Standard door height in Britain: 6 feet 6 inches. Standard bed length there: 6 feet 3 inches. British comedy writer and erstwhile stand-up Stephen Merchant: 6 feet 7. Just right for the NBA but, as Merchant points out at the beginning of his “Hello Ladies” show, a slight issue when the person he’s most often photographed with is his 5-foot-7 comedy partner Ricky Gervais.
Merchant is not only the co-host of “The Ricky Gervais Show” and co-creator and co-director of the U.K. sitcoms “The Office” and “Extras,” but he was also once a familiar face in stand-up. Now he’s coming back to face live audiences with his “Hello Ladies” tour, which comes to the Coronet Theatre in L.A. from Tuesday through Thursday.
It’s been a while. A long while. But as Merchant’s TV and radio shows took off in the mid-’00s, the stage lost its appeal. “I think it was just that I was always doing it part-time really,” said Merchant, on the phone from London, “and by the time the TV stuff started happening [stand-up] didn’t feel fulfilling enough to carry on.”
You know how it is with old habits: A couple of years ago, Merchant started dabbling again. “Not with any great game plan to do a tour, just a sort of frustration that I hadn’t done it in a long time, maybe I hadn’t fully cracked it and so that was the reason I went back. Stand-up is a bit like malaria. It sort of gets in you and can be dormant for a long time and then the bug comes back, as it were.”
This time round, the bug resulted in a 75-date U.K. tour, a DVD and now a U.S. tour. He’s also testing the waters for a new U.S. TV show, “Life’s Too Short,” debuting on HBO in February.
Young L.A. comedian Sean O’Connor was on a show with Merchant in New York in December. “At first, when I saw him perform it was kind of exciting because you don’t know what you’re going to get. He asked the audience if they had ever heard of him. I’d say a little more than half had, but he still got them all onboard with it. It’s not like Chris Rock where it’s like, ‘We’re going to laugh no matter what.’ He earned it.”
Although Merchant will be altering some cultural references for a U.S. audience, he insists that “the overall English awkwardness remains intact.”
The title, “Hello Ladies,” is a reference to a joke about the tour being a search for a wife, which, for an awkward Englishman, went hilariously wrong. “A woman came up to me in the supermarket the other day and was sort of, ‘Hey, did you find a wife?’ I realized what she was going to say and so I made up a girlfriend. What was interesting was that she started quizzing me on it in the supermarket. She was suspicious.
“‘What’s her name?’
“‘Are you spending Christmas with Alison?’
“Then, I was making up a whole back story — Alison has booked a holiday with her folks, so she’s going with them but maybe we’ll see each other in the new year. Alison was going skiing — she’s got some money, Alison. She’s a young professional, so she can go skiing at Christmas.”
Merchant extracted himself from the conversation and went off to a coffee shop, only to find his interrogator in line behind him. “I don’t want to bad-mouth a lady but it was never going to work out between us. She was mental.”
In the gap between stand-up performances, Merchant has become famous, which has changed how he approaches his routine. “It’s harder when you’re well known because the expectation is greater. It’s harder to take big risks on stage because the risk of the room being silent is a more painful thing to do.”
That’s not to say the “Hello Ladies” material is safe or predictable but rather that the post-modern deconstruction that he got away with 15 years ago has been shelved indefinitely.
“Hello Ladies” stopped for two nights in New York in December and Merchant is excited to perform again in the U.S. “One of my great frustrations on the tour in England was I was always imagining that there would be gorgeous groupies hanging around outside but most of my groupies are middle-aged guys who work in computing. I shall be intrigued to see the caliber of weirdos that hang out outside the stage door. I’m hoping that it will be more sort of Playboy bunnies.”
Perhaps one of them will be called Alison.
First published in the Los Angeles Times