[16 February 2010]
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)
PASADENA, Calif. — You can’t miss him. British comic Stephen Merchant, who co-wrote the original “The Office” and “Extras” with Ricky Gervais, is 6-foot-7 inches tall. He reached those stratospheric proportions in his early teens, and has felt like an outcast ever since.
“If you feel a little bit of an outsider then maybe you use humor and you feel more in control,” he says sitting in the courtyard of a hotel here, his long legs at an angle as they don’t fit under the glass-topped table.
“I felt very self-conscious. I remember doing some school plays where I got to joke around and got a good reaction from other kids and parents saying, ‘You were very good in that play.’ And I was always a big fan of comedy. I watched it religiously and when they published the scripts I would read them,” he says.
Merchant translated his insecurity into standup and hilarious bits with Gervais, which included his role as Ricky’s horribly inept manager in “Extras.” A lifetime fan of Pythoner John Cleese, Merchant says, “He was born in a place very near to Bristol where I grew up ... Because he was very tall, he was one of my heroes. Because he’d come from my local area I sort of felt maybe, ‘Well, he’s done it, maybe I could.’ It was very arrogant of me to think I could be another John Cleese, but I was inspired more than thinking I could be anything like him.”
But he was like him. The first time Merchant tried standup at 22 (his parents had to drop him off as he didn’t have a car), he triumphed. The second time, he bombed.
“My experience of comedy since then has been that same roller-coaster. Sometimes it kills, sometimes it doesn’t. But it was very formative in that regard because it gave me confidence that I could do it, that I wasn’t wasting my time. But at the same time it rattled me because it wasn’t as easy as I thought it was. I couldn’t do it every time. I had to work at it.”
He and Gervais met at a radio station. “We had a radio show and would also do other stuff at the radio station, and I left and joined the BBC,” says Merchant, who’s sporting a reddish beard and horn-rimmed glasses.
“And while I was at the BBC I was able to film this kind of character that Ricky had created who, in essence, became David Brent, the character in ‘The Office’ that he did. It was through that good fortune that that whole thing got rolling.”
They complemented each other: Gervais’ outrage at the craziness around him fit snugly with Merchant’s impervious lunacy.
When they edited the film, “We just realized we had something special. Even at the time I remember thinking there’s like an alchemy, there’s something happened here, being really excited. It was like panning for gold and you see a little glisten and you thought maybe there’s more gold in these hills. And that was a big moment, just seeing the quality of his performance and realizing that if we managed it right, we were on to something.”
They were on to something all right. NBC adopted the show for the American audience and “The Office” has proved one of its most successful comedies.
The pair is still at it. On Friday “The Ricky Gervais Show” premieres on HBO. Spawned from their podcast, the show features an animated trio where Gervais and Merchant simply wing it with another station employee, Karl Pilkington.
“We met this guy who was just a goldmine of oddball, eccentric, weird anecdotes and strange views about the universe — just a real eccentric that we started chatting with,” says Merchant.
“Then we started doing podcasts off the radio show and they became this cult thing all over the world, and we continued to do them with Karl and now they’ve animated them for HBO, hopefully for a whole new audience.”
As a bizarre counterpoint to Gervais and Merchant, Pilkington is not a performer. “He’s just a guy that we met, but he comes out with things that are often funnier than we could ever write because he sees the world differently, through different eyes.”
At 35, Merchant admits that he’s much more at ease with himself than he used to be. But he doesn’t tell anyone. “Because it undermines my comic persona. The truth is it’s funnier to be hopeless. It’s funnier to be neurotic and unsuccessful, is the truth of it. Luckily your neurosis is magnified in different ways.”
Still not married, Merchant confesses he’s not very smooth with women. In fact, he does a bit in his standup about the absurdities of the dating ritual. “Sometimes I wonder if I want to meet girls so I’ve got something to say in my standup routine. I’ve got a nice house, do I need somebody else in there? Of course, of course. I don’t know about being married but it doesn’t concern me terribly. I don’t feel lonely. Don’t think if I’m not married by next year I’m going to hang myself.”
If you can get your kid’s nose out of his computer games, the Syfy Channel has a treat in store with its updated version of the King Arthur legend, “Merlin.” If that sounds familiar, it is. NBC ran part of it last year, but Syfy will be airing both Season 1 and 2. Two was never seen in the U.S. In this tale both Arthur and Merlin are young men in the land of dominant King Uther, played by Anthony Head (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer). Uther has outlawed magic in his pre-roundtable Camelot and when young Merlin arrives, he’s conflicted with the youthful Prince Arthur and the fantasy begins.
“The thing about ‘Merlin’ is it’s an opportunity to play with stuff I haven’t played in a while,” says Head. “It is quite contained admittedly, but I do get to throw my weight around a bit.”
Marriage is hard enough, but what if one of the spouses is incarcerated? That’s a whole other deal, say the folks who are featured on Investigation Discovery’s “Prison Wives,” which airs Wednesday. Not all of them are wives, either. One of them is retired airline pilot Tim McDonald, who’d never met his wife before she was sentenced to life for murder. Of course, he’s sure she’s innocent. “All of us love our spouses and got into this — we are here for reasons, and we all have a mission and a purpose. And mine was to marry a woman I love, get her out of prison, and keep her two children from going to prison after her. I’m half successful,” says McDonald. He’s half successful because they’ve lost their last appeal with the court. “The only thing left for us is commutation. And we’re working on that now,” he says.
David Hemingson is one of the executive producers on ABC’s show, “The Deep End,” which is about super young and good looking lawyers clawing their way to the top. Hemingson was one of them, it turns out. ” ... I actually started out as a lawyer coming from New York to L.A. some years ago, and it was a story that I always wanted to tell, a story very near and dear to my heart. And I felt like with a couple of decades I had some perspective. And it just so happened that it coincided with ABC’s need for new drama, a new dramedy. And so the stars kind of aligned for us, and I just feel fortunate to be doing it this way with (producer) Jan (Nash) and with this fantastic cast,” he says.