Stephen Merchant’s had a whirlwind tour of New York. The Brit, along with Ricky Gervais, served as co-creator of the revered TV series’ The Office and Extras and, standing at an imposing 6-foot-7, served as the lanky line above Gervais’ spherical dot, forming an exclamation point.
The 40-year-old, whom Russell Brand once described as a “graceful grasshopper,” made stints on Today and The Tonight Show, and also had the distinct pleasure of participating in The 24 Hours Plays on Broadway—where six original short plays are put together in a day’s time and performed to benefit charity. One of the plays he participated in featured a song-off between Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off.” Though Merchant wasn’t familiar with either tune.
“That was a lot of fun,” says Merchant. “I’d pop up in a few different plays, and one featured Peter Dinklage, Amanda Seyfried, and Justin Long. It saw Amanda singing Mariah Carey’s version of ‘Shake it Off’ and Taylor Swift’s, whilst Peter observed and judged. At one point, I was on the ground with Peter on my back. That’s all you need to know!”
Merchant’s in town to promote the Hello Ladies: The Movie, airing Nov. 22 on HBO. It offers the final chapter of his series about an awkward Englishman, Stuart Pritchard (Merchant), looking for love in all the wrong places (namely, Los Angeles). He eventually finds himself developing feelings for his pal, Jessica (Christine Woods), an aspiring screenwriter living in his home.
The Daily Beast spoke to Merchant about the film, dating adventures, and the state of American television.
I read that the series Hello Ladies came from a stand-up show of yours.
I started out as a stand-up comedian after university and was moderately successful in the sense that other comedians thought I was quite good, and once The Office and things happened it became too stressful. Then, about five years ago, I had this urge to dabble with it again. I started going to small clubs and trying out bits of material, and the things I found working were stories of romantic misfortune and the pursuit of the opposite sex. By the time I had a full act, that seemed to be the through line and core of the show. I ended up doing a show in Los Angeles, and HBO said they liked it and asked if I could think about it as a sitcom.
You’re an Englishman living in Los Angeles, and people from New York or London seem to have very differing views when it comes to life in L.A. What’s your take? It almost felt like the city was a fake set, and if you punched the walls, they’d kind of collapse in on themselves. It didn’t feel as solid and legitimate as somewhere like New York, or London. One time I remember taking a walk and a guy drove past with his window down and yelled, ‘Hey loser, get a car!’ It felt strange, and quite lonely. Over time, I got to know people and the other side of L.A. is the network of friends you build up—people socializing at dinner parties, and going to people’s houses. It’s always odd that L.A. is the home for people that are writing about the rest of the world, because L.A. doesn’t represent the rest of the world in any way. It’s important to visit real places like New York or London every so often and remind yourself how real people behave, listen, and talk.
So if the people in London and New York are more real, how would you characterize Angelenos? Well, all of the clichés of the town are 100 percent right. There are people that are shallow and superficial, people drinking kale shakes and going to the gym at 4 a.m., and the Botox and the trophy wives. But there’s another side of it that’s a lot of nerdy writers like me that love storytelling, and a dynamism and a feeling that anything is possible. There’s also something to waking up to 75-degree weather with the sun blaring in your face.
Hello Ladies is, of course, about your British character navigating the L.A. dating scene. How do you feel about the women of L.A.? They seem to be a slightly different breed from those in New York or London. There are certainly a lot of very beautiful women here that are drawn by the bright lights. I was lucky that when I arrived, I’d already had some success with The Office, so I never had the sense of being judged by the type of car I drove or any of that. But you know, there are assholes everywhere. Maybe there’s a particular kind of asshole in Los Angeles? But I’m pretty certain if you get stuck in a bar with Wall Street traders or London bankers you’ll find people who are just as arrogant and coked-up as anyone in Los Angeles.
Do you have any dating horror stories you’re willing to share?
There was one incident that did happen that was dramatized in the Hello Ladies movie. I was talking to this girl in college and she was very pretty, and seemed engaged. Then at one point, she said, “Steve, you’re on fire.” And I said, “Thanks very much!” And she said, “No, you are on fire,” and my arm had caught on fire from a candle on this mantelpiece. I’m not incredibly sexy when I’m rolling on the ground screaming, “Put it out, for the love of God!”
God, I wish I was there to see that.
There was a scene that we put in the season where I thought I’d be at a table of beautiful girls at a wedding—I’d been promised as much—and instead, I wound up at a table with a bunch of married people and a toddler in a highchair. And during the meal, the toddler took his shoe off for no reason and threw it in the air, and it landed in my soup and splashed all over me. I was covered in soup and no one else was touched. And the mother said, “Oh, what’s he like?” and I said, “He’s like a cunt!” You don’t want to call a child a “cunt,” generally.
Not generally a good idea.
I’m 6-foot-7 inches tall, and this is a true story: When I was down in Trafalgar Square for New Year, there was this big ocean of people. I was using my height and checking out the action, and this girl came up to me and said, “Are you going to be here for a while?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And she said, “Great! Because my friends and I have arranged to meet back at you.” So, she and her friends used me as a meeting point in Trafalgar Square. At a quarter past midnight, all her friends gathered at me and then they went off to party and I went home in a cab.
How long did you see Hello Ladies going prior to HBO pulling the plug?
To be honest with you, I hadn’t really thought beyond the first season. Had it gone on for five, six seasons, I’d have been happy. I had other ideas if we’d carried it on further, but ultimately, it’s not my decision, really. It’s HBO’s call. There’s been a suggestion that Ricky and I have always planned “two seasons and out,” but it’s never been a hard and fast plan, it’s just what occurred. But in all honesty, I’m surprised that they let me do this at all.
And where did the idea of the Hello Ladies movie come about?
HBO said, “We’re going to give you this film to wrap things up,” and I said, “OK, sure.” We approached it like a film so hopefully it makes sense for the audience that hasn’t seen the season in addition to those who had. We structured it like a film and liked the idea that it had a bit of a romantic comedy feel to it, since the romcom isn’t really being made anymore in the classic sense. The unfortunate thing about not carrying on is in the second season, that’s when you really hit a groove and all the writers and performers feel comfortable with one-another, but that’s the mentality we went into the film with.
How did you wrangle Nicole Kidman for her hilarious cameo in the movie?
I’d heard she’d come to one of my stand-up shows in New York, but I hadn’t met her. So, I reached out to her and she was into the idea, which was incredible. She jets in for a couple of hours and was exactly as I hoped she would be—completely happy to plunge in, improvise, let me say absurd things to her, and so game to play along. I couldn’t be happier with what she did, or the experience.
You’re sort of the Larry David to Ricky’s Seinfeld. Did you feel like, with Hello Ladies, you wanted your own showcase—your own Curb, so to speak?
I don’t know if it was a question of needing it, but more that the opportunity came along, and I did it. It wasn’t a pre-meditated game plan of, “I’ll do this stand-up show, it’ll turn into a series, and that’ll showcase me as an actor.” It wasn’t like when I was working with Ricky behind the scenes I was sitting there simmering that I wanted to be on the screen. When we did The Office, I was just so happy that we were writing something, directing something, and getting it made. I’m not someone who’s fueled by envy. I’m just stumbling along blindly and trying to do stuff that looks like fun.
The Office had such a huge effect on American TV comedy. At a certain point, NBC’s comedy block consisted of The Office remake, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Community—all of which seemed to be heavily influenced by your show.
When I became aware of it was more when I started seeing TV commercials that were echoing that style, so you’d see these slightly wobbly cameras and people in an office setting, and you’d think, “OK, I see where they got that idea from.” It’s easy to look back and mythologize these things—that it was part of this “let’s blow the doors off” moment—but The Office was just a very organic process. There was a lot of documentary TV on around the time we were making it, and it had originated from a training film that I’d done with Ricky while at the BBC, and I’d been assigned to do a real documentary and said I’d rather do a fake one. And we shot it handheld-style because we didn’t have a lot of time or money to make things look beautiful, and what we realized was that offered up an interesting element because it allowed the character to talk into the camera as if he was being interviewed. It was really born out of necessity.
So, The Office’s style was basically sort of an accident.
Well, certain things influence you, too. Ricky was very influenced by This Is Spinal Tap, and I was always a fan of Woody Allen movies. He’s used the documentary, handheld style a number of times—his first film, Take the Money and Run, was shot documentary-style, and Husbands and Wives has that feel to it. There’s also the element of uncomfortable comedy, like in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. There were a lot of inspirations, but for some reason, we just got hooked on the idea of realism and making it feel as real as possible; we became obsessed with trying to fool people into thinking it was real. It felt refreshing, I think, because it didn’t feel sitcom-y. I think The Big Bang Theory is great, but it’s a different kind of show. Now, I get the sense that maybe they’re moving away from the single-camera, documentary-style approach we did, and to a more standard sitcom formula. It’s funny. When I did a guest spot on Modern Family, someone on the set approached me without realizing I did The Office and said, “Oh, this show is different because it’s kind of like a documentary and they talk to the camera,” and I was like, “Oh yeah…” but thinking, “I’ve been involved with something similar.” Are you working on the David Brent movie with Ricky? No, I’m not working on that. I’m not sure where they are in that process.
What do you have coming up? I’ve been energized by writing the Hello Ladies movie—I enjoyed the movie structure—so I’ve started working on a screenplay that’s something different, and not featuring me as a loser in love.