In his partnership with Ricky Gervais, Steven Merchant created a new genre of painfully real/painfully awkward contemporary comedy. Going solo and stepping in front of the camera with "Hello Ladies" Merchant has pushed the drama into more explicitly romantic territory in the role of Stuart Pritchard, a British nerd come to Hollywood in a perpetually doomed search for love under the spotlights.
Sunday night, the show's first season concludes on "HBO." We spoke to Merchant by phone from London about lonely guys and looking for romance in Hollywood.
"Hello Ladies" is a very different vision of the glamorous Los Angeles that we're typically presented. What shaped that?
Stephen Merchant: Some sort of wanting access to that and not being able to get access to it. And that changed a lot with my experience growing up and being in a small town in England and fantasizing and thinking what the bright lights, big city, would offer. And that was also the jumping off point really.
It's kind of the opposite of "Entourage."
SM: We sometimes refer to it a bizarro "Entourage." For awhile we even talked about doing an opening credit sequence where it's comparable...I'm driving a car similar to the one in the "Entourage" sequence but, unlike the four guys kind of pulling up and jumping out, it would end with me seeing an attractive girl at the lights and smiling at her, but n because I am looking at her, I hit the car in front of me and my airbag goes off. It kind of ends like the "Entourage" opening, but except I am in the car from above with an airbag in my face.
Have you talked about having Entouragers make a cameo?
SM: Well, I was keen to kind of avoid there being celebrity elements in the show. Even though it's set in LA, it's not really about Hollywood and show biz in that way. And then as soon as you bring celebrities into things, as I have discovered on "Extras," you sort of always slightly unbalance things. Because people are, slightly, kind of enamored by the fact that the celebrity showed up and I just didn't want to unsettle the universe with having to contend with famous faces.
You and Ricky Gervais have created some of the great awkward and uncomfortable characters in television history. Why are you so drawn to that dynamic?
SM: I legitimately never set out to make people feel awkward. It's not an intention of mine. I was quite surprised when people said that this show that they watched it through their fingers. It's not my plan, I mean it seems to me that all of the comedies I ever loved, whether it's Woody Allen or Laurel and Hardy,it was always potentially about, kind of awkward situations or desperation or embarrassment in one way or another. And I guess to me that's just what, sort of, you know, makes me laugh. But equally to me I do like comedy where there is sort of a jeopardy. The reason I like dating as a subject is there's an inevitable stakes. When you go on a date, you invest in it. You want it to go well. Both of you have an idea about how you hope it might pan out and if it doesn't, then it's sort of uncomfortable. Is there anything more uncomfortable than just going in for a kiss...and the girl not...if you move your head in to go in to give a girl a kiss and she starts backing away, there's nothing worse than that moment. It's excruciating. She knows exactly what you're planning and you she's not interested because her heads moving away. It's just unbearable. So, these things we seem to have everyday are just kind of loaded with significance and with potential embarrassment and that's the kind of stuff that consumes me.
Who are sort of the great lonely guys of screen history who inspire you?
SM: I am particularly drawn to Woody Allen, particularly in his early movies, like "Play It Again, Sam." He's always been influential to me. In England, there's sort of a long history of British TV comedy characters who are quite lonely. Characters like Tony Hancock who was one of the formative 1960s comic actors. He was a character that was often living alone and was trying to make connections with people in one way or another. There was a show called "Steptoe and Son," which was remade as "Sanford and Son" in the States, and the son, the younger guy there was always desperately trying to leave the nest, but his father emotionally blackmailed him to stay. And he was always trying to date girls or be a part of the local theatre group and his father ruining it for him. So, there's a long tradition of, particularly in Britain, of those sort of people.
It's a very fine line making these characters work. A lonely woman is always sympathetic and the audience is always hoping for her, but with a lonely man on screen there's a line there where he goes from being sympathetic and endearing to the most repulsive thing on Earth suddenly. How do you walk that line?
SM: Well, it may be that some people are not walking that line successfully and that it's too excruciating. For me, I always want the audience to try and trust me enough to stick with a season. It's worth hanging on for the end of the season because you'll see some of these characters uniting in different ways and their friendship is starting to strengthen. Most of what I have done there has an optimism in it ultimately. In "The Office", our British version, ended with a romantic upswing. Even the character David Brent, that Ricky played, he grasped some hope and ended with that friendship being important. We did a movie called "Cemetery Junction" that had a romantic spine to it. So, to me there's a romance to the end and it's always underlying it, but because it's a comedy or a sitcom you can't make every episode a happy ending. You've to keep the drama going. I don't know, I guess for some reason, I would rather take the characters to a lower point so there is further for them to climb and to get back out of it. That's just what interests me. I guess I think of the seasons a bit like a movie where the first couple of episodes are like act one, and the middle is act two, and there is an act three. So, you have to watch the whole season to fill the picture in.
We all know these people also who are perfectly dateable if they would just keep it together just a little bit more. Why can't Stuart just keep it together?
SM: I think that his problem is that he's chasing some kind of fantasy that he's created in his head. In my mind, he could never really get dates at school, he was kind of nerdy and awkward, and probably a bit of a loner, and had a romantic spirit. And I think he does have a romantic heart, as you have discover in subsequent episodes and he had a bit of success and a bit of money and probably run some sort of computer-type business in England and made a little bit of cash and thought f--k it, I'm in my thirties, I'm doing alright, and I am going to move to LA, I'm going to live the dream. And, particularly in America, you’re sold the idea that the world is yours for the taking. You work hard and make something for yourself and you can be a player. All of those books, whether it's self-help or slightly sleazy stuff like "The Game," like the manuals on dating, they all say 'Have confidence,' and you see these guys in nightclubs. Short, fat, chubby millionaires with super models on their arms. It's like, why didn't I get a piece of that? Why don't I get to take that girl back to the hometown and show her off to all of those people who laughed at me and said I was nothing? The problem is, he's trying to exact revenge on those people and those people don't care, they've moved on, they've forgotten him. He should be living his life with the right person instead of chasing some kind of fantasy and punishing the rest of the world.
Hollywood seems to lend itself to a lot of those negative examples.
SM: Right, but it seems to me the more I think about it, that Hollywood is populated by the people who were in their yearbook as the most likely to succeed, or the best looking, or the homecoming king and queen. It's populated by those people trying to become actors and stars, and it's populated by all the nerdy people that put those books together, but never got voted as any of the great things – who are running Hollywood. It's a city where the rules are very clear. If you are very good looking, if you have great teeth and great hair, the door is open to you. And if you don't look like that, the doors aren't unless you make something of yourself. Unless you're a producer, or an executive, or a very successful writer and it's very clear, it's almost like high school again. The parameters are very defined there, in a way that it's not quite as clear in London.
From a British perspective does coming to Hollywood have a different meaning?
SM: I was talking to the writers about this who are American themselves and I was saying it's a long journey. It feels like it's a long journey to have gone from a small town in the Southwest of England to living in the base of the Hollywood Hills. And they were saying, well, I think it's probably true if you come from the middle of Idaho and you got on the bus and you went there. Wherever you are in the world, wherever you are even in the States, there is an allure, a sheen to Hollywood and Los Angeles that we're being sold constantly. It's exploited, not even necessarily by the movies, but by all of the paraphernalia that surrounds it and I think it probably also started even in the 50s seeing those kind of tabloid magazines they use to have in the 50s...Here's Rock Hudson by his pool in the Hollywood Hills. It's just that fantasy of the sunlight and just that sense of Shangri-La quality to it that almost nowhere else possesses. And yet, of course, when you go there it's far from a Shangri-La. It's kind of an ugly place with no real HUB, it's a very lowly city and you sort of sense the Shangri-La's are behind these big gated...inside these gated homes that the star tours bus will drive you past, but you'll never penetrate.
Have you gotten a glimpse of the actual Shangri-Las since you've been here?
SM: I've sometimes gone behind the gates and I've seen inside and I've seen beautiful homes. I've had conversations with glamorous people, some who are lovely and some who are assholes. This is something I try to talk about it my stand-up. In the end it kind of underlines the series, the old sort of cliché that you see on mugs and tee shirts - Happiness is a Journey, Not a Destination. Trite as that is I think there is a lot of truth in it. I remember when "The Office" was a success, I sort of thought, well, everything I have been trying for all of these years to prove yourself to the World, we sort of did it. But it’s not like someone opened the door, and went the rest of your real life is through this door come through; it's happiness and it's bliss. You get the opportunity to experience those things and some of those people are happy and some are not, but in the end you can go into a bigger house with a beautiful view and it's owned by a superstar, but that doesn't affect you. Who knows what their life's like. You leave the big house with the superstar and you go back to wherever you're living. So, you get the opportunity to date beautiful women, but when that beautiful woman dumps you, now you were dumped by an even more beautiful woman than when you were nobody. It doesn't fundamentally change you, it gives you opportunity, opens things up to you, but it doesn't make life easier to manage.
Do you think that if Stuart had stayed home he would have found a woman by now?
SM: I think there is some truth in this. In the 1950's most people, maybe our parents or our parent's parents, they didn't leave their small town. My dad never really left Bristol, where I came from, he married someone who lived nearby. He never thought about moving to London, let alone Hollywood. I think back in the day it was an exceptional person that escaped their small world and escaped what was expected of them. It was very unusual that you left that world. You probably could have gotten a job in the same business as your father or a company that was in your neighborhood, or you worked at the local bank, or whatever and then you married someone that was the best fit for you in that community and that was that. You were happy or you weren't.
You knew what the options were.
SM: You knew what the options were and your world was a little closed in and therefore, in a strange way, it made your decisions easier, but now the world is open to us. The Internet means you could date someone in Brazil online if you wanted. Air travel is cheap you can hop on a plane in this sort of connected universe where we feel like we can reach out and taste a bit of everything and I think that means, for some people, there's too many options and when you are confronted with everything, you don't know what to choose.
If Stuart were trained by the pickup artist, could it ever work for him?
SM: I think it could work for him, but I think in the end he's ultimately a good guy. I think the problem with that pick up artist stuff is you have to have a certain kind of ruthlessness, a certain kind of misogyny. It's like you are trying to con girls into sleeping with you. There is something slightly distasteful about it and I think ultimately when the crunch came, if a girl said, 'Is this just a one night stand or is this going to be a relationship,' I think he'd have to be honest and say this was a one night stand. I think ultimately his honest and integrity would cripple him. Even in the third episode where he goes on a date with a girl, you sort of see a little of the real him, you see his vulnerability, you see his nervousness. It's like almost like by putting on this front, he's actually pushing opportunities away maybe because he's sort of scared.