Originally written for publication in The Boar, Warwick University’s student newspaper.
Emmy, BAFTA and Golden Globe award-winning co-creator of BBC’s The Office and Extras, Stephen Merchant is one of the biggest names in British television. He talks to the Boar about life, the media amd being successful.
James Evans: You graduated from Warwick with a first class degree in Film and Literature and a string of radio shows under your belt, but what were you like as a student at Warwick? How do you think your experiences at university shaped you as a person and an entertainer?
Stephen Merchant: There are loads of things I did at Warwick that helped me later. I wrote for the Boar. I made some short films. I hosted a weekly show on the campus radio station, which indirectly led to me getting a job a few years later on a London radio station, which is where I met Ricky Gervais. Perhaps most importantly I helped take a comedy sketch show to the Edinburgh Festival. It was my first taste of writing and performing comedy in front of (admittedly very tiny) audiences. I would say to any student: you will never have as much free time and opportunity as when you’re at uni so get off your arse and do something.
James: You’ve won awards for your TV and Radio work, dabbled in films and are finally returning to stand-up. How do the different formats compare and which, if any, do you prefer?
Merchant: TV and films are the most fulfilling but they are very time-consuming. It’s a year or more of writing, planning, shooting, editing, then talking about what you’ve just made in endless interviews. It takes over your life. Stand-up is exciting because it’s just you involved and it’s very raw and direct. There is nowhere to hide, which is why I went back to it. I used to do stand-up after I left uni but I gave up once the TV stuff took off. I started doing it again because I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. It seems to have gone well so far.
James: When writing Extras, Cemetery Junction and more recently, Life’s Too Short, how did you and Ricky Gervais deal with the colossal expectations and hype? Is starting a new project a daunting experience or one you relish?
Merchant: We don’t think about expectations or hype. Pulitzer-prize winner Herbert Bayard Swope once said, “I cannot give you the formula for success but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” That’s probably the most useful thing you can know about working in the entertainment business. If you try and please a huge unknowable audience you may get lucky and strike gold but it’s pretty unlikely. We start by writing something that pleases us and hope that other people like it as well. That’s the approach we took with The Office and that worked out okay.
James: Much of your work has satirised the media. What do you find most frustrating about this beloved institution?
Merchant: The media is a very broad term but I presume you mean TV, movies, newspapers. A free press is essential but I was pleased to see News International finally punished for years of rotten, mean-spirited sensationalist cod-journalism. Hopefully it will improve journalistic standards across the board. I also think celebrity dominates our culture in a way that class used to in the past: years ago people wished they were middle class or upper class; nowadays people want to be famous, often at any cost. I think that’s something worth examining and laughing at.
James: In the promotional material for your Hello Ladies… stand-up tour, you make it no secret you are on the prowl (specifically, for a wife). Any particular qualities you are looking for in a woman?
Merchant: Originally I joked that the show was going to be me literally trying to find a wife on stage but then I started getting some crazy love letters in the post and I saw a few odd-balls sat in the audience – so now the show is just me talking about why I’ve failed to find a wife. My life has always revolved around my hunt for a mate and the show explores every aspect of that, from teenage hopelessness to the time I got thrown out of a wedding.
I also go into detail about what a woman can expect when we’re on a date. For instance: yes, I’ve made some money but I don’t see anything wrong with still going to Pizza Hut with a two-for-one voucher. What’s wrong with that? A lot of ladies think that’s stingy but they’re wrong. What they should be thinking is, ‘This is the man I should raise a family with because he’s sensible with his money’. Think about it, ladies. It’s Darwinian. You shouldn’t mate with the guy who splashes his cash at a Michelin-starred restaurant; you should mate with the man who cuts out discount vouchers from the paper.
James: It’s probably a bit of a cliché to ask this, but it’s got to be done. If you weren’t in comedy or radio what do you think you would you be doing?
Merchant: I quite fancy the idea of being an academic but one who has specialized in something completely pointless, like translating Katie Price’s autobiography into Latin or something.
James: Finally, what’s in the pipeline?
Merchant: Ricky and I have done a new BBC2 sitcom that starts November 10th called Life’s Too Short. It stars the dwarf actor Warwick Davis, who was in Return of the Jedi and Harry Potter, and he’s playing a fictionalised version of himself. In the show Warwick is hustling for work and contending with a divorce, a failing career, a giant tax bill and the fact that he is only 3‘6”. Warwick is exceptional in it: great at comedy and drama, tremendous at physical comedy as well. He throws himself about with such abandon. I think people will be amazed at how good he is. Also in the show he often bothers Ricky and I for work because he knows us and so, like in Extras, big stars pop up on occasion. Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson and Sting are all in the show.