British actor Stephen Merchant plays his, erm, shortcomings for laughs in HBO’s Hello Ladies.
APPARENTLY, Stephen Merchant has had more than his share of romantic misfortunes in his 38 years. Well, at least enough to turn them into an eight-episode comedy series entitled Hello Ladies on HBO.
The series, which premiered in Malaysia last month, is about a gawky Englishman and web designer named Stuart doing his darnedest to find the woman of his dreams – and failing spectacularly.
Speaking to Merchant on the phone – he calls from London where he is nursing a day-old cold – it is hard to fathom why he has been so unlucky in love as he is intelligent, polite, funny (of course) and very conversant (especially about the pitfalls of dating).
Surely, the fact that he towers over an average person (he stands at 2.01m) and has unusually large eyes have nothing to do with his misadventures with the ladies, right? Well, as it turns out, it has more to do with how he approached the fairer sex in his younger days.
Merchant shares: “The key thing is don’t try too hard ... don’t try too hard to get into nightclubs, don’t try to be something you are not, you know, like try to act like James Bond – you are definitely not James Bond. Don’t offer to buy drinks unless you are willing to pay for all the drinks.”
All the things on his “don’t” list – either based on real events or made up – form the basis of Hello Ladies, which Merchant stars in, writes, directs and produces.
He originally performed it as a stand-up comedy act; one of the showcases in Los Angeles was attended by some folks from HBO, who then suggested turning it into a 30-minute sitcom.
What intrigued Merchant most about their proposal was that this tall, pale, nerdy and socially-awkward loser would be based in LA, a land he sees occupied with perfect people and somewhere he’d stick out even more.
“(Stuart) grew up with the fantasy that LA is sort of full of glamorous people, beautiful parties and VIPs. And he wants access to it, but he is not part of it.”
Merchant collaborated with two American writers, Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, and together they pooled all their “pitiful dating stories” for the show.
Like this one: “There’s a story that Lee told me. He chased a girl up a party in Hollywood Hills and when he got there, he realised that she was seeing someone else. So he was stuck at the party with no way back from the Hill.
"He couldn’t get a cab and he’s terrified of coyotes. So he was kind of walking down the hill just making ‘Yip! Yip!’ noises to scare off anything that might come out and pounce on him. That is something we chose to dramatise in the show. A lot of our real stories are dramatised, one way or another, in the show.”
As for just how much of Merchant is in Stuart, Merchant admits: “There is a little bit of the 15-year-old me – the kind of awkward guy who is not comfortable in his own skin. And there’s the 25-year-old me who is working too hard to seem cool and sexy.
"There’s a little bit of the 30-year-old me – after the success of The Office – feeling a little bit entitled, like why hasn’t the world opened up to me now? There are aspects of me in there.”
Ah yes, The Office – a series that made both Merchant and his comedy partner, Ricky Gervais, famous. The two have worked together on The Office (the British original), Extras and Life’s Too Short. Gervais is, however, not involved in Hello Ladies simply because the stand-up show was Gervais-free; the comedian has had the same girlfriend since his 20s and has no clue about being single.
“It’s still a bit strange not to have Ricky there because he is very reassuring. But I have all these other writers who are great, funny and smart ... and they understand how American TV works.”
But will Gervais ever make a guest appearance on the show? “Well, he’s not in the first season. It’s not inconceivable that he’d be in the show down the road. But I kind of prefer to find – with what I am doing – new faces, really. To cast people who are not familiar to viewers because they don’t bring with them any baggage.
“They are fresh and you can kind of create new characters. If you bring in Ricky, then it’d be more like a stunt. It’s not just Ricky. As soon as you bring in some celebrity, they bring with them a certain baggage. That could work sometimes, but on this show, it might just make it a little unbalanced. But, never say never.”
Nonetheless, Gervais’ presence is somewhat felt on the set of Hello Ladies. According to Merchant, he likes to keep things loose and fresh because first of all, he is not very good at remembering lines. “I just never memorised lines very well. I don’t know what it is, even if I have written them.”
And the other reason: “When I used to work with Ricky, specifically on The Office, he would spend ages trying to make the other actors laugh. And I didn’t understand it. I would get angry, ‘Why are you doing this? You are slowing everything down. That was a great take and you ruined it.’
"And then, I found that I would do the exact same thing. I’d be in a scene and I’d make the other actors laugh for my own amusement. It’s such a weird perverse thing. ... I mean, the most juvenile stuff ... the most adolescent nonsense which makes me giggle like a schoolboy. It’s pathetic.”
Having unsophisticated fun aside, the still-single actor says he is more together than Stuart – having figured out some things about life and love that Stuart has yet to. His female friends include actresses Rose Byrne and Hayley Atwell.
However, he couldn’t help but be self-deprecating one last time about his present romantic situation: “My fortunes got better, (in) that I get turned down by even more beautiful women. And that’s a win for me.”
> Hello Ladies airs every Monday at 9.30pm on HBO (Astro Ch 411/HD Ch 431).