Getting rejected from nightclubs, bumbling into glass doors; as Jimi Famurewa learns, the co-creator of The Office isn’t like most Hollywood millionaires
(Main photograph Art Streiber, Agent: Simon Horobin, Syndication: Dan Terry/other images Sky/Studio Canal)
See, now that’s a good shirt for LA,” says Stephen Merchant, pointing somewhat enviously at my short sleeves as he strolls from the sweltering heat into a cool West Hollywood studio. “Look at this thing,” he splutters, indicating his dark, decidedly long sleeves. It’s a small but significant moment. You’d think that someone who had been living in Californian sunshine for the past six months – not to mention coming here for awards shows, film appearances, stand-up dates and more for the best part of a decade – would have cracked something as simple as weather-appropriate dressing by now. That they’d be ready to let go of hardcoded British pessimism and dive headlong into a terrifying world of cargo shorts, singlets and flip-flops. Not Merchant.
Acclimatisation and blending in clearly isn’t the 38-year-old Office co-creator’s style. And it’s a somewhat fitting theme. We’re out here to speak to him about his new solo project Hello Ladies, an amiable HBO sitcom where he writes, directs and stars as a naggingly familiar lanky Brit striking out with women, sticking out like a 6ft 7in thumb and generally blundering through life in Los Angeles. “Luckily,” he smiles, “I’ve been living this role since I was 15.”
But surely, 12 years, two Golden Globes, three Baftas and eight international remakes after he and Ricky Gervais re-invented the sitcom, this stuff can’t still be happening? The fist-biting social faux pas, the falling over, the dating disasters must all be a thing of the past, cannily mined for comic potential?
No, in a word.
In fact, after 40 minutes of hearing his stories of hash-cake meltdowns and accidental fires, we can’t help but think he’s toned it all down a bit...
So, how did Hello Ladies go from stand-up show to sitcom? Was it always the plan?
No. I did the stand-up show here, in LA, at a comedy venue called Largo, and the HBO people came along and said, straight away, “Do you want to write it as a sitcom?” I hadn’t even thought of it – I wasn’t even planning to do stand-up. I’d just been pottering around doing it. I did it before any TV stuff, so it was just this niggling thing.
Have you completely plundered your own life for stories, then?
There’s nothing specific, but it’s all born from real experiences. A huge drinks round is one of my great anxieties, so that’s in there. Perching on a high chair has happened many times, when I’ve shown up late and there’s no seating left, so I’ve got to grab a chair that makes me even taller than everyone else. In a few episodes I’m constantly failing to get into clubs, which has happened many times, even when I’m on the list. I was on the list once for a new club here about five years ago. I went to the door and said, “Hey, I’m on the list,” and the bouncer said, “Which list? There are two.” I said, “Can you check both?” and he went, “No, I don’t have time.” I stood outside this f*cking club for 15 minutes while people just breezed in casually. And I was on the list! Even when I’m on the list, I can’t get in! Even when I’m on the list, I’m not on the list. He just didn’t want me in there.
How much of your character, Stuart, is just accentuated elements of you?
It’s elements of me over the years. The awkwardness is sort of late teenage-to- twenties, but also Stuart has the kind of arrogance of youth. A nerdy arrogance where you think you’re doing well at school so you know what’s going on. The arrogant nerd really amuses me. I saw two guys once on a train platform and they were both dressed in long, Matrix-style leather coats. Proper nerds, with comic-book store bags, talking about Star Wars or something. One of them said, “You know when Leia gets shot in The Empire Strikes Back?” And straight away the other one went, “When she gets shot in The Empire Strikes Back? I remember her getting shot in Return Of The Jedi…” [Laughs] I really like that idea of hierarchy, that one nerd is king of the nerds.
There’s a fair bit of pratfalling, too. Did you suffer any injuries?
I injured my back falling into a drinks cabinet. I love that, though – one of my idols growing up was John Cleese. He’s very tall, like me, and he studied in Bristol, where I’m from, so he is a big hero. There was always a smartness to what he did, but also a physicality and silliness to it. I wanted a little bit of that Basil Fawlty feel for Hello Ladies. And there’s a bit of Woody Allen in there, too.
And, speaking of injuries, is it true you had a bit of a mishap at a celebrity party recently?
I went to this party at Sarah Silverman’s house, and I was given some chocolate with marijuana in it – I assume that’s what it was. And I was fine for about 30 seconds, then I immediately went into this hole of despair that I couldn’t crawl out of [laughs]. For a while I just lay down as the party carried on around me, then I went to the bathroom, stared at myself in the mirror for an indeterminable amount of time, came back out to the party and thought, “I’ll get a breath of fresh air.” So I walked outside... straight through a plate-glass window.
And it smashed?
In its entirety. The most bizarre thing was that the glass wasn’t even transparent, it was dark brown. It was exactly like something from one of my shows. Total silence, people staring, awkward embarrassment. I don’t know what you do in that situation. Make a joke of it? I don’t think I even said anything; I just crunched my way through the glass [laughs]. The thing is, it didn’t even sober me up. I was still in a weird zone.
You’ve mined the comic potential of your ‘search for a wife’. Is it ongoing? Has fame not helped your cause?
No, I am still single. But I do now get rejected by more beautiful women. The standard has gone up.
How do you feel about dating apps such as Tinder?
Is it basically just for a quick lay? It’s probably a good thing, but I haven’t used them. It’s difficult to be on those things when you’re in the public eye. It’s like a more efficient way of meeting someone in a bar. I’ve often thought it would easier if, when you walked into a bar or party, all the single people were lined up in one area, and all the people who were married or in a relationship were somewhere else. The time it would save! You don’t want to be talking to someone for 30 minutes only to find out they’ve got a boyfriend. I want to be in bed by midnight, whatever happens, and I don’t mean necessarily with you, love.
Is there still any truth in the old chestnut about US women being attracted to British accents?
I think maybe that would be true if you were in the middle of nowhere, but in Los Angeles there are too many British people around. And too many good-looking British people, at that. Plus, it’s like they can sense that I’m not posh. They can’t quite identify the Bristol accent; they just know I sound more like a pirate than Hugh Grant.
Brits aren’t natural daters, are they? Are you a convert now you’re in LA?
It’s just that a date is a tense situation, because you both know what the objective is. I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who said, “It’s like a job interview where you could both wind up naked at the end.” What you’ve arranged to do is be assessed and judged. So is what you’re wearing and the things you talk about, and I don’t know if you’ve been on a date where someone doesn’t drink. It happens all the time here, because people are driving or they have to go to their shrink. I don’t know what’s going on there. Because without drink, there’s no shape to the evening. You’re just out of the house until 10 or 11, or whenever they choose to jump in a cab. I don’t think there’s any reason to be out of the house after 7.30pm if you’re not drinking. Why are you sat in a bar and not drinking? What are you doing?
Away from that, your longtime writing partner Ricky Gervais is back playing David Brent in sketches, YouTube videos and live shows. Did he consult you about it?
No, not really. When he was doing that first Comic Relief sketch I think I was in Australia and New Zealand touring anyway. When we collaborate on something specifically, then we’re always in the room together and we’re both all over it. But when we do solo stuff, we never really discuss it. I never talked to him about stand up particularly, he’s never asked me about his shows. I think also you want the challenge of doing it on your own.
How do you feel about the talk of a Brent film, though?
I don’t know anything about that. But it’s his character, and he was doing ‘Seedy Boss’ before we did The Office. So he’s free to do with it as he wishes. It’s not The Office, as far as I know, it’s him inhabiting another world. And a good character is a good character. I’ve been enjoying Alan Partridge as much as anyone in his revived form.
And we imagine you have the Oggmonster series lined up anyway...
[Laughs] Oh yeah, everyone’s crying out for that on YouTube.
Do people still yell Oggmonster and Darren Lamb lines at you?
Very occasionally in England. But people remember me from some very obscure stuff. My groupies – generally middle-aged, very nice IT nerds – remember stuff from podcasts and shows that I’ve long since forgotten. I’ll tell a story, which I apparently also told on the radio in, like, 1999, and they’ll go “Oh, he’s told this before.” [Laughs] a) I don’t remember every story I’ve ever told, and b) there are only so many things that have happened to me, I’m bound to end up repeating one of them at some point.
You’ve also appeared in a few Hollywood comedies. Is big-screen stuff something you’re still pursuing?
I did Hall Pass with the Farrelly brothers, then Peter Farrelly called me about Movie 43. He said, “Do you want to do a sketch? It’ll take two days and you’re on a date with Halle Berry.” I said yes before he finished the word Halle. You just do these things for fun. But I don’t get offered a great deal of things; I don’t think I cross people’s thoughts – in life generally, as well as in Hollywood.
Ricky has tried to branch into more dramatic performances with Derek. Is that something that appeals?
I’d be more interested in making a drama than being in one. I’m not sure I’m quite cut out to be in a drama, maybe when I’m older I could do it. I like the idea of making something such as Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, because those shows are so rich and they get to be funny as well as being very dramatic. You’re not shackled to the idea of making people laugh, but you can still be hilarious and dark.
Finally, your character in Hello Ladies dabbles with some terrible clothing. Any memorably bad outfits from your past?
When I was at university, there was a brief renaissance in Seventies style – big collars and flares and stuff. I think it lasted for about a week. I’d saved up for this bright red, Seventies disco shirt, I don’t know what I was thinking. It must have been 90 per cent synthetic fibres and 10 per cent straw. It was not a nicely made shirt. I went to a party, I was chatting to this girl and I thought I was doing well – I was telling some extremely engaging anecdotes. At one point she said, “Steve, you’re on fire” and I went, “Thanks very much.” And she said, “No, you’re actually on fire.” My sleeve had gone up on a candle that was on the mantelpiece, and the shirt just went up like that. Turns out I’m not at my most attractive when I’m rolling on the floor, screaming, pounding myself and trying to put out flames.
Hello Ladies starts on Sky Atlantic HD on 16 October at 10pm; On Demand customers can see it first on 10 October