Stephen Merchant, The Office Co-Creator, Thinks He's Too Tall to Get Laid
Photo by Carolyn Djanogly
At the start of his first North American stand-up tour he's entitled Hello Ladies, Stephen Merchant -- the taller, less famous writing/directing partner of Ricky Gervais and co-creator of The Office -- shows a photo from The Guardian newspaper of him standing on stage behind Gervais at the 2004 Golden Globes, his head chopped off. Story of his life. The man may have changed the face of both British and American comedy, but at 6' 7'', Merchant still has to stoop his way through life and suffer other indignities, just like any average bloke, though they help fuel his self-deprecating humor, which you can see at Largo at the Coronet beginning Jan. 17.
In addition to not having to share the profits with Gervais, Merchant wanted to go on tour to get back to his pre-TV stand-up career, which he started after graduating from college. "Stand-up is a bit like malaria," says Merchant. "Once you've got it, it's always in your system. I just felt that maybe I should get back out there and see if I could reconnect with the audience. When you do TV, you work in a rarefied bubble. I thought it was good to remind myself what makes people laugh and how hard it is to make people laugh."
After meeting Gervais in 1997 at a London radio station, the two would go on to write The Office in 2001, and it would become the first British series to win best comedy at the Golden Globes. Four years later, the sitcom launched the U.S. version, making Steve Carell a star. Since then, they've created Extras and The Ricky Gervais Show (both for HBO), and in 2009, Merchant directed his first feature film, Cemetery Junction.
But like British actor Warwick Davis, the star of Merchant/Gervais' latest BBC series Life's Too Short about a showbiz dwarf, airing on HBO later this year, Merchant has had to struggle with his height, especially in his quest to find a Mrs. Merchant.
It's hard out there for a lanky Lothario. And the bespectacled beanpole goes into embarrassing detail about his love life, from his stinginess on dates to the awkwardness of having sex. He even shows you his very unsexy, sexy-time face: think bug-eyed frog.
Photo by Carolyn Djanogly
Romance is "an age-old thing comedians talk about, but it's always funny, because everyone relates to it," says Merchant. "That's the spine of the show: my failure to find a wife."
No surprise Merchant calls Woody Allen his hero. "I used to listen to his stand-up tapes religiously," says Merchant. "The same territory he explored, I like to delve into: the guy who thinks he should be a hit with the ladies but isn't."
In his act, Merchant also navigates through the rest of his youth, talking about masturbating to '80s VHS porn and the lost art of letter writing. With the crowd's help, he even re-stages a play he wrote in high school. "I like to think it's a masterpiece," says Merchant, "but it's very representative of the mindset of a 14 or 15 year old."
Though he calls himself "quite English," the actor isn't worried about how well his stand-up will translate across the pond. "There's something about the American audience -- they're just nicer people," says Merchant. "The English can be on occasion can be a bit sour and a bit 'sit-there-arms-crossed-OK-make-me-laugh."
L.A. especially has been a second home to Merchant. "When I first came there some years ago, I found the city very bizarre," he says. "It felt so vast. As times got on, I got to know people and I spent more time there. Now I sort of love the city. If I could spend half the year there I would. Aside from the weather, I like the attitude of the people. I do think there is a positivity -- a get-up-and-go-ness that I admire. I directed an episode of the American Office when I was out there, and there's just something about getting up in the morning, grabbing your coffee, driving to work and it's already 75 degrees. It's impossible if you grew up in Great Britain in a small town like me to not be seduced by Los Angeles."
Gervais himself will soon be out here taking a second stab at hosting the Golden Globes, controversy be damned. When asked how he thought his partner faired as last year's host, Merchant says: "He's not a mean-spirited man. He's not going out there to offend. He's going out there to be funny. If you can't make jokes at the expense of movies stars, then that does seem weird. They're the most privileged people, the best-looking people, the best paid. They've won the lottery of life. If you can't make jokes about them, then who is a valid target?"
But Merchant stays silent when pressed into giving up details about The Office's upcoming episodes. "They normally send me DVDs of the episodes, but I've been on the road so I haven't had a chance to see them," says Merchant. "I'm sure I can find it illegally online. But in the UK, you can't watch the American version online. So if I wanted to watch my own show, I'd have to illegally download it."
Stephen Merchant performs at Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Tues.-Thurs., Jan. 17-19, 8 p.m.