Unleashing some unexpected extras
Stephen Merchant adjusts his gaze for life on stage
STEPHEN Merchant knows better than most the dangers of audience participation. The lanky British comedian has, on occasion, ''let a crazy through the net'', even reducing a woman to tears during one particularly tense on-stage moment.
So there's no telling what might happen when Merchant - co-creator with Ricky Gervais of such politically incorrect TV gems as The Office, Extras, An Idiot Abroad and Life's Too Short - appears at the Athenaeum Theatre next week.
Merchant's Hello Ladies stand-up tour is part of a double-barrelled assault on our collective funny bone, combining live shows with a DVD release of the same show performed in England in 2011.
Merchant with Ricky Gervais and Warwick Davis in Life's Too Short.
''It seems odd to release the DVD when people can come and see it live,'' Merchant admits, ''but hopefully they'll come and … enjoy it so much that they'll want the DVD and it will all work out perfectly.''
While the show has evolved during its international tour, Merchant doesn't recommend fans watch the DVD before seeing the show. ''I would leave it in the cellophane until you get home,'' he says. ''There are some bits that are different, some bits that I've dropped, some bits that I've added and other bits that I've sort of expanded or developed, [but] it's essentially the same show.''
One of the benefits to seeing the live show, he says, is the possibility that it could all go horribly wrong. ''Every time you do the show it's different and that's very exciting,'' he says. In one segment, Merchant invites a randomly chosen audience member to help him act out a play he wrote in high school about teen issues.
''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. 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 - who drops a pill and then comes to my show I have no idea - 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 try and win people's sympathy.
''It's surprising how quickly a comedy show turns sour when there's someone on stage crying.''
When not reducing the audience to tears, Hello Ladies chronicles Merchant's romantic misfortunes.
Sadly, the tour hasn't yet remedied the problem at its core. ''Definitely not, no,'' he says, agreeing with one reviewer's suggestion that his show is an indication of why its star is 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,'' Merchant says.
''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.''
As expected from any conversation about relationships, Hello Ladies does turn to the topic of ''sex for the six-foot seven-inches man'', including a re-creation of a teenage Merchant attempting to swiftly eject pornography from a VHS video recorder. Family and friends have been duly cautioned. ''I told them 'Don't tell me when you're coming, just come to the show … and be warned'.''
The strategy didn't work the night his father was in the audience. ''He arrived 10 minutes late, so I saw him come in,'' Merchant says. ''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 … 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 points to both his passion for comedy and his romantic woes. ''This might be one of the biggest events in my life,'' he says. ''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.''
Potentially, of course, Merchant might well have had the last laugh. ''I should have got him up on stage for the play.''
■ Stephen Merchant is at the Athenaeum, December 11-13 (all shows sold out).
■ Stephen Merchant Hello Ladies is available now on DVD.