"It never really occurs to me that I'm doing cringe comedy," Stephen Merchant says with a laugh. "It's something that people tell me afterwards and I say, 'Again? Really? I never set out with that intention.' To me, it's just funny; so much of my real-life existence has involved cringe-inducing moments or embarrassing moments... I always am surprised when people go, 'I had to watch that through closed eyes.' I want to say, 'Follow me around in real life, then you'll never be able to look me in the eye.'"
Such is the life of the spindly, 6'7", bespectacled Brit, who has lived a sort of dual existence over the past decade and a half. On the one hand, he has quietly helped shape and set the standards for international comedy as Ricky Gervais' partner in crime; on the other, he's still a miserable failure with women, as hapless as he was before he became a star and accidental mogul.
Luckily, Merchant's work as the co-creator of The Office and Extras, among other audio-visual landmarks, has trained him to expertly mine the awkward and socially catastrophic for comedy gold. In his new HBO series Hello Ladies, Merchant delivers a string of spectacular romantic failings that also serve to satirize the illusion of popular access to the rarified Hollywood lifestyle. The show, which is based in part on his stand-up act of the same name, features Merchant as a painfully out-of-his-depth web designer named Stuart, who migrates from England to Los Angeles in a hopeless quest for an invitation into high society.
"I liked the idea that he's slightly a fish out of water, but also that he has a fantasy of what L.A. is, as many people do and many British people do — a fantasy that is born out of lots of '80s TV shows and an image of it being kind of glamorous and sexy and this world of exclusive parties behind red velvet ropes," Merchant explains. "It's very seductive and the night is kind of alluring and neon."
Executives from HBO initially had the idea for the show after seeing him perform his stand-up act during the L.A. stop on his tour; setting the show in that city, he says, only adds to the impressive social dysfunction that has marked Merchant's adult life.
"I'm pretty much excluded from the red velvet rope parties in England, as well," he says, laughing. "I don't think there's any fundamental distinction; there's always the world of glamorous beautiful people behind closed doors in Paris or London and anywhere else. Los Angeles seems particularly rigorous about keeping you out. It's very protective of itself... The concentration of beautiful people is almost like anywhere else in the world."
Merchant perfected his stories with the stand-up act he began several years ago as part of an effort to "force [himself] to be the sole writer and arbiter of what was going to make it into the show" after so many years in a fruitful partnership with Gervais. It was nerve-racking at first without that safety blanket, Merchant admits.
Despite spending significant chunks of time in L.A. for various television and movie projects, Merchant has never fully lived in the city, so a writing staff with residency became crucial. And, in his first series without Gervais, Merchant turned to two guys who helped make the American adaptation of The Office such a monster success: Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupinsky.
Merchant served as an exec producer on the American hit (earning him an Emmy in 2006), co-wrote a Season 3 episode and directed one in the fifth season. As such, he was well-acquainted with the stateside writing partners.
Side note: The American version is really the only spin on The Office in which Merchant had any real say; the number of international spin-offs is huge, and operate in their own worlds.
"Unfortunately they never send them subtitled, so I never enjoy them as such because I don't speak French or whatever they speak in Chile… What do they speak in Chile, is it Spanish?" he says. "So I've seen kind of sections of them, but I've never been able to sit and watch a whole episode. I've always said I want to see a Japanese version where they just all come to work and just do a really good day's work and then go home again. They're just very diligent and there's no comedy. And then in the third season someone commits suicide because the pressure is too intense."
While much of the American Office's first season was pulled straight from its British predecessor, the NBC show would ultimately go in its own, more warm-and-fuzzy direction. The setup was the same: Both centered on dreary regional paper companies and featured the clueless boss, the disaffected man hoping for something bigger, a love interest secretary, and other quirky co-workers. But whereas the Gervais-portrayed David Brent only became more desperate and pitiful as the show went on, Steve Carrell's Michael Scott would ultimately end up being a lovable focal point for the series, even if he never quite existed on the same social frequency as his employees.
So, what can you expect when the driving forces behind two very different versions of the same show come together to create a new series, especially when it also features an awkward, bumbling, and often selfish leading man?
"I think in the first version of the pilot, I probably softened the edges a little bit in the actual editing room, and I think HBO were actually like, 'No, you can afford to make him a little more selfish,'" Merchant says of his own character. "I don't think he's a mean-spirited person; there's just a selfishness and kind of desperation that leads to those actions, and that's a long-standing tradition of British comic characters."
And Merchant knows his history, name-checking past stars like Tony Hancock, John Cleese (in Fawlty Towers), and Steve Coogan's contemporary bozo, Alan Partridge.
"There's this sort of long run of that little frustrated Englander who desperately want to be elevated on their status and wants more respect and wants more love and wants to be regarded as more talented, whatever it might be," Merchant says. "Hopefully, we've managed to infused it with the sort of warmth that a lot of American comedy has. But, even in our British shows, they've also had a spine of humanity underneath them."
Still, Stuart's dating travails are often painful to watch — situational misreads, expensive mishaps, stilted conversation that kicks off with a first scene that involves Roe v. Wade and suicide — putting it firmly in the cringe comedy territory that Merchant first staked out with David Brent.
"If you make horror movies, because you know all the gore is fake, you just keep ladling on more blood, more eyes popping out, because you're just on set having a laugh," he says. "And then when the audience watches it, they're invested in the reality of that world so it's really unpleasant for them. And I sometimes worry that's the same with comedy, like we're having so much fun on set and trying to make it more awkward or more embarrassing and trying to say the funniest, weirdest, most inappropriate thing, so when people are watching at home and trying to buy into that universe, it's way more uncomfortable than we intended it to be."
One key difference between this new show and both The Office and the legion of format copycats that it spawned is that Hello Ladies is not a mockumentary. There is no fourth wall coming down, no camera crew following the characters, no confessional "interviews" interspersed throughout.
"There's something about the documentary style that lends itself to comedy because it infuses realism that's very valuable to comedy, but with this show I didn't really want to do the documentary style because as much as it's great, it can limit you as well," Merchant explains. "You bump up against these questions of, Why is someone acting that way in front of the camera? It affects everything. I remember Ricky and I having endless discussions about, Where is the camera? Can they see the camera? Is it hidden? Is it hiding behind a wall? It becomes a whole weird philosophical discussion."
Merchant is probably right; the things that Stuart and his blubbering, recently-divorced best friend Wade (Nate Torrence) go through would be too shameful even for the reality TV-obsessed town of L.A. Their failures with women are epic, something that Merchant — despite all his success, fame, and money — still experiences. Not that he's blaming anyone but himself.
"What happens to you is that your aspirations change, so now I just get rejected by much more beautiful women... That's an example of grass is always greener mentality, which is something that doesn't just affect me now at this point in my life, but it's always something that's present for me and probably a lot of other people feel that same way," he says with a laugh. "I think there are probably two groups of men: Men that are happy in their relationships and perhaps have always been quite natural and content to settle down, and then there are other men who are slightly fantasists. You'll hear these guys, when they read the news that Jennifer Garner just married Ben Affleck, and they're like, 'Ugh, fucking hell, she's off the market,' like they'd have a shot. There's this way pop culture has been rammed down our throats that people think that if they were just in the right place at the right time, they'd be married to Heidi Klum."
It's that dream that is the ultimate focus of Hello Ladies: the search for glamour, fame, proximity to superficial beauty, and an artificially inflated sense of self.
"I think that's a bit of an adolescent way of looking at the world, the mindset of a 15-year-old," Merchant says, "What we try to do with the character, the day that he grows up is the day he'll be happier."