Ricky Gervais' cohort Stephen Merchant talks about stand-up
British comedian Stephen Merchant (co-creator with Ricky Gervais of "The Office," "Extras" and "Cemetery Junction") will bring his “Hello Ladies” tour to the Coronet Theatre next week, Tuesday through Thursday.
We caught up with him via telephone to have a chat about the art of stand-up and what happens when one of those ladies says "hello" back.
As things go with funny people, there is always more to say. Read on for some bonus verbiage:
"There's a luxury of time in television writing whereas with stand-up there really is no time. It's brutal. You're up there and something funny better come out pretty damn quick or you're going to start sweating and struggling. The room is more silent than it has ever been and all you can hear is the whir of the air conditioning and the creak of the floorboard and that's a pretty terrifying moment.
"You're also managing your own nerves, you are the performer, so you're also contending with conveying the jokes. Going back to [stand-up], half of it was re-learning the performance techniques that had got a bit rusty over the years. Using your body, using your voice, the confidence to allow the silence to breath and to be in control of silence. It's tough."
Taxi for the comic!
"The first time I ever died really badly was a gig in Exeter and I remember the whole room didn't enjoy it except for the waitress, who was in hysterics. I remember the sweat and time slows down and it feels like you're walking under water.
"It's an extraordinary feeling but then what happens after a while is that you sort of get accustomed to it. It's almost like, 'Well OK, the parachute didn't open but now I'm plummeting to my death, so I might as well enjoy the view' and a weird calm descends and you realize that actually you're not going to die for real and these people aren't your friends and family and you'll never see them again. It's uncomfortable but it's not the end of the world."
King of the world
"When it's going really well, time speeds up, you feel like you're just in a zone. It's like you and the audience are one organism. It's very exciting. You feel like you're feeding off them and sort of riding their wave and can sense what they're going for. There's a real synchronicity that happens. It's wonderful."
"There's so many variables with stand-up. The weirdest thing is the audience -- you can have the same room in the same theater on a different night of the week and the whole experience is different. It's as though the audience doesn't gel as a unit.
"Some nights if they're really up for it, it's like one beast moving as one, thinking as one, acting as one. Other nights, the audience isn't this beast, it's just a bunch of individuals, so the atmosphere isn't quite electric. There's no rhyme or reason for it."
Us versus them
"In England, the audience can be quite surly at times. You can walk on and you get the feeling that they are sitting with their arms crossed sort of, 'Yeah, listen. It was raining, we had to park the car, so this better be funny mate.'
"American audiences just seemed much more enthusiastic. like 'Yay! It's great, it'll be fun! Let's enjoy.'"
"I suppose, if anything, over time it's become much harder for me to remain a fan of comedy. I sort of watch it with a professor's eye now, which is a great shame. I sort of feel like the innocent hysteria I used to get into watching comedy has somehow ebbed away now. I just don't laugh as much as I used to, which is a great shame."
-- Marcia Adair
Photo: Stephen Merchant. Credit: Carolyn Djanogly