Stephen Merchant

Stephen Merchant talks to about American vs British comedy, working in TV, and the rock’n’roll life on the road days before his stand up show Hello Ladies reaches York’s Grand Opera House

James Dixon: You’ve just started your first stand-up tour, “Hello Ladies”. I’m sure many people are eager to hear what you’ve been up to. How many hotel rooms have you wrecked? Are you off your head on coke right now?

Stephen Merchant: I would love to be more rock n roll but I’m not built for it. I need at least 10 hours sleep per night, so I always have to be in bed early. I don’t like shoving hay fever spray up my nose let alone cocaine. And if I were going to throw a TV out of a hotel room, my BBC health and safety training would kick in : I’d have to get written permission from the hotel, cordon off the area beneath the window, unplug everything carefully and when lifting the TV bend at the knees to ensure I don’t hurt my back. That’s not rock n roll.

JD: How do you find writing stand-up compared to sitcom or film?

SM: Stand-up is the hardest thing to write. Firstly, you can talk about anything so where do you start? Secondly, a sitcom or a film has a narrative so even when it’s not funny hopefully it’s still interesting. If the audience isn’t laughing in stand-up there’s not much else to keep them sitting there. Also, I find I can’t just write a stand-up act at home, I need to be up on the stage doing it. Which means hours spent in little clubs refining the act. Exhausting.

JD: Did you dabble in comedy during your time at Bristol?

SM: My first stand-up gig was at a pub in Bristol. My parents dropped me off outside and I wouldn’t let them come in, like a teenager going to a school disco. That first gig went really well and I was convinced I was the greatest comedian who’d ever lived. That lasted until I did my second gig, when I died on my arse. Then I realized I had a lot of work to do.

JD: Have you found any potential wives on this tour? And what happens if/when you do? Will your routine still work?

SM: Originally I joked that the show was going to be me literally trying to find a wife on stage but then I started getting some crazy love letters in the post and I saw a few odd-balls sat in the audience — so now the show is just me talking about why I’ve failed to find a wife. My life has always revolved around my hunt for a mate and the show explores every aspect of that, from teenage hopelessness to the time I got thrown out of a wedding. I also go into detail about what a woman can expect when we’re on a date. For instance: yes, I’ve made some money but I don’t see anything wrong with still going to Pizza Hut with a two-for-one voucher. What’s wrong with that? A lot of ladies think that’s stingey but they’re wrong. What they should be thinking is, ‘This is the man I should raise a family with because he’s sensible with his money’. Think about it, ladies. It’s Darwinian. You shouldn’t mate with the guy who splashes his cash at a Michelin-starred restaurant, you should mate with the man who cuts out discount vouchers from the paper.

JD: You’ve got lots on at the moment. Do you get much spare time or has your life been quite hectic recently?

SM: This is the busiest I have ever been. I’ve been editing our new sitcom Life’s Too Short, exec-producing the new series of An Idiot Abroad and working on the stand up tour. I’ve been gigging relentlessly and it’s the most anti-social job in the world. When everyone is out having a pint I am on stage in the middle of nowhere trying to amuse total strangers.

JD: You’ve worked with loads of great actors in the past, notably on Extras. They all seemed like good sports. Is there anyone you really enjoyed spending time with?

SM: I had an amazing experience with all of them for the simple reason that I love seeing great actors doing some acting…up close. It’s like watching animals in their natural habitat. It’s fascinating. There’s a reason people like Kate Winslet and Sir Ian McKellen are so successful: it’s because they’re brilliant. Meeting people like that socially is one thing but seeing them work, watching the decisions they make, that’s a real thrill for someone like me who grew up hooked on movies.

JD: Do you think you’d be capable of writing an American sitcom?

SM: Aside from cultural references I don’t think there is a huge difference between US and UK comedy. The big difference is in the means of production. In America they can afford to hire 12 or more writers to work on a sitcom, which means you get an incredible amount of quality jokes but you risk losing that unique, personal voice that you often get in British sitcoms, which are normally written by one or two people. That’s why the very best American sitcoms have a very strong show-runner, who maintains that unique voice, like Larry David did on Seinfeld.

Could I write an American show? Well, I worked closely with the writers of the American version of The Office when I directed an episode and I had a great time. You bounce jokes and ideas around the room for hours with really smart people and that’s a lot of fun, but it’s also incredibly hard work because you’re working until after midnight trying to turn out 22 scripts in a few months. That level of intense labour is what I’d have a problem with.

JD: Is there anything you aspire to outside of what you’ve already achieved?

SM: Yes, that’s one of the reasons I went back to stand-up – because I wanted to work at that and do a good show I could be proud of. I’d like to work on more movies, both as an actor and behind the camera. But there’s no real game-plan, I’m just making it up as I go along.

JD: I read an interview in The Telegraph where the writer describes you as a “6ft 7in streak of amiability”. Do you think that’s a good description?

SM: Well, it’s better than when Ricky Gervais described me as looking like an “upright lizard being given electro-shock treatment”.

Stephen Merchant will be performing Hello Ladies at York’s Grand Opera House on 10th October, 7.30pm. Click here for more information.

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