"One reason I'm doing stand up comedy" says Stephen Merchant tonight "is so that I don't have to share half the money with you-know-who." The modest receipts from tonight's debut one-hour show are not likely to trouble any arrangement with his comedy partner, Ricky Gervais, but what is up for grabs here is more icing on the cake of Merchant's career, adding a mastery of stand-up to an already impressive CV.
The 35-year-old comedian started his career as a stand-up but success with The Office and Extras, among other things, ensured this activity receded into the background. Until three years ago, that is, when he began the process of building up his act again. Rather than merely keeping his hand in, Merchant's efforts now point towards grander designs, a notion reinforced by his comment tonight that his comedy heroes include Richard Pryor.
While Pryor was dangerous, visceral, black and working class, Merchant is almost the exact opposite; coy, cheeky, a little bit naughty at most. He's no carbon copy of Ricky Gervais either, despite a few plays on his award-winning fame. While Gervais has swagger, Merchant plays on his 6'7" frame to make himself as awkward as possible, the underdog we will accept self-deprecating humour from. When he was a teen, he says, he spent a lot of time in a reclining position, or in the distance, in order to fit in.
The vulnerable persona Merchant wants us to buy into is made easier to believe in by his shaky, nervous start. He cuts his hand on the microphone stand that unceremoniously collapses down on him, and huffs and puffs, ums and errs. "I'm not a stand-up comedian" he says, adding, knowingly "some of you will be annoyed by that."
As befitting his gait, strides are quickly made towards a more even rhythm and Merchant settles in to his central theme of the trials of being a single man. These trials include venturing back to nightclubs aged thirtysomething and trying to look like someone who brings glamour to the proceedings and not appear, as he says he does, as someone who promises "the offer of IT support".
While singledom is a safe ploy, Merchant uses it to make a range of observations. For example, he says that he has become more judgemental about women and that one of his criteria is the friends of a prospective partner. He recalls meeting a gossip-columnist friend of a girl he is dating and from this he goes on to debunk a press story that alleged he had been ogling Scarlett Johansson. The story is not true, he says, and besides, his height means that he would never get caught.
Merchant currently voices a rather smug advertising campaign for a bank; this show, by comparison, leaves the performer in credit, though not yet with enough of a dividend to make people really sit up and take notice.
Some routines are forced and overstated (particularly his duologues – one about Sting and a Casio watch is notably lame) and lack resonance. He doesn't come over as a natural but it's early days for this second coming and, given his track record, he surely can't be written off just yet.
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