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How Will Stephen Merchant Fare Without Ricky Gervais?

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Earlier this week it was announced that Stephen Merchant had been commissioned to write, produce and star in a pilot for HBO entitled 'Hello Ladies'. The show seeks to expand on some of the themes and ideas of his critically acclaimed stand up routine of the same name. Stephen will be cast as a hapless Englishman in Los Angeles desperately trying to break into the fraternity of beautiful people that adorn the streets of LA.

The concept seems like familiar territory for Stephen as a man attempting to crack into a world where he doesn't quite belong. If parallels could be drawn with the Darren Lamb character played to perfection by Merchant in Extras then the pilot sounds like a very exciting prospect. And when considering the driving force behind this production is one half of the creative force behind The Office, there's certainly much cause for optimism.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this venture is to see Merchant spread his wings creatively; away from Gervais on his first solo project of this nature. Well, I say solo, though he'll be collaborating with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, former producers and writers on the US version of The Office.

Merchant's first sitcom venture sans Gervais will be intriguing for a number of reasons; the most prevalent of which is that it will allow us to explore the notion that's long been mooted that Merchant is perhaps the more talented of the Gervais/Merchant pairing, with many citing Ricky's solo efforts as evidence to support this (Derek often being used as a stick to beat him with). It's true that thus far Gervais' Hollywood offerings have been well below the exceptionally high bar he set for himself after The Office. When unaided by his partner in crime, Ricky's writing and narrative construction sometimes feel a bit aimless and lack the subtleties and intricacies of his work with Merchant. This is never more apparent than in The Invention Of Lying in which there's several plot holes that I won't explore in too much detail now so as not to come across as the pedantic little nerd that I probably am. Is it that Stephen Merchant is the more talented of the two or rather that the two work best when together? Hello Ladies will finally give us some insight one way or the other.

Some would argue that a lot of the antipathy towards Ricky seems less to do with his work but focuses rather more on his perceived smugness; it seems he'd be fighting a losing battle if he set out purely to achieve positive reviews. It is of course feasible that the overall tide of opinion shifting towards favouring Merchant is that he doesn't suffer from over exposure like his more illustrious chum. It's long been the prerogative of the British press to build celebrities up into kind of demigods before dragging them back down to earth with overwhelmingly negative coverage. Ricky more than many others has been the focus of a particularly strong backlash, although he often does himself no favours with his propensity to be a shock comedian and at times dismissive attitude. Stephen is definitely the more reserved and considered of the two as evidenced by their numerous radio/podcasts together. Brian Logan, after reviewing 'Hello Ladies' stand up show, said 'If Gervais has the biggest head in comedy, Merchant now establishes himself as the king of self-abasement'. And that hits the nail on the head; where Gervais' mock arrogance seems to grate, Merchant's faux-ego is set against a back-drop of embarrassment. Many perceive Stephen to have the humility that Ricky often lacks, we can relate to him in a way we can't with Gervais.

Hello Ladies feels like the long overdue opportunity for Stephen to move from out from underneath the looming spectre of Gervais and grab the much deserved limelight that his talents have long warranted. Should HBO decide to commission Hello Ladies, tapping into his undoubted talent and potential as a comic/writer/actor, then hopefully he can finally emerge from the shadows. And who knows? Perhaps one day an article can be written about him without mention of, as Merchant jokingly refers to him in his stand up, 'you-know-who'.