The merchant of laughter

Stephen Merchant has turned his romantic misfortunes into big laughs in his stage show Hello Ladies.
Stephen Merchant has turned his romantic misfortunes into big laughs in his stage show Hello Ladies.

One of the benefits to seeing a live show, according to comedian Stephen Merchant, is the possibility it could all go horribly wrong. ''I try to do spot casting there and then, and try and just assess from the people who have got their hands up which one is the least crazy,'' he says, referring to the audience participation segment of his standup  show Hello Ladies, in which he and a randomly chosen attendee act out a play he had written in high school.

''It's very hard. I've got fairly good, but occasionally I will let a crazy through the net and then we're in trouble.

''One woman I got up seemed normal to begin with, [but] then it seemed as though she couldn't read. I realised that maybe she was on drugs then I said 'I'm going to have to replace you,' because it was incoherent. And then she started crying on stage.

Of course, the audience were now booing me because they didn't understand what was going on.

''Actually, as it turned out, when we finally kicked her off she wasn't really crying, she was pretending to cry to win people's sympathy.''

When not reducing audience members to tears, Merchant is busy creating - and often appearing in - award-winning comedy series with Ricky Gervais, such as The Office, Extras, Life's Too Short, The Ricky Gervais Show and An Idiot Abroad.

Hello Ladies, which is also being made into a television series, chronicles his romantic misfortunes, and also marks Merchant's first standup tour of New Zealand.

The tour hasn't as yet remedied the problem at its core.

''Definitely not, no,'' he says, laughingly agreeing with one review that suggested his otherwise hysterical show was also a damning indication of why Merchant was unlucky in love. ''I would come out on stage and there would be female fans who would cheer at the beginning - because they were excited - and they were conspicuously quiet by the end. And I'd come out of the stage door thinking, 'Here we go, I'll have my pick of the beauties of Leeds,' and there were just four blokes with Office DVDs they want signed.''

Hello Ladies does turn to the topic of ''sex for the six-foot, seven-inch man'', including a re-creation of Merchant's attempt to swiftly eject pornography from a VHS recorder as a teenager, a topic some might find awkward discussing in front of family and friends. Merchant's solution was simple: ''I told them 'Don't tell me when you're coming, just come to the show ... and be warned.'''

Unfortunately, this solution wasn't entirely effective. ''As it turned out, I knew when my father came to the show because he arrived 10 minutes late, so I saw him come in,'' he recalls. ''It wasn't that he was 10 minutes late [to the theatre]. He'd been in the bar. He hadn't heard when they said the show's started, he was too busy talking to his mates.''

So Merchant never discovered what his father thought of the material. ''To be honest, when I came off stage, I didn't say 'What did you think of me miming shagging?' I was too busy being annoyed.''

His response to his father's tardiness provides insight into his passion for comedy and his romantic woes.

''This might be one of the biggest events in my life. The closest we'd had in my family was when my sister got married. He showed up on time for her wedding. For this he was 10 minutes late. I was furious.''

Even in this battle for priorities, comedy wins as Merchant realises how he should have punished his father. ''I should have got him up on stage for the play.''


Stephen Merchant performs Hello Ladies at Wellington's Opera House on December 17

The Dominion Post