Interview: Stephen Merchant, comedian, actor, writer

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IT might not seem possible to live in the shadow of someone else when you are a towering 6ft 7ins tall, yet for a time, that was the impression Stephen Merchant gave. The 36-year-old, who co-wrote and co-directed the award-winning comedies The Office and Extras, often appeared to play second fiddle to the egregious Ricky Gervais.

Striking out on his own again, with his new stand-up show, however, Merchant has been proving that he is no-one’s side-kick, his 70-minute set scoring rave reviews and causing one hack to ask if he was actually, “Ricky Gervais’ better half?” Business-wise naturally.

Merchant is certainly funny; after all, you don’t become a triple Bafta and Emmy award-winning comedy writer if you are not. Still, the gently spoken Bristolian insists that he is happy with his lower profile, just out of the limelight enjoyed by his writing partner.

“Being in the limelight suggests that you crave attention and adulation,” he offers. “That’s not really something that concerns me. The ‘limelight’ feels like it is a by product of doing the things that I like doing - comedy and performing. And I do enjoy those things.

“When you are performing it’s fun. It’s like dressing up as cowboys and Indians when you were a kid, so no, I don’t crave the limelight. I have a very moderate, manageable level of celebrity and people are always very nice.”

Recognition crept up on him he says.“There’s that idea that if you take a frog and put it in a pan of water and heat it up, the frog will barely notice, whereas, if you throw it straight into hot water it will really jump around and scream. Well, that’s a bit like what happened to me, it very incrementally gathered steam I suppose, to where I am now. I’ve slowly boiled.”

Ambushed by celebrity, then, Merchant has certainly enjoyed great success, yet remained unlucky in love. Hence the title of his latest tour, Hello Ladies, which stops off at the Edinburgh Playhouse next Thursday.

It’s been described as confessional, a word that pleases the performer.

“Confessional comedy is something I’ve always loved. A lot of the people I admire had that personal confessional aspect. Even somebody like Woody Allen, whose act was quite surreal, you always felt that he was drawing on his own experiences.

“I like the idea that when you leave, you feel like you know the person on stage a little bit better.

“And while I wouldn’t say that the person on stage is 100 per cent me, it is me at different points in my life. The opinions I have in the show are how I felt at different times, I just mush them all together.”

He continues, “I also like the idea that the audience feel superior to me. They think, ‘Oh this guy is on the telly, he must have it made,’ and actually that is far from the truth.”

The core of the show finds Merchant reviewing his failed, and ongoing, search for a wife, a premise that allows him to tell some humiliating stories.

“Always looking for a mate,” he confirms adding that his perfect woman “would have to have the brain of Stephen Fry and the body of Kelly Brooke.”

“Doesn’t seem like a tall order at all,” he laughs.

And speaking of tall, height is something else that Merchant tackles in the show.

“Yes, she would have to match me in height, but she can be 6ft 7in in heels. That’s okay,” he concedes.

“Your height inevitably defines you. Even from a young age, people were always pointing at me and commenting on it. I suppose I learned that if you are going to stand out from the crowd, why not stand out for something that you are good at, and that you control, like comedy, rather than simply standing out because you are a bit of a freak.”

Merchant is quick to point out that although his height got him noticed, it was never a cause for concern.

“I didn’t have an unhappy time, but it does give you a bit more of an outsider’s perspective. I would find myself observing life rather than being in the thick of it.”

That ability to observe became a godsend when Merchant found himself drawn to comedy.

“But there’s always that trade-off; would you rather be the captain of the football team or the guy on the sidelines? Certainly, being on the outside is something that fuels comedy, the feeling that you are observing the absurdities of life around you.”

Physicality too is important, something that, like John Cleese before him, Merchant has mastered.

“John Cleese was a big influence on me because he came from Weston-Super-Mare, near Bristol, where I come from.

“Growing up I was a big Python and Fawlty Towers fan and one of the things that I loved about him was not just the way that he used his physicality, but the way it didn’t necessarily take away from the smartness of his humour.

“He could be very clever and at the same time slapsticky. I’ve never seen the snobbery between the two, never thought that they were mutually exclusive.

“I’m 6ft 7ins, I’m gangly, I’m thin and I’ve got a weird face - they are comedy tools. Peter Sellers used to get praised for putting on weird make-up and becoming grotesque, and if you are kind of grotesque to start with, why not use it? I’ve always been a fan of that.”

Merchant has also been a fan of the Capital, since first visiting as part of a student review back in 1996. Next week, at the Playhouse he’s looking forward to a slightly larger audience.

“I always feel at home in Edinburgh. I love the look of the city and I love the vibe. The first venue we played with that student show was tucked down a little alley and we were lucky if we got a handful of people in.”

He thinks for a moment, “The Playhouse probably holds a thousand times more than that first audience.”

Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, October 13, 7.30pm, £26, 0844-871 3014