Stephen Merchant’s Undying Love for the Romantic Comedy
Despite all of its cringe-worthy moments, the original version of The Office was at its core a love story between the characters Tim and Dawn. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that series co-creator Stephen Merchant has a bit of a soft spot for romantic comedies.
That affinity is on display in Merchant’s latest project, Hello Ladies: The Movie, which premieres Sunday on HBO. Merchant stars in, co-wrote, and directed the TV movie, which concludes the series of the same name that aired for one season on HBO.
I recently had the chance to chat with Merchant about Hello Ladies, his first major project without long-time collaborator Ricky Gervais. We talked about that partnership, why he doesn’t get a buzz doing standup, and the desperation of living in Los Angeles.
The movie was great. It had a happy ending to it, and I was wondering — did you ever consider going a different route with that? Just in the way you wrapped it up?
We talked about keeping it kind of open-ended and more existential. But I’m a sucker for a happy ending. I’ve always been a big fan of the best kind of romantic movies. Whether it’s The Apartment or When Harry Met Sally or even something like Bridges of Madison County. Ultimately, people will say “oh you sort of pandered” but you have to be the toughest cynic to not want people to find romance.
That makes sense.
So I am unapologetic in my romanticism as far as movies and TV.
Do you miss romantic comedies? Because it seems like there are fewer and fewer getting made these days, and there’s always talk about the death of the romantic comedy. I was curious of your take on that.
I agree. I miss them enormously. I used to seek them out. I was the one man in the audience buying a ticket to the new John Cusack, Serendipity or whatever it may be.
I remember that movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and people were rushing to see that. I’ve always had a little soft spot for them and I think that when they’re done well, you know, Pretty Woman, they sort of become part of the fabric. I guess for me it’s not just those films that are no longer at the multiplexes, you know, there’s so many kind of movies. Like the sophisticated thriller — you don’t see many of those anymore either. The one I’m thinking of is Michael Clayton. I do miss romantic comedies in a sense. That was what we were trying to do with this movie. Which was that in so many ways, HBO and other cable networks are filling the void that was left by the movie people, whether it’s the kind of character-lead dramas or the more ambitious twisted sort of genre stuff. The stuff we used to see in cinema in the seventies, which is now on cable.
I know that Hello Ladies was cut short a bit. Did you have plans for more than two seasons, which has typically been the standard for the shows you’ve been involved with?
Yeah, I would have been happy to have kept it going, but things are out of my hands. I was hoping to take longer to evolve the character and put him together and have him earn his stripes. I would have liked to explore more of the Hollywood world and the loneliness of Los Angeles and the way that Los Angeles attracts a certain kind of person. I think we explore it, we try to compete with the past and punish the past and I think we see that. I’m sure you’ve interviewed people before that if you scratch beneath the surface that’s there lurking, whether it’s directors, writers, actors, studio executives, or producers. There are a lot of them that are essentially the sort of dweeby nerd guy in school who is now sort of exacting their revenge on the world in one way or another. I think that draws people. I think you can also find it in many major cities, but there’s something particularly transparent in the people of LA.
How much time do you spend in LA? Do you go back and forth between there and London?
Yes. I split my time between them and I’m just heading back there shortly. I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing Los Angeles. I love it and I think there’s much to recommend it. I think there’s a dynamism and an ambition about the city that’s really exhilarating. I think there are a lot of very creative people. People say, “well are you sick of talking about movies and TV?” Well those were my hobbies before they were my profession. I’m happy. But I do think there can be finding of a bit of desperation in people there. You’ll probably find it in Wall Street as well and the city of London. But it’s sometimes particularly pronounced there.
I wanted to ask about what you thought about the British model of television where shows have two seasons and then that’s it. Will we see more of that in the States? With so much on TV right now, a lot of shows are catering to the same audiences and there’s only so many audiences to go around. It’s hard to have longevity anymore.
I think it’s born more of the new way of consuming TV. Most people there will talk about binge-watching or with Netflix or downloading a season and watching it as you see fit. So the number of episodes — 8 episodes, that seems like a good length of a season. Personally, I find the idea of 22 episodes overwhelming. It’s too much. It’s too much TV on only one subject. And not only that, those 22 episodes might then become 6 seasons, 8 seasons, I find that very daunting. And the network model with the commercials and all that stuff I guess that’s going to fade away. I like this idea that you can get in and out and tell a story and wrap it up, as they did with Breaking Bad or The Wire. Because I think we’ve seen it again and again, good shows forced to run. They’re forced to find ways of keeping things alive when in actuality they should actually wrap up. Like you think of Charles Dickens who used to write in serial form, but at some point he ended the story. At some point Hard Times had to come to an end. And I thought the similar way about TV. As much as I would have liked to continue on with Hello Ladies and explore some of the characters, I’m also satisfied that I’m able to give it a conclusion. I think that it desires me to get rid of that storytelling urge and move onto something else.
Hello Ladies was based on your standup. Were you ever as desperate as the Stuart when it came to meeting women? How much of the show is autobiographical?
Well, of course it’s exaggerated for effect. But you have that moment in this special where you have Wade set his tie on fire on two girls, and I was once at a student party in college, and I bought a new shirt I was very proud of. I was talking to a girl at a party and she seemed to be amused and charmed and she said, “Steve you’re on fire,” and I said thank you very much and she said, “no really you’re on fire,” and I had caught my sleeve on a candle. I learned I’m not as sexy as I’d like to be when I’m rolling on the floor screaming. So that happened.
And I think the trying too hard and the stuff of lighting the cigarette, what to wear, what car to drive, the anxieties and texting and when do you call and stuff, I think all of that’s shared experience. Obviously we magnified that for comic effect. I was never as ruthlessly desperate but there’s some DNA of me in there and of my other co-writers.
Are you still doing standup? I know you had a tour. Do you see yourself doing more of that in the future?
I’d like to. I just toured my Hello Ladies standup show in Scandinavia. I just got back from Denmark and Sweden and Norway and those countries. And they are great audiences. They’re fantastic. They speak perfect English, they get everything. It reminded me why I like doing standup, you’re really plugged in to the audience and it reminds you how to make people laugh. It’s very time consuming for me to put an act together. I’m not someone who can just put it together quickly, I have to really work at it. So it’s just finding the time, because to me you can’t work on standup unless you’re on a stage so then you’ve got to go to a club, and you’re anxious, and maybe some bits work, maybe they don’t, then you go and rewrite that and try it again. It’s just a real ordeal. So unless you’re on the road constantly and it’s your primary profession, it’s quite an intimidating prospect to put together a show.
Is that how you would work out your material? Would you do it in clubs around the UK and here and wherever else you could find in the States?
Absolutely. I did some just before I went back out on the road recently. I hadn’t done it for a while, and it’s funny, it’s enjoyable as far as it goes. But I guess what’s interesting for me is that I don’t get a terribly big buzz from doing standup. It’s not like I come off and feel like I’m king of the world. It’s not like it’s my addiction. Some people only feel alive onstage. I could sort of take it or leave it in that regard. To me, what’s more interesting about it is the timing of it. I really enjoy figuring it out and trying to correct it. But ultimately I feel more at home with narrative storytelling scripts and characters and situations like that. For standup it feels like you develop the sound of your own voice. I sometimes get bored of my own voice.
That’s interesting. Would you say you get a bigger buzz out of creating something like The Office or writing a script that’s well received and everyone loves?
Oh, I definitely get more giddy when I’ve written a script and I know there’s some quality in it and I’m excited for people to read it and to take it to the next level. I get excited when the cast — I go home really buzzed from a great casting session when you find someone, Christine [Woods] who is in the show with me, we’ve got a great rapport and some of the scenes I’ve done with her were really strong and I really felt like we were cooking. I get a kick from that probably more than I ever do with standup.
Hello Ladies, was that the first project that you did separate from Ricky Gervais since you started making TV together?
Of any scale.
What made you guys decide to try to go your own way this time?
Well I don’t know if it was that premeditated, really. I did the standup show which was about these experiences, and HBO approached me and said maybe there’s some sitcom material in there. And Ricky has been in a relationship with the same woman, lucky for him, since he was in college; he’d never been in the dating world or the dating scene. It’s not something that resonates with him. So it just didn’t seem like a fit for the two of us. It didn’t seem like an obvious role for him. I think he would have felt like what am I doing if I can’t plug into the sort of meat of the subject? It just didn’t seem like a fit for the two of us, really. So that sort of explains that.
Do you guys have plans to work together in the future on any projects?
We’re sort of on different time frames because I was doing that and he’s doing his stuff, Derek and stuff like that, so we’re in two different time tables. It’s proven a bit frustrating to try to get back into it but I’m sure there’ll be something down the road.
How’s Karl [Pilkington] doing? You still keep in touch with him?
I do. I haven’t seen him and it’s quite hard to get in touch with Karl because you need at least three or four weeks notice so he can bother to leave the house. But he seems fine. He never changes. He’s exactly the same now as he was when I first met him. He just approaches it all — I think whenever he finishes one of his travel logs he says he’ll never do it again. And then he probably gets tired of painting and whatever seems to be his hobby, and then he’ll do it again. But he remains as constant as ever.
And he was your producer, is that right? And you just decided you had to get him on the air?
Well it wasn’t even that premeditated. A lot of things like that come about from good fortune. Producer is sort of a grand term. What happened was we went back on the radio and Karl was essentially assigned to us because he was willing to work on a Saturday morning. Basically he pressed the buttons and moved the microphones up and down, it’s hard to call that producing. [Laughs.] But one day we asked him a question — I forget exactly what it was, but he started telling a story about how they had a horse that lived in the house, but he moved past that, that wasn’t of interest to him, that was a minor detail, and we were like “No no no no no go back to the horse in the house.”
We opened up a sort of Pandora’s Box. It’s a neverending well. And so he just very quickly — people became as mesmerized by his thought process as we were. The Karl Pilkington Show, in essence.
For your next projects, do you want to do more acting? Do you want to get back into writing and directing? What are your plans?
I always try to get people to cast me in things. And I spoke to a casting director recently and she said “oh yeah of course you act as well.” It almost was like because I write and direct and produce and stuff that people tend to think of me as my own entity. That I’m this little one or two-man band, but they forget that I can be for hire as well. It’s fun to do acting in other people’s projects. You don’t have as much responsibility and you can focus on that and enjoy that. But yeah I’m working on some other scripts that are sort of half-cooked at the moment. But I’d like to do another feature film probably because of the enjoyment I’ve had in this TV movie. It was at least the shape of a film and it was satisfying to do a beginning, middle, and an end. Because I’ve done a lot of TV now and there is something about the open-endedness that we were talking about that can be a little unsatisfying. I like working on a project that I know has a definite final act.
Hello Ladies: The Movie premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.