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"Stand-up is like an old girlfriend"
I’m waiting for a call from Stephen Merchant but when it comes, I’m surprised to hear the West Country lilt of the man himself.
“Yes, I can use a phone,”
he deadpans. I explain – usually a PR deals with the complicated business of connecting journalist and interviewee. “Ah. Right.
Well, no, it’s just me,” Merchant says, sounding vaguely apologetic. “I’m in a hotel room in York and I’m manning the phones all day.”
The reason he finds himself in these glamorous circumstances?
Hello Ladies, his first, 41-date stand-up tour. His first, he says, and also his last. “The show’s going well but the rest of it… the rest of it is too much.
I’m not eating properly, I miss my bed, I miss my TV – it’s preposterous! I don’t want people thinking I don’t give 100% on stage – I do – but the rest of the time I’m exhausted and whinging.”
He catches himself. “Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? What a privileged position I’m in and I’m moaning about it. But there you are. I got into showbusiness to sit in a Jacuzzi with Playboy bunnies and I’m knackered in a hotel in York. This is not what I was promised.”
Merchant, 36, actually started out as a stand-up, then he met Ricky Gervais (“and his coat tails,” as he once quipped), they created the multi-award-winning sitcom The Office and the rest is a mantelpiece full of Emmys, Baftas and Golden Globes.
“But stand-up is like an old girlfriend,” he says, “There’s still a chemistry there, you know, we went on a few dates...”
Then you remembered why you’d split up in the first place?
“Ha ha, yeah, something like that. But the challenge of it appeals to me. You don’t have the insulation you have with TV when there’s a team of people around you. Stand-up is very raw. There’s nowhere to hide.”
The show is something of a lament for Merchant’s love life, which has been pretty much nonexistent since he parted ways with advertising producer Claire Jones in 2009. He’s even joked (one assumes) that he plans to use the tour to find a wife.
Are things really that bad?
“Well, I’m not about to slit my wrists. I don’t lie awake crying. But meeting the right person is hard.”
Does his profile not help?
Surely being lauded at TV awards shows and Hollywood bashes must bring a few perks?
“That’s what I thought!
I thought that when you got yourself on TV, there would be a door that opened and someone would say, ‘Come through to this world of showbiz where everything is easier and these amazing women can’t wait to meet you’. But surprisingly, that hasn’t happened. Just because you’ve been on BBC Two once or twice doesn’t make you Warren Beatty.
“It makes life easier in some ways – now people probably aren’t thinking, ‘Who’s that crazy guy staring at me from across the room?’ They’re thinking, ‘Oh, that guy off the telly is staring at me from across the room’. But it doesn’t fundamentally change who you are. If you were an awkward teenager, intimidated by girls [or, as he pronounces it, ‘gurrrrls’], that doesn’t ever really leave you. There’s still a part of you that’s... well, once a geek, always a geek.”
There’s a very endearing story he tells about his schooldays in a Bristol comprehensive when, obsessed by Jeeves and Wooster, he took to wearing a bowtie to school and answering “What-ho!” when the register was called – a real-life version of the briefcase-toting Will from E4’s The Inbetweeners.
“Oh yeah, I was very geeky.
I was really into science fiction and comic books and Dr Who – all that stuff. Now they’re the mainstream and I’m not into them any more, so I’m still a geeky outsider.”
He blames some of his inherent awkwardness on his height. Being 6’7” is very defining when you’re a teenager, he says. “And I’m still very tall. That’s never going to leave me. If you’re 2ft taller than everyone else, you’re always a bit self-conscious. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been on the telly – you still look weird when you dance at a wedding.”
Fortunately, he’s “endlessly fascinated” by romantic misfortune, even when it’s his own.
“I find it hilarious because it’s such an important part of everyone’s life. I’m not interested in aliens or other worlds, I’m interested in what happens when two people are on a date in a pub and it’s not going too well. I want to be there as a fly-on-the-wall.
It’s so rife with drama, intrigue, passions, desires... it just seems so fundamental to life.”
He comes across as a very thoughtful sort of man, Merchant – the perfect foil to his more attention-seeking and bombastic comedy partner.
Is this tour about stepping out of Gervais’s shadow, as has been suggested?
“I don’t think I ever said that,” he says. “I think sometimes other people impose these narratives on things. It’s more about the challenge to myself than anything else. I think I feel quite secure when I’m working with Ricky so it’s good to test myself a bit. But I don’t feel in his shadow.”
He likens his relationship with Gervais to two brothers who run a business together. “They get on well, they’re good at running the business and they’re friends. But they don’t live in each other’s pockets. I mean, we don’t live in a house together like The Monkees. But I wonder if people think that sometimes.”
The pair have been working together for 12 years now, collaborating on the brilliant (Extras, An Idiot Abroad) and the less so (Cemetery Junction).
Their latest, Life’s Too Short, a mockumentary about the life of jobbing dwarf actor Warwick Davis, has just started on BBC Two. Like Extras, it promises tongue-in-cheek cameos by stars ranging from Johnny Depp to, er, Keith Chegwin.
The pair remain fascinated by the cult of celebrity – “I think it’s a bit like class was in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s something that’s very culturally defining” – but the show doesn’t set out to spear it in quite the same way as Extras.
“It’s funny to us to have Johnny Depp acting like an idiot. But not because we’re trying to make a comment on him, just because he’s a funny man and why wouldn’t we?”
When we speak, the show has yet to air, but Merchant doesn’t appear nervous about it. “The only guaranteed way to fail is to try to please everyone.
You just have to try to do something you think is funny or dramatic.”
He’s had so much success in the past decade – what is he most proud of achieving? He mulls it over.
“At school, I remember saying I wanted to be like John Cleese and people looked at me like I was a maniac.
There was an expectation that that was something that happened to other people, it didn’t happen to people like me. So I set my mind to try to defy that expectation and I’m very proud I did.”
* Stephen Merchant performs Hello Ladies at the Brighton Centre tonight and on December 11. For tickets, call 0844 8471515.
* Life’s Too Short continues on BBC Two on Thursday.