A Bloody Funny Chat with Stephen Merchant

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Although he’s six foot seven, Stephen Merchant has spent a lot of time in the shadow of his much smaller and far more famous and garrulous collaborator, Ricky Gervais. Ahem: The latest creation by the co-creators of The Office and Extras is, titled, not surprisingly, The Ricky Gervais Show—not The Stephen Merchant Show.

Premiering tonight on HBO, the series is an animated version of the unscripted podcasts that Gervais and Merchant have been doing for years with a gent named Karl Pilkington. In their animated incarnations, Gervais appears vaguely like Fred Flintstone, and Merchant looks like a giant muppet. Karl Pilkington looks, apparently, like Karl Pilkington.

Pilkington, their onetime assistant, is a classic wise fool—typically more foolish than wise, but with occasional moments of insight that are hard to argue with. Gervais and Merchant spend much of the show prompting responses from him on topics that range from natural history to philosophy. Consider a few:

.. According to Gervais, Karl believes that “Anne Frank was just avoiding paying rent.”

... Karl’s sense of the progression of evolution is as follows: germ, fish, mermaid, man.

... When told that human and chimp DNA only vary by about 1.4 percent, Karl concludes, “That’s got to be the ass.”

Earlier this year, I settled in for a one-on-one sit-down with Merchant to discuss everything from his comedic influences to just how truly devoted he is to Gervais. Ladies and gents, here's Stephen Merchant!

On whether he would take a bullet for Ricky Gervais:

No, God knows, absolutely not. No. Goodness me. I’m loathe to sort of pick up a check on his behalf. Although I am likely, if someone goes after him, I just know I’ll be the one—you know. I just know it’s me who is going to be hit. He seems to drift through life and it’s pretty painless. He flew to America and it was fine and I flew to America and I was stuck on a runway for 4 1/2 hours at Heathrow while they de-iced the plane. I didn’t even know they had to de-ice a plane. I thought they didn’t have problems like that.

On what has gone right:

Firstly, I’m expecting it all to go horribly wrong at any point. Someone’s bound to bring us down a peg or two. We’ve got to get our comeuppance at some point.

We try not to do too much. Certainly the projects that Ricky and I have done together, we’ve tried to stay very focused and give them a lot of commitment and try not be seduced by the trappings of show business. It’s very easy to get lured into doing movie roles or popping up on chat shows or hosting game shows because people offer you an opportunity and money.

We’ve tried to stay strong-minded and think let’s stick with what we want to do and try and make products and projects that feel like they’re from us. I hope that modicum of integrity has served us well. And not be seduced by celebrity. I think that’s a very dangerous thing. I sometimes look at people I admire and wonder, where did they go wrong?

On animation potentially being more realistic than reality:

If we tried to do (the show) with the artifice of ourselves in sketches it would look too phony. I hope this is more of a straightforward way of illustrating what we’re talking about. It allows the animators to illustrate our conversations. So when we’re casting around about monkeys in space, you can suddenly see monkeys in space. Hopefully it allows you to return to the fact that these are real conversations, not something scripted. It’s quite a liberating format. The other danger is people not realizing that the conversations are real conversations and that Karl is a real person.

On why The Office is an international success:

The thing I’m most proud of is that we sat down when we originally did the show and said, "What is life like in an office? For real?" So many shows and sitcoms are comedies where offices are the backdrop for crazy antics and funny one-liners. But they’re not really about the real mechanics of office life. And that’s what people experience.

Fundamentally when you get beyond the regional differences, the mechanics are the same. The guy who creeps to the boss, the guy who feels he’s stuck in the dead-end job that he doesn’t want, the guy who is secretly in love with the receptionist but doesn’t have the balls to tell her. It would be amazing to see a China version. I would love to see that. What is an office like in China? I have no idea.

On the influence of John Cleese:

He grew up very near where I grew up in Bristol, obviously years before. He was one of the reasons why I thought I could get into comedy. He was a local lad and he was very tall and funny and I genuinely remember thinking that Cleese did it, why couldn’t I? And people would look at me like I was a maniac, like I was an arrogant crazy guy who thought I could be a rock star. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t have a try at least. You might fail but why wouldn’t you have a go?

On his wild ride:

I think the big thing was, and this might seem weird, but my ambition from a very young age was to write a sitcom that I could be proud of and that John Cleese or someone might see. If I was a kid and you had met me and asked what my ambition was, I would have said that. That was the honest truth. So when it happened, I thought that life would plateau and it would just be perfect. I would just leave everyone else behind and it would be, "Please, I’m one of the people who’s fulfilled their ambition. I’m off now. Good luck to you all."

And it wasn’t. You wake up the next day and it’s like, now what do I do? Whatever it is you’re striving for, if you get there, it kind of makes no difference. There’s always something else. There’s no fade to black.

The Ricky Gervais Show premieres tonight at 9pm on HBO. You can also catch the premiere episode online... for free!


Follow TV.com writer Matthew Jaffe on Twitter: @MattAtTVDotCom

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