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Stephen Merchant on Hello Ladies: \'I just get rejected by a better class of woman than I did when I was 18\'
The Office co-creator offers up his woeful love life for laughs in his new sitcom Hello Ladies
Stephen Merchant as the lovelorn Stuart in Hello Ladies
On a muggy summer afternoon, in an airless marquee – in reality a studio set in Burbank, Los Angeles – the British comedian Stephen Merchant is tugging at the collar of his jacket. Surrounded by attractive young women in Californian wedding finery, he is sweating in his formal suit. “Could it be any hotter in here? That thermal vest was a mistake,” he says in his Bristol burr.
If he looks a little out of place, that’s the point: Merchant is carving quite a niche out of his own inability to fit in. Merchant made his name as Ricky Gervais’s creative partner, co-writing The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short, but he is no longer just a sidekick. He takes centre stage with Hello Ladies, his own sitcom from HBO – home of Girls and Game of Thrones – which he writes, directs and stars in, and the set of which I am visiting today.
The series bears the same title as his 2011 stand-up tour, also based on unsuccessful attempts to woo women. In the stand-up show Merchant was himself, whereas the HBO version dramatises his own dating disasters. Stuart is a socially awkward British web designer who has relocated to Los Angeles convinced of landing upon a lifestyle of limo-hopping with bikini-clad lovelies.
“Stuart is a 15 year-old trapped in…well, in reality, a 38-year-old’s body, but I’m playing 35,” his creator confesses when we meet on set between takes. “He is an adolescent with this preposterous fantasy and he needs to grow up.”
Merchant has sympathy for his try-hard alter ego. “I grew up watching those shows like Moonlighting, where LA was this glamorous, sexy place and people in ball gowns were always going to soirees looking out over the city.” Stuart saw those shows too. “He’s bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, and you can see the “H” of the Hollywood sign, but only if you stand on the roof,” says Merchant. “He’s a loser in England who is a loser here too, but here in LA, he is even more out of his depth.”
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While he might be playing a part for the TV version of Hello Ladies, the scenarios are no less real, Merchant asserts. Much of the action is borrowed from his own life, and that of his co-writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, who both wrote and directed on the US version of The Office. “We pooled our most pitiful dating stories,” he says. “I’m not as hapless as I was in my twenties, but even as we were writing the show, things were happening in our dating worlds that we could come in the next day and just write straight into the show.”
Today, he is shooting a scene from his own experience. Having requested to be placed on a table with the hot single women at a wedding, he was, instead, seated with “some old people and a middle-aged couple with a baby”. The child removed its shoe and lobbed it in Merchant’s soup, splattering the contents of the bowl all over his shirt. “The mother kept saying: ‘What’s he like?’” Merchant recalls. “And I said: ‘He’s like a c---. Which, admittedly, is a bit strong for a wedding.”
The comedy plays not just on Merchant/Stuart’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity to fail with women, but also on the gracelessness of being 6 ft 7 in; Merchant, in person, while not wildly unattractive, resembles an awkward, bespectacled praying mantis. I perch on a directors’ chair, legs swinging as we talk, while Merchant sinks into his, as if it were a deck chair.
“I’ve never been happy about my height; I’ve always felt too big for everything,” he says.
Still, he’s useful to others. He was in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve, before he became well known, he tells me. “It was 10 minutes to midnight, and I saw a girl looking at me. And I thought: ‘Here we go; Happy New Year’,” he says, pulling a pitiful I’m-in-there face.
“She came through the crowd to me, looked up at me and said: ‘Are you going to be here for a while?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’ And she said ‘Great. Because my friends and I have arranged to meet back at you.’”
Reactions to the show, which has begun its run in the US, have been friendly, with many praising the slapstick tone, though some say it lacks bite.
But since he is now starring in his own show on one of the most esteemed US TV channels, the burning question is whether Merchant’s luck with the ladies has changed? “My honest answer is that now I just get rejected by a better class of woman than I did when I was 18,” he says, cheerfully.
“I remember years ago, coming out here to the Golden Globes, and turning up in a tuxedo, being very excited. Then I saw Pierce Brosnan walk by, and I thought, ‘Wow, he looks good.’ Then I looked down and saw my fly had burst open, and some underwear was being exposed to Pierce and the other Hollywood stars.” Merchant borrowed a safety pin from Jane Fallon, Ricky Gervais’s long-time girlfriend. “It’s not like just because you get on TV your fly stops bursting open at the wrong moment. That’s who I always was, and that is who I remain today.”
Hello Ladies is on Sky Atlantic on Wednesday, October 16 at 10.00pm
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