California dreaming: Stephen Merchant on love, short actors and orthodontics in Los Angeles
His new sitcom is about a gawky Brit struggling to find romance in Los Angeles. A case of art imitating life? Yes, says the comedian. And no…
Sunday 13 October 2013
Oh to be in California now that October's arrived. The leaves might be disappearing from the trees in England, but for Stephen Merchant, it's another sunny day in LA. The 38-year-old co-creator of The Office has been here since March, making his debut HBO sitcom Hello Ladies.
He has been working solidly, so there's been no time for ex-pat soccer with Rod Stewart and Robbie Williams. Which is not to say the gangly comedian is not enjoying it, as he is quick to explain on a typically bright Saturday morning: "The things that appeal are surprisingly superficial, such as the weather. And I do like the change of scenery, I do like the fact that you can drive to the beach."
So what would Merchant do once on the beach. Surf? Pump iron? Rollerblade along the Santa Monica boardwalk? "I'd have an ice- cream then go home," he says in a voice that still has a hint of a Bristol burr to it. Ah, the glamour of life in Los Angeles.
This contrast between fantasy and reality propels his new eight-part sitcom. Merchant plays Stuart Pritchard, an English website designer searching for romance in the City of Angels and expecting his life to be like a glossy movie. It is a simple premise but one that pays comedy dividends, as he gets into weekly slapstick scrapes. In the opening episode, he pursues a woman in a club and spends $800 on a round of drinks, most of which end up in his lap.
The only time Merchant has taken a break from working on the show has been to promote it. He was plugging Hello Ladies on Jimmy Fallon's chat show recently and had a lip-sync face-off with both the presenter and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Merchant performed DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Boom! Shake the Room" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies", giving it the full shimmy and pelvic thrust. Within a day, the clip had gone viral.
"It's weird. I got stopped at breakfast today and was told three million people had viewed it." It looked so good one had to wonder how much was choreographed. "Not at all. 'Boom! Shake the Room' I've known since college; 'Single Ladies' I learnt on the plane to [record the show in] New York."
Merchant has been renting a house in the Runyon Canyon area of Los Angeles – a stone's throw from the Hollywood strip – since March. "One thing I do like about LA is its work ethic. There is a very strong get-up-and-go attitude here that I respond to. In this project I've worn so many hats it was crazy." He directed five episodes and has a writing and executive-producer credits as well as topping the cast, so his name keeps flashing up at the end. "I'd like to point out: that's not my ego. There are so many unions, you are obligated to put your name down so many times."
Anyone familiar with Merchant's work with Ricky Gervais will spot similarities. This is the comedy of embarrassment, inappropriateness, awkwardness and excruciating lack of self-awareness. We have seen it in The Office, Extras and, most recently, Life's Too Short. Given much of the visual comedy here derives from the fact that Merchant is a gawky 6ft 7in, Hello Ladies could have been called "Life's Too Tall".
'One thing I do like about LA is its work ethic. There is a very strong get-up-and-go attitude here that I respond to' (Amanda Friedman)
The title actually comes from Merchant's debut stand-up show. His solo rise has been meteoric. Although he had a crack at stand-up in the late 1990s, he gave it up when The Office took off in 2001. Then, about three years ago he started doing small spots in clubs, bemoaning his continuing lack of success with women. This evolved into a tour which received rave reviews. He ended up performing it in America, where HBO saw it and liked his persona.
"They suggested doing it as a sitcom. There is a bit of a whiff of fish out of water, setting it in LA, but it is less to do with being British and more to do with being too tall and pasty-white. My teeth are all right but they are not American teeth and my hair is not thick and luscious. Los Angeles is dense with beautiful people and most of the men who are aspiring actors are 5ft 5in, so I tower above them. We wanted that sense that he's out of place; less that sense that he's a guy who doesn't understand the foreign ways. He'd be out of place anywhere, with his physicality and attempts to be a player. I wanted the idea of loneliness in the city. He is like an existential fish out of water."
Much of the comedy comes from Stuart's catastrophic attempts at seduction. "He has the confidence to talk to women, he's just rubbish at it," explains Merchant. There are some marvellous moments of physical comedy when he attempts to appear cool. In one scene, he tries to act nonchalant in a supermarket only to tumble into a refrigerator. It is Merchant's very own Only Fools and Horses falling-through-the-bar moment. "I think you could call it homage, yes."
The sitcom inevitably has some overlap with Merchant's real love life. He is, after all, single and, as he has joked, "ready to mingle". Things appear to have been relatively quiet on that front in recent years: success does not appear to have made him a smoother operator. "The stand-up show was about me entering the world of showbiz celebrity and it still not working out. Even though I was on TV, I still wasn't getting enough action."
And has anything improved since he moved? "I'm a single man in Los Angeles working too hard. I have my poster across town and I'm hoping to take full advantage of that, but it hasn't happened yet. What I'd like to do is take a date to a bar that overlooks one of my billboards on Sunset Boulevard. But I've been in a bunker making this. I haven't had the time… or the date."
Despite having a patchy romantic CV in common with his character, Stuart is clearly a cartoon version of Merchant. I doubt whether Merchant asks his buddies for petrol money when they go out. "Let's not confuse us too closely. I'd hate people to think I was that selfish. I think [Stuart has] read books like The Game, which I think have an undercurrent of misogyny, as if you are tricking women into bed. A lot of those books are for guys who couldn't get into cool parties when they were younger and now want their revenge. I suffered when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. I was awkward, I stuck out, I was nerdy. But now I've made a hit show I don't want to gloat; it's not very nice. The best revenge is living well."
There is one incident in Hello Ladies, however, that borrows directly from his own experience. "I remember coming over [to LA] when The Office had won a Golden Globe and I was very excited. I thought, this is my town now. I was put on a list for a new club; I walked up and said I was on the list and the doorman said, 'There are two lists,' which threw me. I asked him if he could check both and he said he didn't have time, so I stood there like a lemon while he let in various beautiful people. Eventually I went off sheepishly, even though I was on the list."
Trying it on with the opposite sex in new sitcom 'Hello Ladies' (Sky Atlantic)
While his regular collaborator Ricky Gervais often does other, separate projects – presenting the Golden Globes, writing Derek, for instance – this is Merchant's first major Gervais-less TV outing. Although for Hello Ladies he has worked with two American writers who worked on the US version of The Office, this clearly has Merchant's prints all over it. You could say it's his debut solo album.
"Yes, I think that's fair. It's my ambitious jazz-funk solo album." He hasn't seen Gervais since the start of the year but they email each other regularly – though not to discuss work. "We never talk about our other stuff, we never have." Is there an unspoken rivalry between them? "I don't think so, I can't speak for him but k I've never felt that. I know that this sounds grand but I don't try to compete with other people. I like to think there's enough pie for everyone. The kind of people I'm competing with are my heroes – Woody Allen, Billy Wilder – who I know I'm going to fall short of. I never feel like winning a race against my peers, and certainly not against Ricky."
Still, thanks to his appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Merchant can now lay claim to a dance routine nearly as silly as Gervais's infamous turn as David Brent. "I've always been a fan of physical comedy. It kind of hits you in a different way; it bypasses the intellect and hits you in the gut. There is something about the fluency of Ricky's dance, it's two takes, no close-ups, just his whole body in relation to the rest of the room. If we'd done it tighter, I don't think it would have been as funny."
He insists that Hello Ladies represents a temporary sojourn, rather than an attempt to crack America, and that he will return to the UK. He will also work with Gervais again, but at the moment his diary is empty. "I'm not obfuscating; there is nothing planned after this. I have the vague idea of a stand-up show about the notion of being cool. It feels like a natural extension of the previous show. I always think about smoking being cool. When you see James Dean in black-and-white, we are seduced by that. But people huddled in the rain outside an office block is the least cool thing. But that's as far as I've got."
As he prepares to smarten himself up for the photoshoot, I ask whether he has been homesick. Not really, it seems. He has friends over to stay as often as possible and is too busy working to think about England. "I do miss the Today programme and rigorous news analysis. I'm a bit obsessed with Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time podcasts. I was driving a convertible recently – because I'm an asshole – and I pulled up alongside an attractive woman at the lights and I glanced across thinking I was a player. Then I realised I was listening to a podcast about the English Civil War."
'Hello Ladies' is on Sky Atlantic from Wednesday at 10pm
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