Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais reunited
By Luaine Lee
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
PASADENA, Calif. — You can't miss him. British comic Stephen Merchant, who co-wrote the original "The Office" and "Extras" with Ricky Gervais, is 6-foot-7. He reached those stratospheric proportions in his early teens, and has felt like an outcast ever since.
"If you feel a little bit of an outsider, then maybe you use humor and you feel more in control," he says sitting in the courtyard of a hotel here, his long legs at an angle because they don't fit under the glass-topped table.
"I felt very self-conscious. I remember doing some school plays where I got to joke around and got a good reaction from other kids and parents saying, 'You were very good in that play.' And I was always a big fan of comedy. I watched it religiously, and when they published the scripts I would read them," he says.
Merchant translated his insecurity into standup and hilarious bits with Gervais, which included his role as Ricky's horribly inept manager in "Extras." A lifetime fan of Pythoner John Cleese, Merchant says, "He was born in a place very near to Bristol where I grew up ... Because he was very tall, he was one of my heroes. Because he'd come from my local area, I sort of felt maybe, 'Well, he's done it, maybe I could.' It was very arrogant of me to think I could be another John Cleese, but I was inspired more than thinking I could be anything like him."
But he was like him. The first time Merchant tried standup at 22 (his parents had to drop him off because he didn't have a car), he triumphed. The second time, he bombed.
"My experience of comedy since then has been that same roller-coaster. Sometimes it kills, sometimes it doesn't. But it was very formative in that regard because it gave me confidence that I could do it, that I wasn't wasting my time. But at the same time it rattled me because it wasn't as easy as I thought it was. I couldn't do it every time. I had to work at it."
He and Gervais met at a radio station. "We had a radio show and would also do other stuff at the radio station, and I left and joined the BBC," says Merchant, who's sporting a reddish beard and horn-rimmed glasses.
"And while I was at the BBC I was able to film this kind of character that Ricky had created who, in essence, became David Brent, the character in 'The Office' that he did. It was through that good fortune that that whole thing got rolling."
They complemented each other: Gervais' outrage at the craziness around him fit snugly with Merchant's impervious lunacy.
When they edited the film, "We just realized we had something special. Even at the time I remember thinking there's like an alchemy, there's something happened here, being really excited. It was like panning for gold and you see a little glisten and you thought maybe there's more gold in these hills. And that was a big moment, just seeing the quality of his performance and realizing that if we managed it right, we were on to something."
They were on to something, all right. NBC adopted the show for the American audience, and "The Office" has proved one of its most successful comedies.
The pair is still at it. On Friday "The Ricky Gervais Show" premieres on HBO. Spawned from their podcast, the show features an animated trio where Gervais and Merchant simply wing it with another station employee, Karl Pilkington.
"We met this guy who was just a goldmine of oddball, eccentric, weird anecdotes and strange views about the universe — just a real eccentric that we started chatting with," says Merchant.
"Then we started doing podcasts off the radio show and they became this cult thing all over the world, and we continued to do them with Karl, and now they've animated them for HBO, hopefully for a whole new audience."
As a bizarre counterpoint to Gervais and Merchant, Pilkington is not a performer. "He's just a guy that we met, but he comes out with things that are often funnier than we could ever write because he sees the world differently, through different eyes."
At 35, Merchant admits that he's more at ease with himself than he used to be. But he doesn't tell anyone. "Because it undermines my comic persona. The truth is, it's funnier to be hopeless. It's funnier to be neurotic and unsuccessful ... Luckily, your neurosis is magnified in different ways."
Still not married, Merchant confesses he's not very smooth with women. In fact, he does a bit in his standup about the absurdities of the dating ritual. "Sometimes I wonder if I want to meet girls, so I've got something to say in my standup routine. I've got a nice house, do I need somebody else in there? Of course, of course. I don't know about being married but it doesn't concern me terribly. I don't feel lonely. Don't think if I'm not married by next year I'm going to hang myself."