Stephen Merchant on How to Make the Bizarro ‘Entourage’
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.
The gentlemen of "Hello Ladies"
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.