“Socially autistic – that’s my niche,” says Stephen Merchant down the phone to ShortList. It’s certainly a furrow he’s ploughed successfully, from the easily-offended Oggmonster in The Office to cheerfully feckless agent Darren Lamb in Extras. And he’s at it again next month, playing an embarrassing best man in British wedding comedy I Give It A Year. We gave the 6ft 7in comic a call to discuss dance moves and dream collaborations.
You give a cringe-inducing best man’s speech in the film. Ever given one for real?
I have. It’s tricky to judge a best man’s speech if you’re a comedian because you feel the entire room is sitting there, arms crossed, like, “This better be funny.” Mine went well, though. The groom was quite small, so I did stuff like, “I’ll keep this speech short, which brings me to the groom.”
Nearly everyone’s short compared to you, though. Have you ever met anyone who’s made you feel small?
I met some basketball players in America who were noticeably taller than me. I like going to basketball games, because I do feel like I’m among my people [laughs]. It’s the one place where really tall people aren’t freakish – they’re heroes. I like to think the players assume I’m a retired English basketball star.
You did pretty well at impersonating English football star Peter Crouch in a 2006 World Cup sketch – have you ever met him?
I’ve never met Peter Crouch, but I like the theory of Peter Crouch. I’m really angry, though, because he called his autobiography Walking Tall, which is what I wanted to call mine. He’s got a beautiful wife, too. Crouchy’s my hero.
Your dance moves are also on display in the film. Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington have been critical of your dancing – was this a chance to prove them wrong?
They’re critical of my dancing because they’re jealous. I was in Cuba once and won a dance contest in a nightclub inside a cave. Dancing to La Bamba. First prize. And that’s in Cuba – the home of rhythm.
If you get married, will Ricky be the best man?
I won’t ask Ricky, because I think that would be an imposition. Like, “Right, I’ll ask the famous comedian I know to be my best man.” When I was asked to be a best man, I was thinking, “Oh come on, it’s too much responsibility. I just want to have a nice day.” [Laughs] So, I wouldn’t ask Ricky; I’d audition a few other friends instead. I’d get them to do 10 minutes at the Comedy Store. It’d be like a mini Britain’s Got Talent. In fact, if I ever do get married, I think I’ll launch a national TV show to find a suitable best man.
Ricky’s new series Derek has just begun – what did you think of the outrage the pilot sparked?
I feel like the knives are out for Ricky whatever he does. It’s happened to every successful performer in this country. Stephen Fry was targeted a while back – he was much loved in the days of Fry & Laurie, then he became ‘Mr Know-It-All’ and now he’s a national treasure. It seems to be standard practice. People assume Ricky’s agenda is how to shock people, but it’s not. He explores areas that are uncomfortable, but never with the intention of just giggling in the corner like a schoolboy.
Your stand-up show ‘Hello Ladies’ is being adapted by US network HBO. What can you tell us about it?
I play a web designer who’s moved to LA to be among the beautiful people, but the beautiful people don’t want him. He spends his time failing to seduce attractive women. There are some bigger themes underneath, but also a lot of me falling over [laughs].
You had some amazing celebrity cameos in Extras and Life’s Too Short. Anyone you’d still like to work with?
Prince. Just to see him and me in the same shot would be hilarious, but also he’s so cool and enigmatic, it would be funny to subvert that and make him a massive nerd constantly showing people boring stuff on YouTube. He’s also a Jehovah’s Witness, so he’s probably obligated to go door-to-door. Somewhere in Minneapolis, people are opening their door to see tiny little Prince going, “Have you heard the good news?”
And if it was Prince asking, you’d probably let him in...
Of course you would. You’d say, “I’m definitely interested in hearing the good news if it has a jazz/funk guitar workout.”
Last time you spoke to ShortList, you said you’d love to play Q in the Bond films. Were you upset Ben Whishaw got the call?
I was very annoyed. Ben Whishaw’s a great actor, but he looks about 14. He can’t be Q; Q’s an ageing boffin. I sat watching Skyfall absolutely furious [laughs].
Your Office cohort Martin Freeman recently found mega-stardom in The Hobbit. Will it go to his head?
No, he’s a level-headed gentleman. It’s strange seeing his very earnest face on every billboard in LA, though [laughs]. New Zealand really milks that Hobbit connection. On internal flights, the security film is Lord Of The Rings-themed. I don’t want to be told what to do in a crash landing by a bloke wearing elf ears. You don’t see videos in England with Harry Potter telling you: “Wear a condom so you don’t get Aids.”
Finally, what’s the strangest role you’ve been offered?
I turned down the role of a nudist in Wanderlust with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. The director couldn’t understand why I would be uncomfortable having my penis displayed on a giant film screen. That’s something I just won’t do for my craft.
It worked wonders for Michael Fassbender...
Yes, but Michael Fassbender’s rocking a serious ‘Golden Globe’ down there. Sorry, I don’t even know what that means.
I Give It A Year is at cinemas nationwide from 8 February
(Image: Rex Features)