Stephen Merchant on Q


First aired on Q (22/05/12)

Stephen Merchant is one of England's most recognizable comic talents for two main reasons. First, he's the writing partner of star comedian Ricky Gervais and a frequent co-star on shows like The Office, Extras and The Ricky Gervais Show. Second, the bespectacled man is a gangly gentle giant, standing at six feet seven inches tall.

"I think I was referred to, in my brief appearance in The Office, as a 'lanky, google-eyed freak,'" Merchant told the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi during a recent interview. "I've been described as, I think, something like a stick insect receiving electro-shock therapy. Maybe a giant albatross hopping on stilts. Basically, I'm very tall ..."

Growing up, Merchant was never completely comfortable in his own skin, but always had a sense of humour and could see the funny side of things in life.

"Someone said to me once, 'Is [your height] the reason you think you got into comedy?' And I think there's some truth in that, because I think I always felt self-conscious. I always felt like people were looking at me anyway, and why not look at me as, "Oh, it's that the guy from the TV," as opposed to 'It's that freaky guy from down the lane.'"

Merchant, who co-authored the humour book An Idiot Abroad with Gervais and another frequent collaborator, Karl Pilkington, has had a deep love for comedy since childhood. He admired Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the physical comedy of John Cleese and the surrealist comedy of Monty Python. But it was the discovery of Woody Allen's work that "turned a corner" for him, helping him realize that comedy "just didn't have to be funny, it can be something else as well ... it can have truth or honesty."

His first taste of broadcasting came when he worked as a film reviewer for the student radio station while at university. He also began honing his comedy craft doing stand-up in pubs around London. After graduating, he applied for a job at London's Xfm station in 1997. That's when Merchant first met Gervais, who was the "head of speech" department.

"We did hit it off. He called me up for an interview, and it was basically my first job and he was very honest and he said, 'Listen, I've somehow swindled my way into radio and I don't know what I'm doing. You've had some experience in college and the like, if you promise to do all of the work, I will make this fun for you.'"

The pair hosted a weekend afternoon show together and began writing. Sometime later Merchant got an opportunity to join the BBC and collaborated on some pilot projects, including the eventual hit sitcom The Office. Their creative partnership has since led to numerous awards and critical accolades. Merchant reflected back on what he thinks made the pair click so successfully.

"Certainly, when we first began working together, I had a lot of youthful energy and I was quite ambitious, probably, and quite dynamic. When I first met him, he was the age I am now, so as I've discovered at age 37, really he just wanted to put his feet up and relax. And somehow I was able to cajole him into being more active and getting off his arse and doing stuff, which he did, and The Office and things started happening. But I think what he brought to me was he had a great deal of wisdom, if you like. And he wasn't intimidated by anything. He was approaching 40 and he was a man with a life and he had a job and he wasn't easily impressed or intimidated by executives at TV networks," Merchant commented. "Sometimes in the relationship, I'd be the adult, I'd be the sensible, level-headed one and he'd be the overactive child, so it was weird. It was a constantly shifting relationship, but I guess we were complimentary."

Merchant is currently taking some time to work on a solo project: getting back into stand-up comedy. For the past year, he's been performing again in London clubs and had some North American dates.  So why deal with all the stress of travelling and hecklers if you've co-created some of the most popular British comedy programs of all time?

"I feel that there's a certain complacency that sets in when you work in TV because you're very insulated. You've got a lot of people around you, you've got collaborators ... There is something about doing stand-up comedy that is so raw and so direct, and you can't hide. You either make them laugh or you don't and you walk off to the sound of your own footsteps. And so it felt like a really healthy challenge, to sort of go back out there and reconnect ... And sort of remind myself of how hard it is to make people laugh."