Stephen Merchant bounds onto stage with a spring in his ample step, energetically greets his rapturous audience and launches into his routine. Straight away, one of the best things about solo stand-up, he tells us, is… “not having to share the cash with you know who”.
In case there’s any doubt who he means, he also gives us a quick slideshow detailing his public perception as the less talented, less exhibitionist arm of the professionally prodigious Gervais-and-Merchant pairing.
But, by getting there before his audience, Merchant proves a) that he doesn’t really mind and b) the inaccuracy of the conceit. And when we speak on the phone separately, I find Merchant is spending 12-hour days in the editing suite to meet the deadline for their latest TV offering, Life’s Too Short. An elongated Andrew Ridgeley, he is not.
14 years after first meeting Gervais at the offices of X FM and joining creative forces, Merchant still finds much to admire about his partner:
“We’re very separate people, we don’t socialise all the time or anything like that, be he still makes me laugh, I enjoy talking to him very much. I still find him stimulating, exciting, frustrating company, like anyone you know that well, everything a creative partner should be.”
The apparent asymmetry dates back to The Office phenomenon when Gervais’ creation of David Brent propelled him into the comic canon. Did they toss a coin to see who was going to win any on-screen kudos?
“It wasn’t like that at all,” remembers Merchant. “We were both completely committed to the script, and Ricky’s vision of David Brent just slotted into that. For both of us, that was what worked.”
Watching The Office again in preparation for this interview, I am freshly struck by the daring, the confidence to create what now seems simple faux-documentary, but at the time broke every mould with its poker-face presentation of everyday life. How did they get there?
Merchant is humble in this glorious comedic victory: “We knew exactly what we wanted. In a sense, we didn’t know enough to be afraid. There was just no looking down.”
A decade later, and there’s a Golden Globe on the mantelpiece, a regular cheque for exec producer duties on the US version of The Office which runs and runs as a glorious entity in its own right. Plus, Merchant and Gervais have proved theirs was no fluke with two series of Extras, An Idiot Abroad and the forthcoming Life’s Too Short, with Warwick Davis on central screen duty. Does it seem a long way from the offices of Wernham Hogg?
Merchant appears remarkably unfazed by it all. “Well, we’re playing with more money, and now we have more access to the big names to play with, but it’s all the same skills, same graft, and obviously, more expectation.”
This element of sleeves-up toil has long been part of Merchant’s make-up. As a Warwick University student, he got good grades, while engaging in extracurricular writing and immersing himself in comedy, primarily the science of it, “what’s funny, what’s not, why certain comedians die a death, and others keep you in the palm of their hand. It can be a very narrow thing, and make all the difference”.
Throughout our discussion, he is confident, articulate and focused – a million miles away from the goonish agent he plays in Extras, and also far from the gangly loser of his comic persona on his stand-up tour, Hello Ladies.
Instead, on stage we see both someone wallowing in romantic despair on a futile search for romance, but also laced with deep misogyny, parsimony and mistrust. It is a complex persona, yet one Merchant glues together with an apparent ease – many more hours of comic craft seamlessly hidden away.
How realistic is this person on stage, defined by his quest for a wife and his height in equal measure? Lest I get too sympathetic about the former, he is quick to clarify “it is somewhat embellished for the sake of laughs, remember”, but the challenge of tallness he defends more robustly.
“It does define you,” he says. “Unless you’re this tall, you have no idea – sitting in cars, bending down at doors, just generally being noticed.”
Why, with so many projects piled up, these long days of editing, deadlines looming, international duties always hovering, has he taken on this comedy tour at this point?
“Because when you agree to do a tour you do agree six or seven months in advance when your diary is empty and you think "I can't imagine I'll ever fill up these days with anything. May as well hit the road."
And, when he can operate so effectively in the writing room, in the producer’s office, in the director’s chair, what is the appeal of doing up stand-up?
“My heroes - people like Woody Allen - were stand-up comedians. Therefore I always felt I should give it a go. Once I began doing stand-up I didn't get a kick out of the applause or being the centre of attention - but I did get a kick out of the jigsaw puzzle aspect of it, searching for the right bit, adding another few pieces each night until the bigger picture appears. That's the appeal: the challenge of it.”
The DVD of Hello Ladies is on sale from 14 November, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.