Comic Stephen Merchant is hoping his latest tour could lead to a love match, he tells Roz Laws.
In an open invitation to the women of Britain, Stephen Merchant has called his first stand-up comedy tour Hello Ladies.
In his deadpan style, he comments that he’s looking forward to travelling the country to meet his fans – “and making at least one of them my wife”.
So just how determined is he to find a partner? He is 36 and single, after all.
“I’m not 100 per cent serious,” admits Merchant, the writer/director who created hit TV series The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais.
“The show is a dissection of where I’ve gone wrong in the past with women. It’s not an appealing portrait of myself.
“If someone arrived at a gig with the aim of becoming my wife, they’d soon be sneaking out, having been put off.
“It’s always been one of the funniest aspects of life, this search for a mate, especially if you are being brutally honest. Everyone understands the emotion and there’s a natural voyeurism about it.
“Sometimes it’s the 21-year-old me talking on stage. And I magnify elements of myself to make them grotesque. It’s really not attractive!
“But do I want to settle down? Of course, no-one wants to die alone. But I’m lucky to spend so much of my life doing things that I enjoy. I’m not complaining and I’m not lying awake at night worrying about my single status.”
The Hello Ladies tour sees Merchant return to his roots, as he was a stand-up comic before meeting Gervais and going into radio and television.
He had his first comedy gig in a room above a Bristol pub in 1997, 18 months after he was due to kick-start his career while a Midland student.
He studied film and literature at Warwick University, partly choosing it because of its student radio station. He had a weekly slot on W963, broadcasting to the campus and a handful of people in Leamington Spa.
“I wanted to be a DJ because I thought it would be a really good job. You’d only have to work for a couple of hours a day, and the rest of the time you could sit in your pants watching TV.
“I was interested in comedy too, and I psyched myself up to do my first stand-up gig at Warwick Arts Centre, but then they called the show off.
“I went another 18 months before I was ready to try again, and by then I was back home in Bristol.”
That was just before he applied to the new Xfm radio station in London, where he became Ricky Gervais’s assistant. After six months he left to start a two-year traineeship as a BBC producer, which included a stint in Birmingham.
“I worked on a programme based at Pebble Mill, the Really Useful Show,” he remembers, and not especially fondly.
“It was lonely, I didn’t know anybody and I was terrible at the job. I didn’t know what I was doing and the whole thing was a shambles.
“I learned that I shouldn’t have that sort of role. I need people around me to fill in the blanks.
“I lived in a flat near Pebble Mill for a couple of months which was brutally cold. I used to phone Ricky up, and it seemed like he was boating on Regent’s Park lake while I was shivering in Birmingham!
“I dragged my mattress into the lounge so I could sleep by the three-bar fire. It was like something out of Dickens.”
Now Merchant is returning to his old haunts in Birmingham and Warwick Arts Centre, plus Wolverhampton, on his extensive tour which keeps him busy almost every night until Christmas.
“There are a lot of dates booked,” he admits. “I feel like Elvis being exploited by Colonel Tom. I hope I won’t be found dead on a toilet by Christmas.
“I’m going to places I’ve never been before but you really only see Travelodges and Nando’s.”
Surely he’s staying in slightly more upmarket hotels?
“No, I’m not a generous man,” he insists. “I’ve told my people that I’m not made of money and to book Travelodges.
“Touring isn’t at all glamorous. Backstage in venues is generally a bit grim, like a school changing room after a rugby match.”
It’s a far cry from the way Merchant is treated when he works on Hollywood movies. He’s acted in a couple of American films without Gervais, namely Tooth Fairy with Dwayne Johnson and Julie Andrews and Hall Pass with Owen Wilson.
So how does that differ from filming a TV series in the UK?
“In America, you get an enormous Winnebago, beautiful weather and you’re treated like a king,” he says.
“Here I have a tiny trailer, I’m filming in a disused army base near Slough and I have to put up with Ricky fussing over what’s for lunch.
“Acting is like a day off from my proper job, an amazing escape. You feel like you’re in a bubble and having a holiday romance.
“You don’t have any responsibilities if you’re not writing and directing as well, you just learn your lines and turn up.”
Merchant writes, directs and acts in the forthcoming BBC2 sitcom Life’s Too Short, about the showbiz career of Star Wars and Harry Potter dwarf actor Warwick Davis.
Merchant and Gervais appear as themselves, with 6ft 7ins Merchant towering over Davis, who’s three feet shorter.
And there’s a host of star cameos. After attracting the likes of Robert De Niro and Kate Winslet to Extras, this time they’ve hooked Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson, Sting, Cat Deeley, Sandra Bullock and Helena Bonham Carter.
But the pair Merchant really wants are musicians Bruce Springsteen and Prince.
“They are heroes of mine and I think they’d be very funny. I think Springsteen has a sense of humour but you never see him mucking about.
“And Prince is only 5ft 1ins, so he would fit in with the show’s title.
“Johnny Depp really threw himself into his cameo and improvised a lot. People will be amazed by what he does. Liam Neeson has this very serious, earnest persona and he’s playing against that.”
Life’s Too Short – which also stars Birmingham comic Jo Enright as Davis’s wife – starts later this month.
But Merchant and Gervais are already on air on Sky1, reuniting with Karl Pilkington for another series of the hit An Idiot Abroad.
They have dreamed up more foreign challenges for the grumpy guinea pig. This time the theme is a ‘bucket list’, where Karl gets to choose from ‘100 things to do before you die’. He finds himself stranded with tribesmen on a South Pacific island, going down the Amazon and slumming it on the Trans-Siberian Express.
“Karl hates it, and Ricky wouldn’t want to do that sort of stuff either, as he likes his creature comforts. But actually I wouldn’t mind,” says Merchant.
“I was really envious of Karl getting to swim with sharks, as I would love to do that. Camel trekking would be great. Though I’d prefer to do these things without a camera crew and two nasty men stitching me up.”
* Hello Ladies plays Birmingham Symphony Hall on October17 and 18. For tickets go to www.thsh.co.uk or ring 0121 780 3333. Other dates include Warwick Arts Centre on November 8 and 9, and Wolverhampton Civic Hall on November 5 and 26.