Emerging from the shadow of Ricky Gervais, that has been the common misperception of Stephen Merchant’s debut stand-up tour Hello Ladies. Indeed, he jokes about this assumption in the opening of the show, which has toured the country to rapturous applause and critical acclaim. Merchant insists the best thing about the gig is not having to share any of the money “with you know who”. It may come as a surprise, then, the 37-year-old began doing stand-up ten years ago. It may come as even more surprise that he’s something of a reluctant stand-up. So why then did he decide to return to something he had, by his own admission, crossed off his ‘to-do’ list a long time ago?
“Stand-up comedy is like malaria in that you think the urge has gone away and then it comes back again unexpectedly,” Merchant says when I catch a moment with the 6ft 7in man himself. “A couple of years ago, the malaria came back and I thought ‘should I try it again, I never quite nailed it?’ So I just started pottering around London like a hobby and these gigs are the result of it.”
’These gigs’, however, have been more than just some sort of side-project mini-tour. Instead, Merchant has played everywhere from the south coast to Glasgow, including two hometown shows in Bristol and a New York gig on December 20 as the tour’s full stop. That’s without mentioning his ten-date residency at the Hammersmith Apollo.
It is also feasible, though, that the focus of the show might have influenced his return to the stage as well. Merchant is single, geek-ishly inclined (and in appearance) and looking for love. Yes, Hello Ladies is his search for a wife, or rather, “an exploration of his failure to find a wife in the years since my puberty”. Originally intended to be an “active“ search for a “better“ half, the practicalities of such an endeavour proved more than a little disconcerting, with Merchant being put off by the “over-enthusiastic“ responses he received.
“I started to get pretty weird letters from ladies, some odd proposals, with photos attached to what I can only describe as ‘love CVs’,” he says. “You know, ‘I was in a relationship that didn’t work out now I live with 17 cats’. I started to worry that they might start showing up at the gigs.”
The crux of his ‘failure’, though, is hilariously played out over the course of the show, which focuses on his experiences thus far and the reasons, perhaps, for his continued single-status. Long before The Office and Brent shot to global success, Merchant had been plying his trade on the live scene. He swiftly decided, though, that it was not his primary passion. Then, as other projects took off (a certain Golden Globe-winning tale of a paper merchant in Slough in particular) he opted to leave stand-up behind, seemingly for good.
“The TV stuff was time-consuming, and so I knocked it [stand-up] on the head. I never got enough of a kick out of it. I’m not one of those people who gets on stage and feels like they are alive, like they belong there. I don’t get that buzz from it.” However, if he doesn’t get that rush, as he claims, then it doesn’t show. Catching him on night three in London, he stalks and prowls the stage like a long-in-the-game natural. Holding back and releasing to dramatic and hilarious effect, his understanding of what’s funny and, more importantly, why and how it is funny, is a seamless fit for the live arena.
Opting for a headset mic, he is free to move about and use his height to comedic effect, which he does superbly, his unruly stature and the pitfalls and predicaments it poses, forming the crux of the show’s opening salvo. Moreover, though, for someone who claims to have walked away from stand-up because they didn’t crave the buzz of performing, Merchant appears to be very much ’in the moment’ on stage.
Meandering off-script and engaging with the audience, he not only looks comfortable, but it seemingly fires him up as well (an Argos jewellery aside is a particularly conspicuous example during this evening’s performance). And, despite his attention-craving denials, aspects of Hello Ladies point quite clearly to, or perhaps play on, the opposite, with several hilarious sequences detailing how he has been misrepresented during the course of his career – fact-checking at the Guardian coming under fire in particular. How much of this is part and parcel of the ‘Stephen Merchant persona’ as seen on Extras and the current Life’s Too Short, and how much is really fuelled by others’ oversights not giving him his due rewards, remains up for debate. We’d hazard a guess though there’s real desire to get what’s his, even if only to prove it to himself.
He also jokes there are parts of the tour that have made him miserable – although by his own admission, if he is on the road he’d rather be at home, and if he is at home then he would rather be on the road. “The travel, the hotels, I thought it would be a lot more glamorous and it isn’t,” he confesses. “I would like to say that I am throwing TVs out of hotel windows and sleeping with prostitutes, but I am far less exciting than that; there was no riding motorbikes up the corridors like Led Zeppelin.”
Something he seemingly isn’t joking about though is the fact that this return to stand-up might not be particularly long-lived.
“This is probably going to be my debut tour and my final, farewell tour too,” he says, suggesting it is an itch he might now have scratched, or perhaps it is just the strain of an elongated stretch on the road starting to show. “I feel like I have done it and proved it to myself.”
So what would the future hold in store? With an eclectic career that has taken in radio, writing, directing and acting, and counts a feature film to its credits in the shape of 2010’s Cemetery Junction, there seems little end to his ambition. He talks of wanting a more dramatic acting role – it’s “much less stressful than stand-up, just remember your lines and don’t fall over“ – rather than the comedic roles that have dominated.
Despite this proclamation, though, there is hope this might not be just a one-time deal, as the self-confessed mercurial Merchant could, maybe just, be persuaded to go through the whole thing again. “The grass is always greener for me,” he says. “Whenever I am doing something I am always itching to do something else.” Maybe he’ll get that itch again sometime in the future.
Hello Ladies is on at Hammersmith Apollo until Sat, Dec 10.
Phot credit: Carolyn Djanogly