He’s certainly got a diverse CV. Alongside his frequent collaborator Ricky Gervais, he’s presented several radio shows and podcasts, created award winning TV shows The Office and Extras, wrote the film Cemetery Junction and has a very successful solo stand-up career.
We recently had a chance to speak to him about his work as a comedian, as well as his love of Woody Allen, and the differences between writing screenplays and writing stand up routines.
HeyUGuys: Do you prefer watching other people perform your material, or performing it yourself?
Stephen Merchant: I think they’re two very different experiences, and they’re not really comparable. Stand-up, the reason it’s exciting, the reason I started doing it again, is that it’s completely personal. There is no filter between you and the audience except your performance abilities; you can say what you want, you can do what you want, you can act it out the way you want –you’re alone with the elements, like a rock climber on a mountain, dependent on their own strength and endurance. With anything else, TV or film or anything like that, it’s a much more collaborative effort.
There’s an enjoyment in seeing actors bring things to life in a different way. I’m never frustrated thinking, ‘I wish I were performing that myself – well, very occasionally – but normally, if you cast well, there’s a thrill seeing Mackenzie Crook or Sean Williamson, or anyone we’ve worked with, doing something you didn’t quite expect e with the lines you’ve written, taking it in a different direction, bringing it a new life. That’s really exciting, and normally as a fan of films and TV and sitcom and acting from a young age, part of the fun, particularly when you get to work with big stars is seeing what they do, and seeing what their approach to it is, so they’re very different pleasures really.
Would you ever consider writing material for other stand-ups. I know it’s considered a bit wrong to perform material written by other people, but if the opportunity arose to write for, say Steve Martin or Robin Williams, would that appeal to you?
I think it would be interesting if you could work with them in a room and brainstorm ideas. The idea of coldly writing a routine and trying to post it to them and seeing if they like it, that doesn’t seem very appealing to me, the only way that would be fun would be pacing up and down in a writers’ room, playing with their imagination – that is exciting. There’s not really a pleasure, for me, to be taken in writing a string of jokes and giving them to someone else – it’s sort of a backward step in a way.
I’d like to talk about the writer’s room in a second, but one thing I’d like to know very quickly – living or dead, who would you most like to see perform live?
I’d like to see Woody Allen do stand-up. I wish I could have seen him in his day. His stand-up was very formative for me, it was the thing that first engaged me with stand-up, and what stand-up could do, and how honest it could be, and how personal. He was just very, very good at it, the comic persona that he took into films was so brilliantly mined in his early stand-up tapes. I used to listen to them religiously. I remember he did a brief, I wouldn’t say stand-up, but a brief monologue at the beginning of the Oscars, I think it was post 9/11, and he seemed to still have it, still seemed to have that command of the stage, and that persona was still there. I’d love to see him.
I presume you’re a fan of his films as well?
Absolutely. I idolise him, probably unhealthily. I fell in love with him through the stand-up, and I saw, when I was listening to the stand-up, I caught a couple of his films on late night TV, so I fell in love with the classic comic Woody from the early seventies. I can understand why people have an ambivalence towards him later on, as he tries to be more experimental, but there’s something about those early films – Bananas, Love and Death and Play Again Sam, where the comic persona of a would-be ladies man, who is sort of a pseudo intellectual, he’s very self mocking. He’sa brilliant physical comic as well – people forget – lots of pratfalling and physical stuff. Almost everything is intended to be funny. His intellectual aspirations kick in a bit later, but at that point he’s just incredibly funny, and that’s something that I found very appealing. I felt like a bit of a geek and a nerd myself, so I could relate to that shtick.
You’ve not considered trying to work with him?
I just don’t know how you’d make something like that happen. It feels so – it’s like wanting to collaborate with Bob Dylan, you know, who the fuck am I? – ‘Dear Mr Allen, I don’t know if you’ve seen my work, I recently did a stand-up tour. I don’t know if you caught me in Leeds, but would you like to collaborate?’
You could always hang around jazz clubs on Oscar night.
I shook his hand once, and was reduced to a quivering child.
So, let’s talk about the writers’ room. Obviously you work on TV predominantly, how different is it working in a collaborative process for a TV show, compared to sitting at home, scribbling notes, frantically trying to put a routine together?
It’s very different. The key thing with sitcom and film is that there are certain structural elements that dictate it to a degree. There’s a kind of grammar of storytelling that you always, inevitably fall back on, because there’s a reason it’s tried and tested – you need a narrative propulsion that keeps the story moving forward, and ideally you’d have a sub plot, and all these mechanics of storytelling, so there’s a sort of infrastructure there, and even though you might start by just brainstorming ideas, and throwing ideas around, and it’s all very free-form and loose, as time goes on you start to build it into a structure, and it’s dictated, in a way by certain obligations – we need a resolution to this plotline or whatever – so there’s a certain structure in place that guides you a bit more.
With stand-up, what I find difficult is, you literally can talk about anything, and go anywhere. There’s just this blank canvass, and there are no rules, in a way, and that’s much more daunting because you’re confronted with the emptiness, and you’ve got to fill the silence for an hour. Also, I tried to write stand-up at home, and that doesn’t seem to work. I can’t seem to focus enough, and you try to improvise it on stage and that doesn’t quite work, so I find that there’s this difficult, trying to formulate live on stage the ideas you thought about at home, but because the rhythm of stand-up, the speech patterns, everything about it is only born in that live environment. I’m not the sort of person who can write a series of one-liners and read them out on a piece of paper and tick off the ones that worked – it feels like it has to seem more genuine and real and expressive in that moment, and so I find it very hard, because you don’t have as much structure, and however much you’ve thought about it and planned it at home, as soon as you’re out on stage and confronted by the lights and the blank faces staring at you, a lot of that planning goes out the window, and you’re trying not to ‘fall’.
So I find it much, much harder than anything else I do, but in a way that’s the reason I went back to it. That challenge is so difficult, it’s so immediate. I feel there’s a complacency that can set in when you work in TV, and you’re surrounded by people, and there’s lots of editing that can go on, and massaging of things. With stand-up you’re confronted by your own ability, and you sink or swim.
Do you not find that every set-up and punch line does have a similar structure to that three act, beginning, middle and end, just very compressed?
It’s not the internal structure of a joke, as much as the shape and rhythm of the whole show. If you’re trying to do an hour or an hour-and-a-half, it’s very difficult to conceive of that as one big thing. With a movie you can, theoretically plot it out before you start writing. With stand-up it’s much harder to do that, because each little routine, you can’t know if it’s going to work until you’ve tried it. You might have a little segment that works well, and you put it in the wrong context and it doesn’t work anymore – it needs to come earlier or it needs to come later. That sort of stuff I worked out as I was doing it. Even once I started going on tour, I was still making changes, still restructuring it, still trying to see, and it’s almost like – if you were doing a comedy movie you’d do test audiences, and that would teach you some of that stuff, but I always feel with TV there’s a narrative coherence that guides the order and structure of things, whereas with stand-up it seems so much more random – it’s like panning for gold every time you go on stage.
Do you find doing the stand-up has sharpened your eye for comedy in a script?
I think it has. I feel like I’m reconnected with what people laugh at. There’s a danger when you do comedy a lot that you miss out a couple of the important beats that the audience needs in an idea. You sometimes presume that they get the idea quicker than they actually do. When you do stand-up you’re reminded that you have to lead them by the hand through a comic idea to the conclusion of it. Sometimes, when you’re working in a vacuum it’s easy to forget that.
I tend to find one of the things that can be frustrating about some jokes in films and TV is that they’re over-written.
That’s the tricky thing, isn’t it? Increasingly, particularly in films, the desperate need to scoop up everyone in the audience and get everyone laughing, means that you have to spell everything out so that none of the subtleties and ambiguities are left, which perhaps you would find in more cerebral comedies.
Stephen Merchant’s latest Stand up DVD is out on Monday and is available here.