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Stephen Merchant is kind of a big deal—literally. Not only is he quite tall, but he’s also responsible for creating groundbreaking comedies like The Office and is credited, along with Ricky Gervais, with popularizing the comedic podcast. Still, in America, Merchant isn’t quite as well known as his loud, giggly cohort. He’s working on changing that, though, with more stand-up dates across the states, including three—June 14, 15, and 16—at Park West in Chicago. He talked to The A.V. Club about reaching the top of the comedy mountain and his burning desire to talk to Joel Silver about a starring role in a buddy cop movie.
The A.V. Club: You started your career doing stand-up, but took years off to do other things, understandably. What made you decide to come back?
Stephen Merchant: All of my comedy heroes were stand-up comics, like Woody Allen and people like that, and I guess I stopped doing it because TV sidetracked me, and I felt sort of like I had unfinished business with stand-up. I felt frustrated that I had never cracked it; I’d never been as good as I hoped I could be, and so I started to dabble with it again in my downtime, just doing five minutes here and 10 minutes there. And what I realized was that it was actually quite productive because it was feeding back into the sitcom writing, because you’re back in front of a live audience, and you’re sort of reminded about the difficulties of making people laugh and the tricks and the various grammar that you need really to make people laugh, and so actually I started to find it really useful. After a while I had this hour of material, and I thought, well maybe I should go out there and show it to people. Otherwise, what will I do with it? It will just go in a drawer. And that’s what led me to here, really.
AVC: When you were on WTF With Marc Maron, you talked about how you don’t really need the validation of live performance the way that a lot of stand-ups do. Why do you think that is?
SM: Most stand-up comedians—I’m sure you’ve spoken to them in the past—most of them are crazy; most stand-up comics are weird, fucked up people. I don’t think I’m that. Maybe I am, but in different ways. Certainly not in a way that needs the validation of strangers. But what I do enjoy about it is trying to do it well; the challenge of it is what’s appealing to me. To me it’s more like climbing a mountain or something, getting to the peak of it—not in career terms, but simply every joke is just a little mountain to climb, trying to get it right, trying to get the audience to laugh—trying to sell them an idea. That’s what’s interesting to me, the mechanics of doing it, and the audience is a necessity because of that—you can’t really judge if a joke is working by doing it in the mirror. So that’s sort of why I do it, and I enjoy that the audience is enjoying it—I wouldn’t want people to think that I was disrespectful of the audience, or I didn’t appreciate them being there, but I’m not doing it because I get this buzz, or that I could get carried through the streets as a champion.
AVC: Do you think that there is a top-of-the-mountain moment for comedy? Is there a point that you could reach where you’d say, “Okay, I’m done. I’ve accomplished everything?”
SM: Possibly. It’s interesting, stand-up, because there are some of the great stand-up shows—you think of Bring The Pain, the Chris Rock show—where they just sort of perfect—and I think Louis C.K.’s Shameless—it’s a great show. But, there is something kind of ephemeral about stand-up, there is something about it being unique to the night, and trying to keep it as fresh for the audience on every evening, and maybe changing it a little, or playing around with the night. Certainly I feel the audience often enjoys it the most when there is something unique to the evening, so I guess in a way it’s not like a TV project or a film project where there is a sense of completeness about it. With stand-up, it feels like it kind of is ongoing. It’s kind of a rolling confessional.
But whether I have the energy for stand-up to keep doing it, or whether I will just sharpen my spurs again like I did before, I’m not sure. I’ll tell you when I finished the tour, I was like, “I’m never doing this again, this is crazy, this is so tiring, there’s not enough groupies. Why am I bothering?” But since I’ve stopped and had a little breather, I’ve kind of been quite excited to get back and do it again.
AVC: That’s been one of your running jokes, that you’re out looking for a wife on tour.
SM: Don’t try and find a wife through stand-up comedy. This is my tip to any budding comics. I began that as a joke and I said it a few times on talk shows, and then I genuinely started getting letters from women kind of propositioning me, sending kind of love résumés, with their dating lives, and where it had gone wrong and how long their relationships had been. I’m sure very sweet women, but terrifying.
I just took the edge off the finding a wife thing. I sort of decided it’s more about me analyzing my various romantic failings, my belief that celebrity would change everything, and it doesn’t entirely. I think my show is confessional, but I think it’s a mix of the honest and also stories that I’ve pulled from my past, and made them seem like they’re much fresher than they are; some of them are me in my 20s, some are me in my late teens. It’s like a kind of overview, I guess, of my romantic misfortunes.
AVC: Your stand-up show is called Hello Ladies, and so is your recent stand-up DVD. How will your material differ?
SM: It will probably be similar, largely because I haven’t had time to work on new stuff. There’s something about the shows that I did there which is quite a good introduction to me in stand-up, because a lot of people know me from various other things, but they don’t know me as a stand-up. And so I feel like I sort of needed to define in their minds a little what I’m about, and what my kind of angle is really. So that’s why I’ll probably be sticking to that mainly, but there will definitely be some new stuff that I’ve been working on here and there. But I’m not one of those people that’s brave enough to just walk out in a big room full of people and just start making up new material; I like to have a little structure.
AVC: So you don’t just go out and do all new stuff you’ve never tried out?
SM: That would be crazy. You would not enjoy that.
AVC: When you’re onstage, you’re a little bit more manic, a little more animated, than when you’re on your TV shows. Which is more like your normal demeanor?
SM: I guess I’m more laconic if you meet me, but I think what the stand-up persona is trying to capture is the kind of frenzy of my psyche. I feel like my mind will race if I’m on a date. I’m trying to give a cool veneer, but my mind is racing frantically too, sort of like trying to keep my head above water. I’m paddling, I’m flapping around in the water trying to give this James Bond-cool veneer—and that, I suppose, is what I’m trying to express in the stand-up, the kind of frenzy of what’s going on behind the glasses. But also, stand-up, to me, is a great place to be, very physical, you’re in a room, and there’s a stage. I feel like I want the audience to feel like I’m putting the work in. It’s just a man and a microphone in the end, so I want them to see that I’m working hard for their amusement. If I’m sweating by the end, then I hope that they’re thinking—even if they didn’t laugh—they’re thinking, “Well, he put the effort in. We’ll give him marks for that.”
AVC: Maybe you just come off as a little laconic compared to Ricky Gervais.
SM: I think it’s all relative, isn’t it? When I’m on my own, then I’m the one who’s kind of frenzied and manic onstage. But when I’m surrounded by Karl Pilkington or Ricky Gervais, then I’m the sensible, levelheaded one, so that says a lot about them. Not all of us can be shouting and dancing around like maniacs.
AVC: What’s the process like when you’re working with Ricky? Do you hole up in an office from nine to five?
SM: Pretty much, yeah. It’s not quite 9 to 5, but it is normally a daily meet-up. But we’ve had various things distracting us in different directions, I was on tour for three months, and he had lots of things going on. So it’s not quite as set-in-stone as it used to be, but when we both have time we will sort of meet up, and it’s lots of talking, lots of endless sort of sharing of anecdotes and observations, and that sort of thing.
AVC: The projects you’ve done seem to be things you really like, or rather things that are born from passion. Do you think that’s true? Do you really like working with Karl?
SM: Do I like Karl? Definitely, of course, absolutely. He’s unique, and so people are constantly baffled as to whether that’s really him or is it all part of an elaborate trick. Is he really an actor called Graham, which is what someone posted online once, which really annoyed Karl. But as Ricky and I have often said, if we were writing Karl, we just wouldn’t come up with some of the bullshit that he comes out with—it’s just so out-there that even as comedians we’d be like, “No one is going to buy this,” and he is just remarkable. But, again, I haven’t seen him as often as I’d like, because he’s been off traveling the world for his various projects. So, it’s sort of the pressures, as you get more successful the stuff that used to happen—just sitting around in a room chewing the fat—is sort of harder to find time for unfortunately.
AVC: You guys met Karl doing radio, which led to the podcast. What do you think of the recent explosion—relatively speaking—in comedy podcasting? Do you feel somewhat responsible?
SM: I don’t listen to a great deal, if I’m honest, and the reason for that mainly is, one, it’s quite hard, I find, to navigate everything and figure out what’s good and what isn’t. And also, I’m one of those people who doesn’t consume a great deal of comedy when I’m not performing it or writing it. I try not to be influenced by other people if I can, or generally I prefer more dramatic stuff, or if I listen to podcasts I’m rather pretentious so I like to be educated in some area that I don’t know about, like science or whatever it might be. So I don’t really keep across the comedy podcast thing, but I think what’s nice about it is it’s very democratic. One of the things that we loved about doing the podcast was that there was a freedom. We owned the means of production, we’d go into our little homemade studio and record it, and put it out there, and there was very little interference if any, and that’s not something you can find when you’re working with a broadcaster. In that regard it’s not unlike stand-up. You have a sort of freedom, really. Your only censor is your own conscience.
AVC: What kind of material do you seek out when you’re working?
SM: YouTube is an amazing resource for familiarizing yourself with documentaries you’ve forgotten. Documentaries are a great resource just for reminding yourself of particular character types, character tropes. Stuff that you see in documentaries is, again, stuff that you would never believe if you wrote it as a fiction, and YouTube is a great resource for sort of digging up “Oh, I vaguely remember this documentary from the ’70s about football clubs,” and you can sort of seek it out, and Ricky and I will sometimes spend time watching little things, and from there little ideas will pop out. We did a movie about insurance salesmen, and I did some research about insurance people. There’s various things but generally we try to be guided by just our own understanding of things, what we already know, and just sort of fill in the blanks with a bit of research. But it’s not like we need to have Mozart playing to get us in the mood, or whatever. In fact, if anything, I would tell Ricky to switch it off because I find it distracting. He’s too busy singing along.
AVC: Are people sending you scripts yet as an actor?
SM: People don’t generally send me stuff. I don’t think I’m in people’s thoughts generally as an actor, so if they do offer me something, I’m normally keen to do it because it’s so much fun. It’s just the most fun, acting. I don’t have to do any serious acting. No one is expecting me to do Shakespeare, so generally they need, like, a tall, geeky guy, which is very much in my wheelhouse—I shave off my beard, and I’m pretty much in character. I do it because it’s normally not a project I would do myself—like I did a kid’s movie, and I wouldn’t make a kid’s movie, so it was fun to do it. And I’m just appearing in this romantic comedy at the moment for Working Title, which is fun because you have a different experience. You don’t have the pressures or burden of writing it and worrying about it day-in and day-out. You just turn up, and hopefully you remember your lines and go home again.
AVC: If you started getting more acting jobs, would you stop producing your own content, or is that something you just have to do?
SM: Ultimately writing your own stuff, creating your own stuff, is the most satisfying. The acting is fun in small doses, but it is incredibly time consuming, and it can be kind of dull. All that sitting around. I don’t know who it was that said something like, “I do the acting for free, it’s the waiting around that I get paid for,” but I understand that completely. In the end, the writing and all those burdens and pressures that I don’t have when I’m acting are actually ultimately what makes finishing a project the most satisfying. I don’t think I’d ever give up… but it is just so seductive because in the end I probably am quite lazy, so if people kept giving me acting jobs maybe I would be seduced.
AVC: If Stephen Spielberg called you up and asked you to be in your dream movie, what would it be?
SM: I’ve always loved the kind of buddy-cop movies, like mismatched buddies—like I’m handcuffed to Mark Wahlberg, and we’ve got to solve a conspiracy, and there’s lots of us jumping off buildings going “shiiiiit” and that sort of thing, and explosions. That looks like great fun. I’ve always liked Midnight Run, Lethal Weapon, I’ve always liked those kinds of movies as a sort of guilty pleasure. I don’t know if Spielberg would do that. I don’t know who makes those movies anymore; if Joel Silver called, then I’d be straight on board with that.