It is hard to keep track of Stephen Merchant’s fast pace of creative output. His prolific work in film, television, writing, broadcasting and comedy have been wildly successful. Perhaps best known for his work on British comedy classic The Office and Extras alongside friend and co-writer Ricky Gervais, his recent stand-up comedy tour, Hello Ladies, chases successes such as An Idiot Abroad travel show on Sky 1. I could go on, but you get the picture. Where the arts are concerned, Stephen Merchant is obscenely talented. Best of all, he makes time in his crazy schedule to talk to Xpress on the day of our official launch.
“I was always quite creative as a kid,” says Steve. “I used to draw a lot of comic strips. I spent more time drawing comic strips that nobody ever saw, in my room, than actually going out and socializing, which I should’ve started doing earlier. By the time I got round to it, people were already going to parties, so I kind of missed the boat. It took me a while to eventually plug myself back into society because I enjoyed being at home writing and drawing. They were comics that never got finished really… I suppose I enjoyed the process of creating them more than the idea of actually showing them to someone. Then I started doing plays at school. I enjoyed creative writing projects at school and it’s something that just grew and grew. For me, one of the things I love about writing, particularly films or sitcoms, is the fact that they allow you to revisit things that happened in your life and kind of give them a funnier ending or a cooler ending, you know? You can reinvent them or explore concerns, anxieties or whatever you’ve experienced in life. There’s something about taking them apart and laughing at them that allows you to own them.”
Different people will find their own paths in to discovering something they enjoy doing or simply being involved with. It’s not easy to sit down and look at the things you enjoy doing in your own time and correlate that to something you could pursue to a fuller extent. Did Steve ever feel that his interests in the arts were exclusive to his career?
He says, “I don’t think it’s about being exclusive. I think a lot of people don’t feel like it’s something they could do or are not encouraged to do. Comedy is quite a particular thing and not something everyone feels they could be comfortable with. I was always trying all sorts of things. When I was at university, I tried radio, I made some short films, I liked painting and drawing. Music was something I could never get to grips with but I always liked the theory of it. I guess it’s playing around and finding the thing that sits best with you. It’s not necessarily about doing it as a career, there’s just something pleasurable in doing it for you. I certainly didn’t start doing these things with a career in mind. I simply enjoyed doing it. It’s amazing how much time you fill with these things. It consumes you once you get into it. When I was younger I would never finish things, but when you start finishing projects, the satisfaction of seeing something to its conclusion is incredible. For me, finishing a film script for example -the sense of personal accomplishment is incredibly satisfying. I feel that so little of what we do in life actually has an end product, something to actually put something on your shelf. Years ago, people actually made stuff… they built things, such as carpenters. Many jobs today just stretch on forever until the day you retire. There are a lot of those quotes and platitudes, quote of the day type things, but a real nice one is that ‘it’s the journey and not the destination,’ and that’s true in a sense, because there’s a danger that you can be so focused on the end product that you miss out the pleasure of the process. As soon as I finish a project, I want to jump straight back in to start it all again. It’s a great privilege to be able to do that for a living.”
Everyone knows about The Office and Extras. Both shows are built on agonizingly awkward humour crafted from the abundant ridiculousness found in workplaces and professional environments. This is what makes them great and everyday immediate surroundings are too often overlooked in the hunt for creative inspiration.
“In the case of Ricky (Gervais), he’d been doing office jobs and middle management for around fifteen years,” he says. “I was coming at it having left university and doing temping. I spent a lot of time doing things at the BBC and people think about the BBC as being very showbiz. But the reality is that if you’re working in a TV show and you’re not Bruce Forsyth, you’re typing at a computer, arguing over chairs and the newspapers just like any other walk of life. We always used to joke that if you work at the CIA and you’re doing a desk job, you’re still getting annoyed because somebody ate your sandwich… So it was very much direct inspiration for The Office. We felt that nobody had captured the reality of the office experience, which wasn’t crazy hi-jinx, it was just about getting by. The fact that you’re in this room with all these people who are essentially strangers, yet you spend more time with them than many members of your friends or family and all the little idiosyncrasies of it, the squabbling and the training days, the petty politics seemed worth exploring. There’s an old writer’s adage, which is ‘write what you know.’ I’m sure the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are fantastic, but the reason they don’t appeal to me is that I can’t relate to them, I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know the rules and magic powers of that world. To me, two people arguing in a pub is more interesting. What are they arguing about? What are their lives? It’s interesting to see things work in contexts that seem alien to you. The Office has been remade in Chile, there’s an Israeli version. To us it all seemed very English, but it would seem there is something very core about that experience that translates across the world. You feel this is very parochial, too insular perhaps, but because you’ve been very raw and honest, that appeals to people. When you try to cater to everyone, there’s a danger you’ll fall short and not it appeal to anyone.”
More recently, Stephen has enjoyed the success of An Idiot Abroad, a travel show that sees Karl Pilkington, former radio producer on The Ricky Gervais Show, an XFM Saturday broadcast, visiting countries around the world, out of his comfort zone in everyday English life. The three have produced podcasts and radio together for over a decade. How important is the collaboration in creative activities?
Steve says, “I’ve always tried to collaborate if I can. It’s hard to work in isolation, particularly in comedy where you ultimately write for an audience. For me, having someone around to share and develop ideas and bounce things off is essential. In the case of Karl, he’s an amazing example of someone who never had creative pretentions, artistic tendencies or showbiz desires. He was basically the guy pressing the buttons at the radio station and he did some behind-the-scenes stuff that were mildly creative, but he was a bloke with no qualifications who drifted into radio. We started asking him questions and drawing things out of him, stuff that he thought, ‘No-one is going to find this funny, nobody is interested.” It’s stuff that again, is so far left of centre, so personal. He is probably the most popular thing that Ricky and I have ever been associated with. People just love him. They either go, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I think about things,’ or, ‘That guy’s an idiot, but he sounds just like my dad or uncle.’ Now, he knows exactly how the TV business works, he’s got great ideas on editing and he almost slid into TV and show business because he was straight-up honest. He shared his perspective and people responded to it.”
‘Hello Ladies’ was Stephen’s first solo stand-up comedy tour since 1997, when he made his debut. Does he see his comedy as a method of utilising the negatives and frustrations in life as huge positives in a creative context?
He says, “Someone once said to me in an interview, ‘You seem to make a lot of jokes about being very tall.’ When I was at school, my height made me feel very awkward and self-conscious. The interviewer suggested that by making the joke about being tall, I was getting there before anyone else could. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. There’s something about humour that allows you ownership of your own failings. It’s no good someone saying, ‘Hey, you’re lanky,’ because I got there first, you know? I’ve won; it doesn’t count! In my stand-up I am unhealthily honest about my failings to the point of it sometimes not being entirely true. You magnify and exaggerate it so that you come off stage and people say, ‘I’m not even sure I know you any more.’ To me, it’s incredibly empowering if you’re honest. It disarms people, they can’t attack you because you’ve said, ‘I’m happy to share this with you.’ One of the things I was terrified of at school was people finding out my secrets. Oh god, I fancy that girl but I can’t allow anyone to know because… what if I get rejected? And then as you get older, it’s like… ‘Fuck it!’ If I like her I’ll tell her because I’m going to be dead soon. I’ll go to my grave and she’ll never know. The more honest you are, the more bullet-proof you are. It took me a long time to realise that, but the more time has gone on, the braver I am, I guess. It’s true on stage too. I want some seventeen-year-old version of me who is shy and awkward to see my stand-up and feel good because here is someone who feels the same way as me, thinking the things I think. That’s certainly how I used to feel when I used to listen to Woody Allen, for example. I used to think, ‘Oh, there’s another person in the cosmos like me.’ I think that you assume you are the only one thinking and feeling this way. Communicating that in any way has always seemed healthy to me.”
Comedy and humour are very broad topics. Watching comedy on TV, live or being involved are all equally valid. Steve says,
“There is great value in being the audience as well as the performer. When I started, some of the closest friendships I formed were with people who were fans of a particular sort of comedy, just like me, the same way fans of a certain kind of music come together. Us sharing a kinship happened because we related to that comic or that movie and that’s very valuable. I always think about those people you see queuing up at the premiere, dressed as their favourite Star Wars of Harry Potter character. You drive past and think, ‘Oh my god, look at those sad bastards,’ but I bet they’re all good mates, they’re having a whale of a time. They’re the ones hanging out with their mates and having fun.”
Stephen Merchant will be appearing in the forthcoming comedy movie, ‘I Give It A Year which is released in UK Cinemas February 8th 2013.