Interview: Stephen Merchant

Comedian and writer Stephen Merchant talks about romance, bacon butties, his return to stand-up and why people should give his latest TV show a chance. WAYNE SAVAGE reports.

Lovelorn Stephen's looking for a wife, ideally with the body of Kelly Brook and the mind of Stephen Fry; not the other way around, he stresses.

Since mentioning this as one of the reasons for embarking on his first stand-up tour, Hello Ladies, he admits to getting some quite unnerving letters and photographs from women.

'I'm sure [they're] very sweet women, but the letters all seem to have love CVs attached saying things like 'I was in a relationship between 1992-94 but that didn't work out; now I live with 17 cats and I'm looking for a man who's tall and sensitive and I like your work and…

'I started to get a little bit jumpy about the sort of people who started to write in and maybe were taking me a bit too seriously so I'm down-playing that aspect of the show.

'Now it's more me talking about my failure to find a wife rather than actively seeking one in case there are any crazy women who turn up wearing a bridal gown with a bread knife in their handbag,' he laughs.

While he doesn't want audiences coming along feeling sorry for him - it's a comedy show after all - one of the things he talks about is how you shouldn't be fooled into thinking celebrity is the answer to everything, especially romance.

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If you grew up a self-conscious, awkward teenager there's no reason why it should automatically change just because you've been on BBC2 a few times.

'You don't change into Warren Beatty overnight. I have more confidence in myself now but in my soul I'm still that awkward, gangly teenager from Bristol who never felt totally comfortable asking a girl out,' says the co-creator of The Office and Extras.

'You have to acknowledge celebrity, it's the elephant in the room, but it's the least interesting thing about me. The interesting thing is how fame is not what you think it is.'

The show focuses on his chequered search for romance since he was 16; talking about the difficulties of meeting women. For him there's nothing funnier than sexual misfortune as comedy fodder.

We've all been there; we know what's at stake and the jeopardy, awkwardness and often misjudgement involved.

'There's a weight to it. If you say to friends 'I went on a date last night and it didn't go well,' they'll immediately lean forward. There's no way they're not intrigued.

'I've often made the mistake of trying to be something I'm not,' he says, recounting a disastrous date at a casino.

'I tried to be like James Bond. I made the girl put on an expensive dress, I put on a suit and we got there and I was trying to act all flash. I tried to walk in and the bloke behind the counter said 'you can't come in here mate, you're barred'.

'I said 'what do you mean I'm barred? I'm on a date here mate, could you sort of swing it'? He went 'no'. I've never found out to this day why. I'd only been there once before, admittedly mainly to eat the free sandwiches, but me and this girl ended up in this all-night caf� in a tuxedo,' he laughs, 'and a ballgown eating bacon sandwiches. I didn't see her again if I'm honest.'

He recounts another time when he was thrown out of a wedding after getting angry and offending the people on his table because it wasn't full of single ladies like he'd been promised.

Stephen is far more than Ricky Gervais' sidekick, in fact he was doing stand-up long before they met.

He finally plucked up the nerve to try it after leaving university in the late 90s. The first went well, the second not so well; but he kept going and picked up paid-for gigs on and off over the next five years.

He even shared the bill with Ricky, Jimmy Carr and Robin Ince in the 2001 Edinburgh Festival show Rubberneck.

Then with The Office taking off, he lost interest.

'I just couldn't be bothered really; couldn't face the long drives up the motorway, late night service station stops, eating Ginsters in service stations at midnight and I just knocked it on the head. I used to look at Ricky doing stand-up and think 'why's he bothering? It's so much effort'.'

Contrary to what you may think, Stephen doesn't get a kick out of being on stage.

'You see these stand-ups who say 'I'm only alive when I'm on stage, I feel like king of the world'. I don't get that feeling. The thing I find interesting, enjoyable is the mechanics of making the act work, how do you make people laugh; why isn't that funny, how can I improve it?

'It's like a giant comedy Sudoku to me. Once I've kind of cracked it, it's less exciting for me to be out there dancing around for people's attention, I don't crave that.'

Feeling he'd never quite cracked stand-up and questioning if he could do it well after such a long time he pottered around the circuit, doing five and ten minute slots. 'More recently I got the itch again; it's a bit like malaria, you think you've got rid of it and it comes back. This tour is the result of that itch.'

Self-deprecating Stephen says he's sure he disappointed a lot of the surprised audiences he played to in those little clubs.

The material is a work in progress and being on the telly will only buy you a few minutes grace; above all they're there to laugh. Fame also brings with it pressure to perform.

'I think, in a way, I was probably braver, more ambitious, more daring when no one knew who I was than I am now unfortunately. I used to be much more out there if you like; a bit more left field when I first started because I had nowhere to fall. I've tried to do my own thing, but I'm probably more cautious now.'

The tour, which comes to the Ipswich Regent on November 17-18, has been going well but he won't be doing it again.

'I'm exhausted; this is the debut tour and final farewell tour in one. To me, it [stand-up] is like a puzzle, I feel like I've done the puzzle. Maybe I'll want to do another one somewhere down the road but I won't be rushing to do it.'

Right now, he's looking forward to the debut of his and Ricky's latest BBC2 show – Life's Too Short, starring Return of The Jedi, Willow and Harry Potter actor Warwick Davis.

'We've been saying they should send him the BAFTA now. We're really excited for people to see it.'

Dealing with everyday problems, only seen through the eyes of Britain's most pre-eminent dwarf actor, the observational comedy has come in for criticism even before it's debut next Thursday.

'I'm exhausted with the idea of trying to please everyone. I'm annoyed by the idea of people judging it before they've seen it. If you don't like it switch it off,' says Stephen.

'I hope you do enjoy it, I've intended people to enjoy it but I'm not going to apologise for something - particularly before the event. It was Warwick's initial idea, he was involved in it from beginning to end.

'If you think we're exploiting him it's because you've got your own prejudice and you think a dwarf couldn't possibly be able to be his own person, do his own thing and not be strong-armed by a couple of media blokes like me and Ricky.

'The truth is Warwick is a very smart, thoughtful bloke involved with this all the way through. He's a mate and unlike Karl [Pilkington, star of their other hit series An Idiot Abroad] who we sort of prod and tickle and whatever, Warwick is one of the creative minds behind the show.

'For the first time there's a little person actor who's been given a really meaty role with all the flaws of any human being rather than being made to dress up, dance about or be tokenistic. I'm very proud of what we've done; hopefully it's a positive step forward in the realms of disability.'

? Stephen Merchant is at Ipswich Regent on November 17/18, �25/�27.50, 01473 433100,