Stephen Merchant steps out of Ricky Gervais's shadow with an 'assured and concise' set of his own
Stephen Merchant’s Hello Ladies is the comedy leviathan’s first attempt at stand up.
Having written for television and the silver screen – most famously on sitcoms The Office and Extras with writing partner, Ricky Gervais – Merchant seems to have applied the same creative limitations to his stand up material, with impressive results. This is not expansive, ad hoc stuff – it's been shaped and edited to near perfection.
As a result there are no distracting digressions tonight at the Waterfront Hall; all ad lib sections involving audience members have an expository purpose, moving the story forward in exactly the direction Merchant wants it to go; and the bouncy Bristolian takes his bow a clean hour and 15 minutes after he first bounds on stage, dancing to hip-hop like a bespectacled praying mantis in Converse.
Hello Ladies is the comedy equivalent of a Hemingway novella: short, sharp and seemingly effortless. Ostensibly, it charts Merchant’s struggle to ‘find a wife’, but he begins by reminding us how he came to stand up comedy in the first place.
He stands tall at 6’ 7 – the same height as English footballer, Peter Crouch – and yet Merchant has always existed in the shadow of his diminutive comedy partner, Gervais.
An example of this is a photograph that was taken at the Golden Globe Awards, which was subsequently printed in a national newspaper. In it, Gervais and The Office producer, Ash Atalla, are the obvious subjects, stood proud centre stage. Merchant is there too, only the top half of his face is out of shot.
Sometime later, in an interview for an English broadsheet, the journalist refers to one half of the most celebrated comedy duo of the 21st century throughout the piece as ‘Stephen Mitchell’.
But Merchant isn’t bitter. He is, rather, exceedingly happy with his lot. After all, he alone will bag the profits from ticket sales and the DVD release of Hello Ladies. ‘You know who’ won’t get a penny.
At school, Merchant was a ‘pedantic’ but likeable nerd who attempted to charm the ladies by showing off his Blue Peter badge (which came in handy later in life when out on dates). Subsequently, it’s his height and perceived stinginess that continue to put them off.
Splitting the bill is something that really gets his goat, for example. Merchant surmises that Judas was moved to treachery after an avaricious Jesus suggested his disciples do the same following the Last Supper. But this is as controversial as Merchant gets.
The rest of his act concerns how someone his height should perform in bed, how teenagers these days are spoilt for choice when it comes to accessing porn – a routine in which Merchant recalls watching ‘Scottish porn’ on VHS, when his parents were attending a funeral, gets some of the loudest laughs – and the gender inequalities of dating. He believes that women do some of the work in bed, he says, because they've told him so. Wink, wink.
Merchant is a measured comic, someone who, one assumes, enjoys the act of writing and the discipline implicit in sticking with a given subject. But he is sharp enough a performer to cope with the heckles and the odd flat reception – ‘Either everyone claps, or no one does!’ – and proves here that he brought much of the mirth and the smarts to the scripts that his ertshile partner has received much of the praise for.
Hello Ladies is an assured and concise attempt at stand up from a practioner who fully deserves his time in the spotlight. When Gervais retires from presenting television awards in the States, producers shouldn't have too far to look for his replacement.