“Why is travelling so tiring? Why is sitting on a train take so much out of you? I’m not eating properly, I’m not sleeping properly, I’m not being rock n’ roll enough. I thought there would be groupies and jacuzzis – there aren’t. Most of my ‘groupies’ are 30 year old IT blokes, which is fine – but where are the playboy bunnies? The audiences seem to be enjoying the show though..”
People throw the word ‘legend’ around rather cheaply these days, but it’s difficult to think of another way of categorising a man who co-wrote a little-known show called The Office, Extras and helped record the most popular podcast in the known universe (280,000,000 according to Guinness’ bean-counters). Stephen Merchant is heading back to his roots this autumn by returning to the stand-up circuit with his Hello Ladies! tour and anyone who wants to see him probably shouldn’t hang about, because by the sounds of it he won’t be doing another one any time soon.
“My friend is a musician and he says that a week on tour is like a month in real life – it definitely feels like it. It’s taken me a long time to get the act where I want it to be, a few years of gigging here and there when I had free time, so although I am enjoying it, I can’t imagine rushing to do this again,” he says.
Merchant goes on to explain that although he knew what he was signing himself up for, the reality of it came as a bit of a shock. When I suggest that like his colleague Karl Pilkington, he’s simply completing one part of his own personal bucket list, Merchant laughs and admits that while he dabbled with stand-up after making his break on the radio, he felt that he had some unfinished business in this particular arena. Like someone with a half built DIY project in the garage, you can almost imagine him seeing a comedy gig on TV and reminding himself that he really should get around to a sell-out stand-up tour at some point..
“I remember seeing an interview with a climber who was asked why he risked his life climbing this mountain and he answered.. ‘because it’s there'” he continues. “That’s sort of how I feel about stand-up. A lot of people talk about the kick they get from being on stage but for me its more the challenge of it, I find the process interesting because it’s hard and you can get complacent, especially if you work in TV and you’re surrounded by time and money and people. Its a challenge for yourself, can you still be funny? So after this I’m not sure if I need to do it again..”
The critics generally seem to have agreed that Merchant CAN still be funny and his show has won rave reviews across the board, but I can’t help but ask him about his latest highly-anticipated TV project. Life’s Too Short (below) is a comedy about a dwarf actor (played by Star Wars, Harry Potter and Willow star Warwick Davies) trying to make his way in the world of showbiz. Is it like The Office or Extras? Is it a mix of the two or is it something completely different I ask him?
“There’s a whiff of Extras in there and of The Office because you’ve got the documentary style,” he explains. “But Warwick is the thing that really makes it because he’s so very different. Really good, very funny, he’s an amazing physical comic, but can also do all the grammatic beats, he’s the pumping heart of it and I think people will be dazzled by how good he is.
“Inevitably the celebrity cameos will get attention, but there’s lots of other flavours and you see loads of other side-plots such as Warwick’s failing marriage and his massive tax bill. One episode doesn’t have any celebs at all, it’s about Warwick dating and taking care of his spiritual life so each week will be very different. I’m sure it will draw comparisons but it definitely has its own uniqueness.”
Merchant and Gervais have a raft of celebrities lined-up up to appear in the new series (including Johnny Depp, Sandra Bullock, Liam Neeson, Helena Bonham Carter and Right Said Fred) and I ask him how about the new phenomenon we saw in Extras, where A-Listers were actually queuing up to make fools of themselves on their show..
“To us it was the same impulse as Morecambe and Wise used to have when Andre Priven or whoever would come on and be comically humiliated. It was the same motivation for us, maybe updated and a little edgier but it was the same idea – it’s fun to see famous people in a totally different context,” he says. “After The Office we had a cache and we could get these people to do it. It was like “we may not have this opportunity for ever so why don’t we take it?” which in a sense extended to Life’s Too Short as well.
“These people are willing and asking if they can do something, so we’d be stupid not to take them up on it. We always work very hard though, we only put them on if we think we’ve got a funny idea and its integrated in the story. But it’s still bizarre when they turn up and you see how they’re going to perform what you’ve written. That’s a big thrill..”
So what’s the next big thing for Stephen Merchant? Sending Karl Pilkington into outer-space perhaps? Presenting the Golden Globes maybe? “To be honest I am so tired after this year that I can’t imagine ever working again,” he expires. “I’m not sure if I’m going to make it to the end of this tour! I’m genuinely burnt out, I just need to refuel. I do feel like I’ve been working solidly for the last 12 years.. Maybe I’ll retire!” Thankfully, I think the last suggestion was a joke.
Stephen Merchant – Hello Ladies is out on DVD on the 14th November. Pre-order your copy now by clicking here.
Life’s Too Short is coming to BBC Two on 10th November.