In most theatres, you’re more likely to ask the 6ft 7in Stephen Merchant to duck down than stand up. There is one exception, however: his first ever live tour, Hello Ladies. Wrestling the onstage limelight from comedy partner Ricky Gervais, Merchant, who’s been doing stand-up on and off for nearly 15 years, has embarked on a county-crossing, gas-guzzling, Nectar point-gathering national comedy tour. Though it seems the experience isn’t quite what he expected...
So, what’s it like being on the road?
I thought it would be a lot more “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”. It’s more like being a rep for a major company. There’s lots of free newspapers and orange juice in the morning. Then lots of travelling and motorway service stations. But I imagined it would be more like Led Zeppelin on tour circa 1975.
The tour’s called Hello Ladies — are they not answering?
God no. The groupies waiting outside the stage door for me, bless ’em, are mainly blokes in their 30s who work in IT. There aren’t a lot of Playboy Bunnies.
Could you still be tempted?
Never say never. I could probably get them to have a look at my Wi-Fi, too, which is a bit sloppy.
Your show talks about some of your lady-related tragedies — what have you learned over the years?
You know in teen movies they say, “Be yourself”? To my teenage self I’d say, “Don’t be yourself. Construct a facade of someone you’d rather be and live behind that for as long as possible.” But that doesn’t work for me, either.
Any examples that aren’t in the show?
Loads. I thought I’d be flash once and take a lady to a London casino. She put on a nice dress, I put on a suit, picked her up in a cab — that cost a fortune, she lived miles away. We walked in, I threw down my membership card, trying to be very James Bond about it, the bloke behind the counter checked the computer and said, “You’re barred.” I said, “What do you mean? I’ve only been here once before.” He went, “We don’t have to give you a reason, we’re a private club, you’re barred.” We ended up in a 24-hour café eating bacon sandwiches. I’m pretty certain I didn’t see her again.
This interview is taking place before Life’s Too Short has aired, but let’s assume it’s a couple of weeks later — how do you feel about the reaction to the show?
I’m incredibly pleased by the overwhelming response that this show has had. I didn’t realise when we were doing it that it would break all known TV viewing figures and that the Bafta people would phone us personally halfway through the first episode to tell us that we had already won Best Comedy and that no one else need apply. I knew that Warwick [Davis, the show’s star] would be regarded as great, but to see him given an OBE is a delight.
As with Extras, Life’s Too Short has got some famous people doing cameos. Do any look at the script and say, “Hang on a second…”?
They’re never surprised by the scripts on the day. Sometimes they add to it. There’s a bit in Extras where Les Dennis is having sex in the dark, supposedly, and he ad libbed, “If it’s up there, I’ll give you the money myself,” which was his Family Fortunes catchphrase. I thought that was very funny.
What’s the weirdest side of Hollywood you’ve ever seen?
The thing I always find weird is how quickly you acclimatise to it. I remember when we first went to the Golden Globes. We got picked up by a limo, and I’d never been in a limo before. I thought, “This is insane.” Then, a few days later you’re getting picked up by another limo and you’re thinking, “Hang on, this limo’s smaller than the last one…”
Are you surprised by your A-list fans?
Yes. Drew Barrymore came over once and was very sweet. She got on her knees and started bowing in front of me and said, “I worship you and what you do.” That was quite a surprise.
Have you got a big list of things you want to do?
I’d like to do something more dramatic. The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire or The Wire — those are the things I admire the most. I’m not saying I could do anything as good as that, but I’d like to do something like that before I die. I always think of things in terms of “before I die”.
It’s hard to do things afterwards. Do you mean producing or acting?
I don’t think I’ve got the face and physique of a dramatic actor. I think I’m innately comical. I’ve been angling for the role of Q in the James Bond films, when John Cleese hangs up his boots. I could imagine doing that: a faintly comic role in a dramatic thing. But I can’t imagine they’d cast me as a hard bitten private eye with a drink problem and a failed marriage.
Stephen Merchant’s Hello Ladies UK tour runs until 12 December and is out now on DVD