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Hello Ladies and The Office Co-Creator Stephen Merchant on the State of Modern Comedy

Hello Ladies and The Office Co-Creator Stephen Merchant on the State of Modern Comedy:

On Hello Ladies, Stephen Merchant embodied Stuart, a bumbling, falsely confident single man looking for love in Los Angeles. The series came to an abrupt end after its first season, but HBO gave Merchant, the show’s creator and star, an opportunity to conclude Stuart’s tale with a movie. Both are available on DVD, Hello Ladies: The Complete Series & The Movie, on May 26 and Merchant took some time to discuss the legacy of his creation. Merchant, a co-creator of the U.K. version of The Office (and an executive producer of its U.S. counterpart), is not quite like his character, but he is a single man in Los Angeles who often grapples with awkwardness. We spoke with Merchant about happy endings (the fairytale kind), his penchant for Instagramming bathrooms and his love for Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty.”

First of all, as recently evidenced on Lip-Sync Battle, you’re an amazing lip-syncer.
Yeah, it’s just one of my four talents.

What are the other three?
I like to think of them as writing, acting, directing and lip-syncing.

How did it feel to wear that costume on the show?
Well, it was quite early when we filmed it and we were still recruiting people for the show and I was quite keen as a producer that I should probably go all guns. We can show other people who are considering the show, “Look you can go crazy and silly.” Of course I did that and people signed up for the show anyways so there was no reason for me to go quite as extreme. But it was too late because it was in the can. But it was liberating in some way. I’d always found Christina Aguilera’s video very inspirational in so many ways. Empowering. It was nice to give my spin on it.

Have you begun working on the second season yet?
No, not yet. I think everyone who worked on the first is taking a bit of a breather. Because it was quite a labor-intensive show even though the shoots themselves are fairly painless. Just putting all the mechanics of it together is pretty time consuming. So I think everyone is taking a bit of break then jumping into it again. If I can avoid having to perform again I probably will. I feel like it would be very hard to top that Christina performance.

I was just going to say: How do you top that?
I don’t think you top it. You go into hiding and never show your face in public again. I think that’s the best response.

With Hello Ladies, how much of your character was actually based on real life experiences?
I think some of the experiences of the mechanics of dating, the procedures, the texting, being anxious about whether someone is going to respond and figuring out the rules, trying too hard to impress, desperately trying to say the right thing, not saying the right thing, trying to judge a situation, misjudging it — all of those things feel familiar to me. Things that have occurred to me that I’ve experienced over the years. Some of the scenes were lifted directly from my stand-up, which is based on real life. Like being stuck at what I thought was the wrong table at a wedding. I’d been promised a singles table and I was stuck with a screaming child. Those aspects were real. But the sort of weasel-y desperation is not me, I’d like to think. I think I’m more comfortable in my own skin than that character is.

I’d hope so.
Given that I’m talking to Playboy it’s kind of funny because in my mind, Stuart’s aspirational hero would have been the 1960s version of Hef. The kind of man hosting sophisticated conversations after dark with Norman Mailer and a beautiful woman. You know, wearing a smoking jacket and being sophisticated, urbane and cultured, but also a sort of James Bond-like ladies man. In a sense that image that Playboy propagated then was kind of a romantic myth for the average person. So that gap between trying to be that sophisticated gentleman about town and how hard it is to actually achieve was a part of the joke of the show.

To you, why does awkwardness create such great comedy?
I’ve always felt, especially when I was younger, very self-conscious being tall and gangly. I think some people just feel at home in every situation and feel relaxed in the world and feel like they always know what to say and when to say it and I’ve never really felt that way. I’ve always felt slightly like I was trying to figure it out as I went along. Let’s be honest: When you’re on a date the real subtext is, at the very least, are we going to sleep together? More than that: Are we going to get married one day? There’s quite a lot of subtext behind a date. Everyone is there with a different agenda, everyone is at a different point in their lives and want different things. So we like to think that we’ve gone out for a drink and a talk, but there’s always that sort of weight of expectation. I like exploring those real life situations. For me, personally, if you can express the awkwardness and anxiety about it onscreen maybe it sort of alleviates it from real life. There’s something about being able to do the worst version on TV. Somehow you’ve owned it then.

Why did you want to give Stuart a happy ending in the film?
I felt ultimately he was not a bad man, just a misguided person. If we were going to end the show let’s give him that chance for happiness that I think he deserved as much as anyone. I’m a sucker for romantic comedy and I don’t think they’re done as much as they were once and I liked the idea of doing a romantic comedy in the vein of When Harry Met Sally. And I felt like “Why not give him a happy ending?” I like to see them. He’d already suffered enough over the course of the series so I had no problems giving him a happy ending. We’re not implying that life is without its ups and downs and challenges once you’ve met someone. But at that moment in time we stopped the story when they were going to give things a try and hopefully that was quite a sweet way to end it.

Do you feel like you got to express everything you wanted to with the show?
No, I felt like there were other avenues to go. There was probably more to explore but that decision is not in my hands ultimately. I always wanted to take him into a position where he was in a relationship and we could see him dealing with the mechanics of the relationship. I just think it’s such a rich topic. It’s the reason why people have dealt with the subject of romance and looking for love for years. It’s something that’s very primal and drives everyone. But I also like the fact it felt really real about people I’d met in LA, like I said the disparity between how people wish their lives were and the fact that most people’s lives aren’t like that. We do live in a culture where, because of Facebook, Instagram and the Internet, we can kind of peer into other people’s lives. We can snoop more easily and that can lead to a lot of dissatisfaction, constantly thinking the grass is greener. And yet we forget that everyone’s camera photos on Instagram were their attempt to make their life look glamorous and just out of shot there was a screaming child.

Do you participate in Instagram?
I do, but I try not to make it an artificial representation of my life. If I do something on there I like to keep it to some stupid thought that I had or something I’d noticed. But I’m not using it to try to cultivate an image of myself as my life is endlessly swimming pools and saunas and pies and champagne. Although of course that is my real life.

You’re sitting by swimming pool right now, aren’t you?
I am, but I just don’t want people to get jealous of me. I don’t want to Instagram it. I’d rather Instagram – like I did recently – a public bathroom I saw which had 15 rolls of toilet paper on top of the toilet. Which is like, why? What are they worried is going to happen? It was a restaurant bathroom. I mean, what kind of patrons do you have?

So a public restroom is a better reflection of your life?
I’ve Instagrammed a surprising number of restrooms. Probably more than the average person. They are a source of constant source of fascination for me. Largely because I’m intrigued by who designed them. Why they chose that particular picture for the wall.

Now that the show has come to a close, have you had a chance to reflect on some of the shows you’ve created over the years and what they’ve meant to you at various points?
I hope that, for good or for worse, I’ve always tried to do stuff which reflected that moment in my life or thoughts and interests I had at that time or observations I had. I’ve always hoped they could be observational and truthful in their own way. That was true of The Office. And what was true of Extras was to explore our experience of success and fame. This is a show that again draws about my observations of LA and being a single man here. I’m unapologetic about that. If I were married with kids I would write about that. To me the whole excitement of writing anything is to try and make some kind of connection with the audience however big or small the audience is. The comedy that I loved as a kid was feeling like you weren’t alone in the world like, “Oh, someone else is thinking like I do.”

Do you think there’s an overarching sensibility in comedy right now?
Well, I think there’s been a lot of discussion about what can and cannot be said in comedy. And if there are any frontiers left in terms of to dos and don’ts. In England at the moment I sense a certain unspoken censorship that has sort of come to the left where once it was from the right. That feeling that you couldn’t joke about religion or you had to respect your superiors and a respect for the order of things. I sense more recently that people were getting in trouble for being irreverent about whatever subject they chose and that there’s a slight thought police about “Oh you’re a sort of left leaning or liberal comedian, why are you making jokes about this subject and this subject? We don’t think it’s appropriate.” Either you can make jokes about anything and it’s to the comedian’s discretion about how far they push it or you can’t. But whether you’re on the left or the right, I don’t think you should really be prescribing what you can make jokes about. What always concerns me is that feeling of being policed in humor. Because I think comedians do have a responsibility and should be responsible for their comic actions were. But it’s up to them to decide where the boundaries are.

What’s your next project?
I’m working on a couple of things at the moment. I’ve been working on some screenplays because doing this movie reminded me of one of my first loves, which was film. I’d studied film, that was always my thing and as much as I love working in TV, I really enjoyed the fact that we had the restrictions of an hour and a half to tell that story and forcing us to construct it in that way. I think on the DVD we actually include quite a few deleted scenes that we had to take out for pace and mood and energy of the film. So I quite liked the idea of doing some more movie shaped stuff as opposed to a TV series, which is usually open ended and could go on forever. There’s something nice about having “The End” at the end of the script. And I’m doing a play in the West End from July. It’s a two hander called The Mentalist and it’s written by a playwright named Richard Bean. It’s a revival of a piece he did a couple of years back so it’s my first experience of being on the boards. I’d like to become a sort of grand man of the theater. Obviously that’s my long-term dream. Along with world’s greatest lip syncer.

Do you think your name in the U.K. will drive people to the theater?
Well, we shall see. I don’t think it drives them to the theater — I think it might be in passing the theater, “Oh it’s that bloke.” That’s about the most I can hope for.

When you get noticed on the street, is it because of your celebrity or your height?
I think it used to be my height and now it’s, “Oh, there’s a tall bloke… Oh! It’s that guy.” It’s sort of a double-pronged attack for people.

When you Google your name, the first thing it offers you is “Stephen Merchant height.”
People are always shocked when they meet me in real life because of how tall I am. I guess it’s very distressing for people. But hopefully it makes it funnier when you’re in leather chaps.

Do you have a favorite movie of all time?
That varies on a week-to-week basis, but there are a couple of big hitters that always float to the top. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. I quite like romantic films. In the Mood for Love. Short Cuts. Again, characterful stuff. I’m not terribly interested in aliens and goblins and wizards and superheroes. I’m more interested in smaller stories with real people. I feel a great sadness in a way, in movie land at least, there’s not quite a place for that any more. But that’s one of the benefits of networks like HBO, allowing people to still do character driven stuff. I feel like a lot of the people that would have made characterful movies in the ’70s are now working in TV doing [shows like] Breaking Bad or Mad Men.

Are you still hoping for your own personal happy ending?
Like I said in the Hello Ladies movie, it’s ultimately about percentages and that’s true of every part of life. I don’t think anyone is 100 percent happy all the time – I think it’s about figuring out the percentages. What percentage is enough for you in your job? What percentage is enough for you in your relationship? In the place that you live? I think if you can find a percentage you’re happy then strive for it. If it’s 68 percent, then good for you. But I think that the romantic notion of living happily ever after, the fairy tale ending, has always been something of a myth.

So in your career what percentage of happy are you?
I reckon I’m 67 percent happy. That’s pretty good. I’m doing alright, doing something I love. I get lots of opportunities and get to work with lots of amazing people. But I still feel like there’s things I’d like to explore and I’m lucky that I’ve always loved the process of writing something and making something. I really enjoy that. It gives me great pleasure and so I suppose when I’m not doing that I’m slightly itchy. That’s where the unhappiness comes from. The dissatisfaction is not being busy.

If all else fails you’ll design public restrooms.
Yeah, with the amount of research that I’ve done I’ve got some strong ideas.


Emily Zemler is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has written for Esquire, ELLE, The Hollywood Reporter and Nylon, and is currently working on her first book. Tweet to her at @emilyzemler.


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