If the audience is just ‘noise’ and all that gigging leads to exhaustion, why, asks Ben Williams, is Stephen Merchant returning to the stage?
"You know the idea that if you boil some water and throw a frog in, it will leap around until it’s dead?" says Stephen Merchant. "But if you put it in there and heat the water gently the frog slowly boils alive and doesn’t really notice it happen? That’s how I feel. Like Ricky was thrown in the water and I’ve slowly been boiled alive."
‘Stepping out of the shadow of Ricky Gervais’ is a phrase often used in recent interviews with Merchant and reviews of his shows. True, the Bristol-born comic is currently performing alone, roving up and down the country with his debut solo stand-up tour, Hello Ladies…, but no one said ‘stepping out of the shadow of Stephen Merchant’ when his collaborator decided to give live comedy a try back in 2002.
While Gervais was thrust into the limelight, after The Office grew from cult status to global phenomenon, fame has crept up on Merchant. He has performed cameos and small roles in the duo’s various projects, but the 36 year old has never been the star of their collaborations and stopped solo live work in 2001. Not that he doesn’t like performing. "I always enjoyed it, but the clock isn’t ticking for me," he tells me when we meet in a small private room of the Hotel du Vin in Bristol, the morning after a homecoming gig at the city’s Colston Hall venue. "It’s not like I think: By the age of 40 I’ve got to be an international household name. When the opportunity to perform comes up, then I’ll take it. It’s really good fun. But because I don’t crave the attention or the buzz, it’s not like I’m desperate for it."
Merchant began his career in comedy as a performer in 1997. Before TV and film work took over he was a stand-up, delivering his very first routine at the Comedy Box in Bristol, just up the road from where we’re chatting. His parents dropped him off at the venue, he tells me, but he wouldn’t let them come in, "like a kid going to a school disco". The gig went well, but when he performed at the same venue again a month later, "It died on its arse," he recalls. "I couldn’t understand why. It was exactly the same act!"
He initially performed in character as a bitter West Country comedian who considered himself a big star. "It was quite postmodern," he explains, "where you deconstruct comedy. Which is fun to do, and it’s exciting, but it probably doesn’t extend much beyond 20 minutes. You realise you’ve actually worked your way into a corner, because once you’ve deconstructed it, what can you do?" So schlepping around the comedy clubs performing 20-minute sets wasn’t for Merchant. Especially with an act that could storm it one night, and have the opposite reaction the next.
As television work kicked in, Merchant walked away from the live circuit. "I never gave it another moment’s thought," he says. "I was never itching to do it. I still watched it as a fan, but never missed it for a second." But for four years Merchant has increasingly felt the pull of a return to solo performing – simply to see if he could do it. "It was always a challenge," he admits. "It was like an interesting hobby. I think of it like a giant jigsaw puzzle with a hundred thousand pieces. It’s there on the kitchen table, and you’re not obsessing about it, but occasionally you’re passing and think: Does that piece go there? And a picture starts to emerge."
For many stand-ups the buzz from being on stage is utterly addictive. The satisfaction and sustenance gained from other peoples’ laughter is so strong, they’re happy to put up with countless hours on the road, hundreds of service station dinners and night upon night of Travelodge interiors. But Merchant receives no such thrill from placing himself in the spotlight. His motivation is simply: 'I think these ideas are funny, will an audience think so too?' "They’re like Guinea pigs, and I’m testing drugs on them to see what works," is his analogy. "This sounds disingenuous, but if I could perform it into a virtual machine, like a virtual audience, that would respond as appropriate, that would be fine for me. I don’t need the real people’s laughter."
Perhaps this offers a clue as to why his work with Gervais is often near-unbearable to watch: Merchant seems genuinely to have found a way of constructing comedy that doesn’t require empathy on his part with the audience and vice versa. He even approaches the idea of getting on a stage as if it were some purely abstract puzzle. "There’s something disingenuous about going, 'I’m just this ordinary bloke,'" he says. "Well, no you’re not: you’re on a stage and all these people are in the audience. You’ve got to acknowledge that, at least."
"You hear some people," he continues, "saying 'I’m alive on stage; it’s where I feel most complete…' I don’t understand that at all; I find that weird and depressing. I don’t dislike the audience, it’s just when I’m up there they’re in the darkness. There’s just a sound of laughing or not. They’re not 'people', they’re this big organism. It’s just noise, you know?"
There’s no shortage of noise the evening I see the show. Merchant has his home crowd erupting with laughter. "I now understand why a football team does well at their home ground," he adds, modestly. But this reaction is not exclusive to Bristol: Hello Ladies… is receiving huge praise from the critics and extra dates are constantly being added – his Hammersmith Apollo gigs more than doubled, from four to ten dates, meaning 36,000 people saw the show in London alone. Does he get more of a buzz now he knows his formulas are working?
"I’m not not enjoying it," he admits, "but I feel quite old-school in that I’m professional: I have to go out there and deliver. Those people have come out, they’ve paid money, I’m going to try to entertain them as best I can. But whether or not I’m literally enjoying it every night… I’m almost numb." And what about the reviews? "I’m very pleased that people have written nice things about it and that people seem to have responded to it very well, but I always assess everything I do against the people I most admire: people like Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Louis CK…" He admits this is a high standard to set himself. "I’m not saying I’m in their league," he explains. "I’m saying I aspire to that level of greatness. Why would I not? If you’re a novelist I don’t see why you wouldn’t try to be as good as Dickens. We’re all going to fall short, but why would you just aim to be as good as Jeffrey Archer?"
For someone who claims to feel little on stage, he evidently cares deeply about his art, and throughout the interview Merchant talks of themes and ideas he’s yet to explore properly in stand-up, including his mock quest for a wife: "The idea that you can kind of list some things on a piece of paper, hand it out and see who applies is very weird to me," he says. "I’m interested in the notion of romantic love and real love." Again, he seems hung up the distancing unreality of his profession: "The reason I keep talking about a wife, and saying the word 'wife' on stage is because it seems a funny word to me. The more you say it, the more it seems to detach from that person and become this sort of abstract thing: that you would set out to find a wife, that it would be an objective like buying a new car. If I ever did [stand-up] again I could look into that."
Behind the enthusiasm for new ideas and future work Merchant clearly is tired, and it seems he may have underestimated how exhausting touring can be. Even though my suggestion of just playing a couple of arena mega-gigs instead is quickly, and maybe not that convincingly dismissed ("It’s not very healthy for comedy"), his current experience is one of pure fatigue. "I just can’t imagine ever doing it again," he says.
"I just wasn’t acclimatised to gigging every night, travelling, all that stuff. It’s just too much effort." But if Gervais can keep on touring, whipping up a new show every couple of years, why can’t he? "He’s more than ten years older than I am," he says, "so he’s got to move, he’s got to get stuff done before he gets old. That’s why he’s got to churn stuff out." Merchant might be knackered, but as the laughter greeting Hello Ladies… suggests, there’s a lot of people who would be disappointed if this is the last we see of Merchant, the stand-up who stepped out of the shadows. "I’m sure once it’s all over I’ll miss it," he confesses. Enough, we hope, to give going it alone another go.