Stephen Merchant: Standing Up Tall

Comedy Features Stephen Merchant
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Stephen Merchant: Standing Up Tall

“I’ve dabbled with groupies in the past,” says Stephen Merchant, in his first ever stand-up performance on American soil. It’s the first minute of his gig at the tiny Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in the East Village on Dec. 18, a warm-up for his two-month, six-show tour of larger theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The show is called “Hello Ladies,” and Merchant is explaining why he’s on the lookout for a wife rather than an adoring fan. “It started fine,” he says of the groupies. “But it very quickly descended into lots of late-night phone calls. You know, ‘call me or I’ll cut myself.’” He pauses, letting the nervous laughter build. “And she did not want to hear that. That was a downer.”

For those who don’t know Merchant, and in America there are plenty who fit that description, he’s the highly successful British writer and comedian who co-created The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. He also co-hosted the most-downloaded podcast in history with Gervais and Karl Pilkington, and has written and produced several films. Merchant, 37, stands 6’7”, with a thin, bony frame and blond hair. Gervais routinely refers to him as a “goggle-eyed freak” on their podcasts, and that description, if unkind, isn’t completely off the mark. The two-pronged attack of brilliant wit and odd appearance makes Merchant a likely candidate for stand-up, but his comedic reputation has been built as an award-winning writer.

This trip Stateside, then, is something of a pioneer act. Merchant performed stand-up earlier in his career, but only recently returned to the stage. After honing his act in front of pub audiences across Great Britain, he toured for two-and-a-half months at larger venues before arriving in New York. Speaking by phone two days after his inaugural American show, he expounds on the differences between writing for a television series and performing live.

“Stand-up is more gratifying,” he says, “because you can see the results of your labors, I guess, more directly. It’s the problem of solving it. The most enjoyable stuff I have in stand-up are the bits where you’re first trying out new material and something works that you thought of on the way.”

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Merchant’s humor that self-deprecation is a dominant theme in his act. Early in his set, he showed the audience a blown-up newspaper photograph of himself, along with Gervais and others, accepting the Best Television Series award for The Office at the Golden Globes. His smiling, excited face is cut precisely in half at the top of the frame, and you can’t see his eyes or forehead.

“To be fair to the photographer,” he says, over the laughter. “He had barely seconds to decide whether to include the top of my head”—here Merchant’s voice rose as he pointed to the bottom of the photo, which showed the first row of the Golden Globe audience —“or the top of these bald bastards’ heads down here!”

This dichotomy, between the fact of Merchant’s great success and the humbling turns of reality, is a common theme. Later in the show he spoke about the first time he earned a mention in the newspaper, and how the writer called him “Stephen Mitchell” throughout the article. Merchant also mocked his physical appearance, his frugality and his lack of romantic success.

“To me, there’s two positions you can take as a stand-up comedian,” he says. “You can either have high status or low status with regard to the audience.” He points to Jerry Seinfeld as someone who speaks from a superior position and analyzes the world as if he’s distant from it. “Then there’s someone like Woody Allen in his stand-up years, where he tries to present himself as a winner, but he’s constantly revealing himself to be a loser.”

Merchant says he relishes the role of the “arrogant nerd” and tries to take that approach on stage. “I love the idea of trying to pontificate on things, but clearly revealing myself. So like when I talk about sex, it’s like I think I know what I’m talking about, but I’m clearly this sort of man-child who should not be having sex.

“I’m there acting like the center of attention,” he continues, “so I sort of feel like their reward should be that I’m the kind of dick in the end and they can leave with their wives and girlfriends and I’m the one who’s going to go home and cry himself to sleep.”

On stage, Merchant doesn’t shy away from physicality. Along with Allen, he cites Jack Benny and John Cleese as influences and heroes, all of whom used physical comedy to some extent. His height can be an asset here, as it was during a bit about how he has to stoop when walking through doors. “It makes it very hard to storm out of a room,” he told the audience as he prepared to confront a fake boss. “You can stick this job up your ass, mate, alright? Because I may not have any income, but I still have my dignity!” Then he ducked his ungainly body through an imaginary door, bending at the knees like a lunging ostrich. The dignity had vanished.

Parts of his act, too, can be mundane. It’s somewhat surprising to see Merchant delving into the hassles of airplane travel, or how grade school math isn’t useful later in life, or the oddity of the “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment at weddings, without necessarily adding anything new. But the show was largely successful, and the best moments came when Merchant departed from stand-up tropes and focused on human behavior—particularly on the obsession with fame that has replaced class-consciousness as the central anxiety of our time.

“If fame is what you need,” he says, “you will never be famous enough. There will always be something that will cut you down.” Unlike Gervais, who often turns his scorn outward, Merchant is content to mock himself and exaggerate fame’s importance in his own life. This heightens the effect of his many humiliations and casts him as the fool whose expectations will always be foiled.

Merchant admitted to the audience that he’d once used his fame to try to land a girl at a wedding. When a man at his table recognized him from television, he gladly accepted the attention in the hopes that it would improve his chances with the girl. But the man was unimpressed. He had seen Merchant on the 10 o’clock news and thought it was wrong that a sitcom writer would merit that spot. Merchant, insulted, responded in kind. “The only way you’re getting on the news,” he said, “is if your wife ends up in a dumpster.” Later, he finished ruining things with the girl when he called the man’s young child an “asshole” in a fit of anger after the toddler threw a shoe that splashed soup all over his tuxedo. The story was the high point of the show, a masterful example of how Merchant’s fame had started off as a blessing and ended in total disaster.

“I like laughing at people’s misfortunes,” he tells me. “I just find if someone comes into a bar and someone says ‘I had the worst date of my life last night,’ I can’t believe my luck. It’s like, ‘this is going to be great!’ It’s empathy to me, it’s like I’m already with you on it. I know your agony, I know your pain. And I want the audience to feel superior to me.”

He’d accomplished the task. Interestingly, Merchant changed very little for the American version of his show. Aside from some vocabulary tweaks, the only major alteration came in the anecdote above. Originally, in Britain, he’d capped off the story about the toddler with what he called “the c-word.”

“American comic friends people were telling me that the c-word in this country is much, much stronger,” he said. “So in the last few days I have been having this constant dialogue with various people about whether I can say it here or whether I should substitute it. So on the night you saw it, I substituted it for asshole.”

At a show at the Town Hall two days later, he’d opted instead for “motherfucker.”

“I mean, what a strange life you lead!” he says. “What a weird job it is that part of your day is spent seeing whether you can say the c-word on stage.”

After completing his two Town Hall shows in New York, Merchant will venture west to round out the tour with four California dates later this month. It’s a fair bet that, successful or not, his sense of identity will remain exactly as it was at the start. Despite the prevalence of fame’s allure in his act, he makes no bones about who he is.

“I suppose in a way it is healthy if you can remain detached, if you can remind yourself how absurd all that stuff is, how absurd the trappings of success are,” he says. “As much as I would love to look like James Bond, I’m aware I don’t, so that’s the hand that life has dealt me.”