10 Questions: Stephen Merchant

‘There’s a reason why James Bond doesn’t have a West Country accent – it just ain’t cool and sophisticated.’ HOLLY STEVENSON talks to ‘speccy, lanky nerd’ STEPHEN MERCHANT.

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The Stevenson household is a massive fan of all things Gervais & Merchant. The Office, Extras, Cemetery Junction – we’ve got them all.

But while we admire Ricky Gervais with a reverence befitting a comedy god, our real affection lies for Stephen Merchant. Why? Partly because a 6ft 7in bespectacled guy with a Bristolian burr is always funny; but partly because while Ricky always demands your attention, Stephen quietly sparkles, with a self-effacing comedic brilliance that comes out in everything he touches – including our interview.

Holly Stevenson: Have you decided to do stand-up because you’ve pretty much mastered everything else in comedy?

Stephen Merchant: Not at all. I used to do stand-up comedy years ago because all of my heroes began life as stand-ups, like Woody Allen. So I started after I left university and I was pretty good at it; did a show in Edinburgh alongside Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr – and then one day I just gave it up. Probably because the TV work took up all my time and I didn’t want to be trudging around the country performing at night. I never missed doing it,  then suddenly about three years ago I got the itch again. So eventually I tried out new ideas in little clubs in London. And now here we are, with a tour booked.

HS: Your tour is called ‘Hello ladies’. What’s your favourite chat up line?

SM: You don’t need chat-up lines when you’re a speccy, lanky nerd from the West Country : the women just flock to you. The tour is loosely about my search for a wife but to be honest that’s just an excuse to talk about the difficulties of trying to find a mate. I  think a person’s love-life is one of the funniest subjects for comedy, because it’s such a basic, primeval thing; it really drives everyone and everything.

HS: How would you describe your relationship with Ricky?

Like two brothers running a small business together; it can be stressful but there’s great loyalty and trust. Sometimes I’m the younger brother who seeks his advice; sometimes I’m the older brother being sensible when he’s not.

HS: You are becoming a cult figure for your cameo roles in films; why your tendency to ‘blend into the background’?

SM: It’s not a tendency, it’s just how things have played out. For a long time I was in the background because there was no obvious role for me to play and it’s hard enough making a TV show without acting in it as well. When we did The Office we’d never written, directed or acted in anything before, so given Ricky was playing the main role, it made sense for me to stay behind the camera. Now we’ve both got more confident so we feel we can both appear on screen together and still get the job done and stay in control.

HS: Sitcoms are often considered drama’s poor relation. Do you think sitcoms are a neglected art form?

SM: I wouldn’t necessarily call sitcoms art – but I do think comedy is very hard to do. I find it very galling when critics are snooty and say  ‘That’s an easy laugh’. As the comedian Louis CK has pointed out: ‘Get up on stage yourself and see how easy it is to get any laughs.’

HS: The success of the American version of The Office has been quite surprising. Why do you think that the Americans couldn’t cope with the UK Office?

SM: Americans could cope with the UK version – it was a cult favourite on BBC America, lots of people loved it, but we only made twelve episodes and some Christmas specials – and that’s not enough episodes for US TV; so it made sense for them to remake it from scratch.

HS: How did it feel to give your ‘baby’ to American writers and actors?

SM: I think the biggest contribution Ricky and I made to the US version was to be very hands-off. We were worried that if we tried to remake it ourselves we’d just do a carbon copy of our version with American accents. I grew up loving American sitcoms like Friends, so I’m very proud that we have a hit show on American TV.

HS: You did a Film and Literature degree. What is your opinion on so-called ‘soft’ degree subjects in media?

SM: I did okay from it. And judging by my last tax bill, I reckon roads and hospitals are doing okay from it too.

HS: You’re a native Bristolian. Do you find the West Country accent ripe for comedy?

SM: Yes. There’s a reason why James Bond doesn’t have a West Country accent – it just ain’t cool and sophisticated. We gave Gareth in The Office a West Country accent because there is something inherently absurd about a man trying to be earnest and militaristic while speaking with a Bristolian burr. But I’m not embarrassed by my accent, I think it’s warm and characterful. And the Barclays people like it.

HS: What are your plans for the future?

Do some more fun acting jobs in other people’s stuff, because that really doesn’t feel like work, it’s so enjoyable. And hopefully direct another film at some point. And find a wife, obviously.

Stephen Merchant’s stand-up tour, ‘Hello Ladies’, begins in the UK on 14th August. Buy tickets here.

Pre-order the DVD here.