consumed with The Office and other bits of TV, and the idea of schlepping up and down the country and eating Ginsters at motorway service stations at midnight seemed too exhausting,’ he insists. ‘That [Rubbernecker] act was an arrogant comic who thought he deserved more recognition. When I went back to stand-up I tried that character again but it didn’t really work because I was then a bit better known and people were just thinking, “why is he being so mean?” So I’ve had to start from scratch and rebuild my act.’
What Merchant has come up with is a more personal show which reflects his love of the confessional stand-up first espoused by the likes of Woody Allen. ‘The spine of the show will be me talking about my romantic misfortunes. When you say that you went on a date last night, your friends will all lean forward. There’s an inherent jeopardy and a natural intrigue there; everyone is a bit voyeuristic and would love to read other people’s diaries. It’ll be a dissection of my feelings towards the pursuit of a mate, for a better word, and I’ll talk about my teenage years when the idea is cast that you’re either a ladies man straight out of the gate or, sadly, like me, you’re not.’
While Merchant prepares to open up on stage about his feelings, off it he has more practical matters to attend to, in the shape of post-production duties for Life’s Too Short. This latest BBC collaboration with Ricky Gervais revolves around the semi-fictionalised world of Warwick Davis, the actor who has appeared in Return of the Jedi, Willow and the Harry Potter films. In the series, he is in the middle of a divorce and is exploiting the members of an agency he runs for small people.
At 3ft 6”, Davis is almost half Merchant’s height, but their shared size issues meant they had more in common than some might immediately think. ‘People said, “well how can you relate to him”, but oddly enough I can relate because we’re both defined by our height,’ notes Merchant. ‘People like the idea of being tall but, as I talk about in the show, being 6ft 7” is too tall and quite annoying. You’ll always stand out whether you want to or not. Small people like to wear outrageous clothes or they get a Mohawk or jewellery to try and draw attention to themselves but I hated to draw attention to myself. One of the reasons I got into comedy was that if people are going to stare at you in the street then they may as well do it because they like what you do rather than just because you’re the freaky tall guy.’
If you do want to ogle Merchant (for whatever reason) best get out there now, as it may be your last chance. ‘This is my debut and farewell tour rolled into one; I’d be very surprised if I do this again, it’s so exhausting. And this is before I’ve even got on the road. The thing with stand-up is that I don’t want to do it half-baked, you have to commit yourself; I think the really great stand-ups dedicate their lives to it, and unfortunately I’m drawn into other directions. But I never got into this business to be stressed and do work: it’s crazy. I’m quite poorly travelled in the UK, so I’m looking forward to seeing the cities, though probably all I’ll see will be lots of Travelodges and Nandos.’
Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, Fri 7 Oct; Edinburgh Playhouse, Thu 13 Oct. Life’s Too Short starts on BBC 2 in Oct, date TBC.