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Interview: Stephen Merchant on What Makes Great Comedy Timeless

At this point in his career, Stephen Merchant knows a thing or two about successful comedy. The writer, director and actor, best known for his collaborations with Ricky Gervais onand, has won awards and plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic.

At this point in his career, Stephen Merchant knows a thing or two about successful comedy. The writer, director and actor, best known for his collaborations with Ricky Gervais on The Office and Extras, has won awards and plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic.

His new HBO sitcom Hello Ladies sees him strike out on his own as a luckless IT geek looking for love in LA. I sat down with the 6ft 7" funny-man to ask him about the key inspirations in making the show, why some comedy ages badly, and why certain things endure changing tastes.

The Hello Ladies season ends in a different place than it started. Did you want us to care a bit more about your character as the show progressed?

I think you see that the real Stuart is a much more nervous, shy person when his guard is let down. I want to a series to start at point A and end at point B. It's tricky with a comedy because you don't want to change the character too much, but for me a series is a bit like a film - there should be a shape to it, a beginning, middle and end. Which is not often how sitcoms are done. If you've watched only the first episode of The Office, you wouldn't know Tim and Dawn have a love story or that David Brent is capable of growing in some way.

There's a lot of physical comedy, more so than in Extras or The Office. How much of that a tribute to the comedy you grew up with?

Well I am a big fan of physical comedy generally and I was a big fan of John Cleese. There's so much great physical stuff in Fawlty Towers. In one episode I did try to do something of a homage to Del Boy by falling into a fridge and I did try little nods to some of my British comedy heroes - Americans aren't always familiar with Only Fools and Horses or Fawlty Towers or Hancock.

Does comedy date badly? If humour is connected to the changing social norms of the day, there must be a risk of falling out of step...

It's a difficult one. I suppose comedy does date. To me Laurel and Hardy is as funny now as it was when I watched it as a kid. But if I showed it to some kids now there's a strong chance they just wouldn't engage with it. Whether comedy dates more than anything else, I really don't know. There are films you remember fondly and you watch them again and they can seem creaky or slow. I accept that the way David Bowie was able to reinvent himself and his music throughout the seventies - I'm not sure you can do that with comedy. You have singular comic voice, hopefully, or at least you develop one. And so to change that, I just don't know if it's possible. I suppose all you can do is try to keep doing stuff that makes you laugh.

How much is about making sure you're on top of little stylistic shifts and conventions?

There's an element of fashion, and things come back into vogue even when they've been plugging away at the same kind of comedy. And maybe sometimes it is to do with production. If you take Monty Python, the TV show is a little awkward now because it wasn't shot on film, so it's little bit creaky. But the Python movies stand up really well. Life of Brian is still vivid today as ever. It's still shocking, if not more so now. There's a movie that feels like it might be too controversial to make now.

The pace of comedy has changed, surely? The speed of the gags in things like The Simpsons or Arrested Development would have been unimaginable in the 1970s...

Pacing is different now, that's true. But that's true of movies too. They were definitely more leisurely, and that can be part of the pleasure. One of my favourites is The Apartment. I did this thing for BBC Radio 1 where you had to pitch and introduce your favourite film to young movie fans. As I sat and watched The Apartment with that audience, there were times I was thinking, "C'mon, we gotta speed this up...we could do without this scene." You sense people's patience is different now. To go back to Laurel and Hardy, I remember hearing criticism once that it was "two unfunny men doing unfunny things slowly". And for me, it's the opposite. It's two very funny men doing very funny things. Albeit slowly. I agree they're doing it slowly (laughs).

So you think there is some timeless quality to all great comedy?

I think there's nothing entirely new, in a way. The Office was regarded as kind of different, new. But to us, Spinal Tap had done it, the awkward mockumentary. A movie like King of Comedy has got all those awkward, excruciating moments. And the kind of thing we think of now as postmodern, like Python in the seventies, stripping everything back to show the audience the scene as filmed, had been done in the thirties. Groucho Marx would turn to the camera and speak and Bob Hope movies were full of surreal digressions, narrators appearing, stepping out of the film. So you realise there's nothing entirely new. It's the repackaging of things, making things new again. I suppose the best stuff does that well.

Hello Ladies continues Wednesdays at 10pm on Sky Atlantic HD, catch up on previous episodes On Demand.

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