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Lady and the Chump

“The Office” co-creator Stephen Merchant takes his unlucky-in-love shtick to Hollywood

Author Chris Wright

Stephen Merchant tries to score with his new HBO sitcom

Stephen Merchant tries to score with his new HBO sitcom

Perhaps more than his long-time collaborator Ricky Gervais (“The little fat man with the pug-nosed face,” as David Bowie famously warbled), Stephen Merchant was built for laughs. He stands a gangly six-foot-seven and has eyes that seem about to pop out of his head, a smile that looks like it was drawn by a five-year-old and social skills that can best be described as catastrophic.

This, anyway, is the persona Merchant presents in “Hello Ladies,” the new HBO offering that marks his first solo television outing since he and Gervais hit it big with sitcoms like “The Office” and “Extras.” Born of a recent stand-up show of the same name, “Hello Ladies” has Merchant in the role of Stuart, a provincial Englishman trying his luck on the fringes of the Hollywood celebrity circuit. Or, as he puts it: “I play a nerd who doesn’t end up with the models.”

The material in Merchant’s “Hello Ladies” stage show drew largely on the romantic pratfalls of his youth, and the sitcom can be seen as a kind of sequel to this, because Merchant has found himself moving through the very world he describes in the new show. “There’s something inherently funny,” he says, about the juxtaposition of L.A. glam and “this weird alien.”  

Merchant readily admits that he’s not being terribly grown-up about all this—that the lifestyle he’s currently pursuing is gratifying in the same way that, say, being a superhero would be, or the pilot of a rocket ship. “It’s like I’m trying to exact revenge on the 14-year-old me, by living this glamorous life,” he says. “I’m trying to fulfill a basic adolescent fantasy.”

The problem with this scenario is that unfortunate autobiographical details are the cornerstone to much of Merchant’s comedy, and so access to the inner sanctum of American celebrity has not resulted in him having more success on the dating scene. “All it means,” he says, “is that now I get rejected by much more choosy women.”

While the initial run for “Hello Ladies” is only eight episodes, Merchant feels confident he’ll get the green light for more. Either way, he says, he’s loved putting the show together, as it makes up for the failures in his romatic life. “When you’re six-foot-seven and look like me, there’s something kind of comforting about doing this,” he says. “You get to control when people laugh.” — SEPT. 29

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The Parting

Merchant’s take on moving forward without Ricky Gervais

With “The Office,” “Extras” and “Life’s Too Short” to their credit, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais are a near-perfect comedy team, which has some observers concerned about the duo going their separate ways. Already, Gervais’ new solo project, a television series called “Derek”—due Sept. 12 on Netflix—has been panned by critics who accuse the show of making fun of disabled people.

When asked if he’s concerned that they might have lost something by going out on their own, Merchant momentarily loses his good humor. “That may be the case,” he says. “But it’s a rather melancholy way of looking at things. I don’t look at this as if I’ve broken up the band. I see it as a solo album.”

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