“I was in this club with these people born in 1990”, says Stephen Merchant on his sell-out Hello Ladies tour, “and I realized that I was the only person in this club who’s ever watched porn on VHS”. “Nowadays”, he continues, “they’ve got everything – girl on girl, man on girl, girl on toaster, whatever you’re into”.
The tour, which has garnered huge critical acclaim, is packed full of gags like this: self-conscious, self-effacing and dare I say (at the risk of sounding like a tosser) relatively post-modern. It’s his first stand-up tour since 1997 and why, I wonder, is he bothering?
After all with writing and acting credits on some of the biggest comedy shows of all time (The Office, Extras, An Idiot Abroad, The Ricky Gervais Show and the list goes on) and an estimated wealth of £35 million he surely doesn’t need the money.
Maybe he’s trying to make a point, trying to prove that Gervais isn’t the only one able to make a huge success of going solo. This too, however, also seems unlikely.
Yes he does reference Gervais (“you know who”) throughout his routine; but at no point do you get the feeling he’d rather be in his writing partner’s shoes.
A recent interview with Time Out confirms this. “You know the idea that if you boil some water and throw a frog in, it will leap around until it’s dead?” he says. “But if you put it in there and heat the water gently the frog slowly boils alive and doesn’t really notice it happen? That’s how I feel. Like Ricky was thrown in the water and I’ve slowly been boiled alive”.
The actual reason for embarking on his 50 date tour is then a genuine affection for stand-up itself: “I started doing it again because I wanted to challenge myself, to step out of my comfort zone as they say on The X Factor”.
Does he prefer writing a stand-up show I ask? “TV and films are the most fulfilling to write but they are very time consuming. Stand-up is exciting because it’s just you, it’s raw and direct and there is nowhere to hide”.
Born in Bristol in 1974, to a nurse mother and an insurance representative father Merchant’s childhood is similar to many successful comedians – laughter at home, shyness at school. Who was his earliest comedic influence? “My dad. He’d do silly things. You know, if he was getting out of the shower, he’d be mucking around – he’d pull his underpants too tight and walk funny”.
After narrowly missing out on a place at Cambridge (the plan had been to follow his hero John Cleese into the famous Footlights), he accepted an offer from Warwick University where he immersed himself in university life – he wrote for the newspaper, tried his hand on the radio and “perhaps most importantly” he “took a comedy sketch show to the Edinburgh Festival”.
“I had a great time at University”, he says of Warwick, “obviously I drank and partied and so on, but I was also very productive…I would say to any student: you will never have as much free time and opportunity as when you’re at uni so get of your arse and do something”.
Graduating with a 2:1 Merchant began embarking on a career in comedy. The early routines saw an act based around an embittered West Country comedian who wrongly considered himself a big star.
The receptions were mixed (some nights he recalls “It died on its arse”) and the deconstructed nature of his material was restricting – “you realize you’ve actually worked your way into a corner, because once you’ve deconstructed it, what can you do?”
Instead of toiling around the club circuit with a show that was both a hit and a flop in the same week, Merchant headed for London. And it was here, in 1997, that radio station XFM offered him a job as assistant to the then “Head of Speech”, namely one Ricky Gervais.
The pair instantly hit it off and when Merchant needed help with a short film for a BBC production course he had enrolled on, Gervais got the call. Thus was born Seedy Boss or, as the world would later come to know it, The Office.
Initially the show received vairied reviews, it seemed people didn’t ‘get it’ and as a result it was nearly cancelled. However, as one critic put it at the time, “once you had invested enough in it and you’ve grown to know the characters there can be no turning back, The Office will become a comedy classic”.
And it did. Indeed, with three BAFTAs, three British Comedy Awards, two EMMYs, two Golden Globes, DVD sales figures in the multi-millions and worldwide syndication The Office is one of the biggest comedy shows of all time.
Next for Merchant came the similarly outrageously successful Extras (cue more BAFTAs, EMMYs, Globes and oodles more dosh) as well as the podcasts with Gervais and Karl Pilkington (head like a fucking orange) which have been downloaded over three hundred million times.
Since then he’s written dwarf comedy Life’s Too Short and acted in films alongside comedy giants like Owen Wilson.
However, despite this international success, fame and fortune Merchant somehow remains a down-to-earth, easy going, all round nice bloke.
In his post-gig routine, for example, we find none of the coke-fuelled, three in bed romps you might expect from a star of his caliber – “I usually have a quick beer, sign some autographs, try and find somewhere to eat and fall asleep watching whatever is on TV (normally The Big Bang Theory)”.
His ‘tour essentials’ (“a laptop, DVDs, vitamin supplements, comfortable trousers, prostitutes”) are, hookers aside, also pretty vanilla. And he says he has no time for reading ego-massaging reviews.
“They [reviews] are of no use to me”, he says, “if I took them seriously I’d believe their praise and get complacent or believe their criticism and lose my nerve”.
Interestingly Merchant’s own comedy tastes reflect the slightly neurotic but equally ‘average Joe’ persona that he embodies both on and off stage.
“Woody Allen is my all-time favorite comedian”, he reflects, “His would-be intellectual nebbish who wishes he was a ladies’ man is one of the best comic creations ever”. In terms of stand-up Merchant reserves special praise for Louis CK: “he is quite simply the best stand-up in the world right now. Check him out on YouTube if you haven’t seen him”.
Given all this, his quietly self-mocking material, his hardly wild lifestyle and his admiration for the desperately hopeless Woody Allen you could be forgiven for seeing Merchant as a little ‘straight’, a little ‘un-edgy’.
When writing, for example, he is keen to ensure that jokes can be justified morally. “Nothing should be off limits per se”, he contends, “but that doesn’t mean I find every subject funny. We all have our own tastes”.
In this sense Merchant is the perfect antidote to a comedy climate in which DVD sales and spots at the 02 go to those who trade in outrage and their own celebrity (Brand, Sheen et al). Yes, at one point in the show he uses one of his BAFTAs as a prop for a baby; but he does so with a big wink to the audience.
You almost get the feeling that he doesn’t just not believe his own hype; its more that he doesn’t know it actually exists. Perhaps this is the reason why, in his own words, “audiences are generally very nice”; whatever it is, with this tour, it works.
Steven Merchant’s debut stand-up DVD, “Hello Ladies…Live!” is on sale now.