Stephen Merchant interview: stand-up, Cemetery Junction, Con Air and more

Interview Simon Brew 24 Nov 2011 - 15:56
Mr Stephen Merchant

As he releases his first stand-up comedy DVD, Stephen Merchant spares us some time to talk touring, movies and telly...

This year, Stephen Merchant returned to the world of stand-up with his first – and probably last – tour. It’s arriving on DVD now, and thus he spared us some time for a natter about it. Here’s how it went...

You’ve spent the last few years working in collaboration on projects, across film, television and audio. How does it feel to go back to one man and a microphone?

Well, in a way, that was the reason to go back to it.

I used to do stand-up years ago, and I sort-of fell out of love with it. And then, I started dabbling with it, like a hobby. It was a challenge to myself, I think. I was trying to see if I could do it, if I could do it well. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. You’ve just got the audience staring at you, and you’ve got to make them laugh or not. That was what was exciting. I suppose I felt a bit like, when I was doing the TV stuff.

You fell out of love with it, you said? Because I’d assumed, I suppose, that other projects took precedence? But there was a point where stand-up just wasn’t doing it for you?

Yep. I did a show at the Edinburgh Festival, just as The Office was first hitting the air maybe, and I did a four-hander. It was me, Ricky, Robin Ince and Jimmy Carr. Twenty minutes each. It went well, and then after than, I just stopped. That was fine, and it was as good a place as any to draw a line under it.

I never got, and I still don’t, a kick from being on stage. I don’t get a buzz, that I’m the centre of the universe and these people love me. To me, what’s interesting is the challenge of it. And I know that sounds really weird, but it’s the jigsaw puzzle of stand-up. What am I doing right? How am I getting it wrong? Why isn’t that quite working? All the mechanics of it is what’s interesting to me.

In a way, with this show, I feel I can say that it’s my debut stand-up tour, and my farewell stand-up tour at the same time. It’s so much work, and I feel like I’ve done it, and proven it to myself. So why would I do it again?

You wouldn’t envisage getting another buzz for it three or four years down the line?

Never say never, but at the moment, but at the moment I have no urge to carry on doing it once this show is finished. I’m keen to move on. I think both Ricky and I have always been quite impatient. We ended The Office because we were a bit bored of it, and finished Extras for the same reason. We’re always looking for something new, and I feel a bit like that with stand-up.

Maybe in a couple of years I’ll get the itch again.

It might be an odd question, then, but are you actually enjoying it?

Enjoying it? Well, I’d hate anyone to come to a show and think he hates being here. I don’t. I enjoy being on stage for an hour and a half, hour and a quarter. But I don’t enjoy everything around it. I don’t enjoy the travelling, the hotel rooms, not eating properly. Just being a bit anxious for a few hours beforehand. All of that stuff is what I don’t like about it.

A friend of mine said that when you’re on tour, a week feels like a month. And that is how it feels, really.

Does the process just dominate your head to the exclusion of doing anything else?

I think I’m just getting to a point now where I’m comfortable enough, and it works, and I can think about doing other stuff. But for a long time, yeah, you wake up in the morning worrying about it, and you’re worrying about it all day, or it’s in the back of your thoughts all the time. But I think I’m just getting beyond that now.

How are your audiences, then? Because the vast majority presumably come to you not knowing your stand-up past, being more familiar with what you’ve done since. What kind of reactions are you getting off them?

It seems to be very positive, but it’s always very difficult to tell! I think there are people out there who didn’t quite know what they were expecting. As you say, they don’t know me as a stand-up comic, so they don’t know what it’s going to be, and in a way, I designed the show to present the stand-up version of me to the audience. So that if I was to ever do it again, they could understand my angle.

What I’m getting a sense is that people are being surprised by, on the one hand how accomplished it is. They might be surprised that I’m as comfortable on stage. Also, I’m very physical. I use my body a lot, I move around the stage a lot, and I act out various situations. I think that surprised people as well. I don’t think they knew me as a performer.

Have you got to the point where the audience are bringing you presents yet?

No! I don’t seem to be getting presents! If they do, they’ll leave something to be signed. It’s Sarah Millican that gets cake, isn’t it?!

I wonder if there’s something I could set in motion, though? Could I persuade audiences to leave me bottles of vintage wine or something?!

Can we talk about Cemetery Junction, I film I liked a lot. Looking back to last year, what are your thoughts on the project now? How do you feel towards it in hindsight?

I feel very fondly toward it. I’m proud of it, I think it is a lovely feel to it. I know that some people really like it. A man in Burger King in front of me bought me a burger because he enjoyed it so much! He told his girlfriend how excited he was!

In a way, everything that I do, and do in collaboration, you do in hope that it’s something personal, and something you’d want to see. As to whether it’s going to be a smash hit, that’s out of your hands, really.

You said of your stand-up that you thought it surprised audiences, especially how accomplished you are at it. Doesn’t the same apply here, too?

I think people... it’s not what they’re expecting from us. I’m always amazed when we get criticised for being too romantic, or one criticism of Cemetery Junction was that there was another love story in it, and we’d already done that with Tim and Dawn!

I suppose I feel a bit like I’m playing a long ball game. I want someone to come to my body of work when I’m eighty, and I want them to stumble across something that I did, twenty five or thirty years before, and go wow, this is great. And then maybe delve into, and say I kind of enjoyed that, but I didn’t like that. But then overall, like the people I admire, whether it’s Woody Allen or Gene Wilder whoever, you won’t enjoy everything, but you can’t say we weren’t interesting, or we didn’t take chances, or we didn’t do something personal.

I’d hate to be someone who is just churning out the same thing. I try to do stuff that hopefully at least one person out there likes. It’s difficult. You work on instinct.

Ricky Gervais described it in the run up to the release of Cemetery Junction as the best thing he’s ever done. Did you and do you think the same?

I don’t consider anything the best I’ve ever done. I’m one of those people who always thinks the best thing is yet to come. I’m always frustrated when I look back, and catch an old episode of the first series of The Office, I’m annoyed that there’s too much cutting, or the pacing is a bit slower than I would like.

There’s always criticisms when you go back to stuff. It’s not healthy, I feel like I should just keep moving forward. But I never feel that anything that we’ve done is the best thing. I’m still going to do the best thing.

To me, they all exist in their own space. It’s not like I’m trying to do something better than The Office, because I’m very proud of The Office, and it’s exactly what I wanted it to be. So why would I try and top it?

I was read a quote recently, and if I was a more arrogant man I would adopt it as my own. It was Joseph Heller, when he was asked why he has ever done anything more successful than Catch 22, he was “well, noone has”! [Laughs] There’s an amazing arrogance and honesty about that!

Do you have more film plans, then?

I’d like to do more films.

The thing I find with working in cinema is I feel a little bit out of step with movies at the moment. The movies I love, as is the same with many in my generation, are 70s movies. I love Five Easy Pieces, and The Conversation, and stuff like that. Very slow, intimate films, that would never find an audience now, I guess, unless made very cheaply. I just find that a lot of the movies I see, I’m not really in tune with. And so I find it hard to conceive of doing a movie that I can imagine people wanting or financing.

I love movies, and I adore them, and the time the audiences gives over to them. I just wish I had an idea that was as commercial as it needed to be.

Have you seen Drive yet?

I haven’t seen Drive, and I’m quite keen to see it. I enjoyed Tinker Tailor very much, though.

Cinema is reverting a little bit back to those 70s movies, and Drive is very much in that vein.

I’ve heard very good things about it. But I’m always wondering just how long it lasts. There’s always little spurts of these things, but if they don’t make serious money, they lose their nerve. Maybe I’m just waiting for the right thing to occur.

I do take issue with one interview you did in the past, where you describe Con Air as a guilty pleasure. What’s guilty about it?!

I don’t know why I said that! I think I was probably asked what my guilty pleasure. But I have no shame in Con Air. I would happily hold my hands up and say I love that film. That sits proudly in my collection alongside Ashes And Diamonds and Hannah And Her Sisters.

Are you interested in more videogame stuff, by the way? You got an immense response to what you did with Portal 2? Although it sounded like really hard work.

It was really hard work, and it’s not something I’m actively pursuing. Not that I have any issue with videogames. But it was very tiring, and because I wouldn’t understand how to manufacture a videogame, I wouldn’t get involved beyond the voice part of it. It looks too daunting, complicated and slow.

I’m amazed by the response of it. I suppose I underestimated how impactful videogames are now. People take them to their heart in much the same way I take Con Air to my heart!

Once the tour’s done, then, what is 2012 looking like for you?

I am physically and mentally exhausted, and I do feel a bit burned out this year. So I think I need to take a break and recharge. Certainly I’d like to try and do another movie project, it’s just finding the right thing. It’s such a big undertaking, that you don’t want to waste your time with something you’re not passionate about.

Stephen Merchant, many thanks for your time!

Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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