Comedy Gold: Stephen Merchant's Hello Ladies

Away from the shadow of Ricky Gervais, Merchant tackles awkward preconceptions of his comedy skills head on – and is all the funnier for it

Title: Hello Ladies

Year: 2011

The set-up: It has always been obvious that Stephen Merchant has it in him to be funny. If you watch The Office, which he co-wrote with Ricky Gervais, or listen to the radio shows and podcasts he and Gervais did together, or even watch his and Gervais's most recent TV series Life's Too Short, you'll find them full of wit and accuracy in their portrayal of the awkwardness that cramps our lives. As you may have noticed, there has also been a bit of a theme to his career.

Merchant met Gervais in 1997. Indeed it wasn't just a meeting, it was a job interview, after which Merchant was hired to work at Xfm. Ever since, they've been a perhaps uniquely unequal double act. At his worst, Merchant has seemed less a sidekick than a sycophant, and his decision to return in earnest to standup comedy for the first time in seven years, having never thrived in it before, was about as unpromising as it gets.

Yet by jingo, as I say, he's funny. First off, he knows all this, and he knows that we know too, and he mines that awkwardness – as always – for its laughs. "Here we go," he says once the preliminaries are out of the way. "Right. Comedy. What shall we talk about?" The answer comes quickly: "The first reason I'm doing standup comedy is that any money I make I don't have to share with 'you know who'." More daringly, he refuses to play down how monstrously successful he's been. The awards, the big occasions, his profile in the media: not to mention any of these things would be disingenuous but perfectly acceptable. Instead he takes the honest path, and risks triumphalism by mentioning them all the time.

Funny how? Of course there is no better way to deflect one's worries about seeming vain and petty than to give an extravagant performance of both. And that's what Merchant's standup is: always a performance, more like watching character comedy from Alan Partridge, say, than a standup under his own name. "Ha! You can't reason with a crack whore," he sighs to himself at one point, or to someone anyway. And he does it brilliantly. Despite having made his name mostly as a writer, he is a superb actor too, right down to the gangly physical comedy stuff such as "rewound porn". (Remember he is 6ft7in tall. "I've been all of your heights at some point.")

Gervais's nasty streak spoils his standup shows almost utterly, in my view, but Merchant is more unctuous than unkind. And somehow, when the punchlines hit, they do so more forcefully, having had to fight against what at times can be a rather strong instinct to dislike him. I don't know if it's deliberate, but Merchant seems even to toy with the idea of being a bad comic, in order to make better jokes. He makes use of a slideshow, though, which rarely works (somehow tending to diminish the performer).

His main device is to set up and act out little playlets, often rather laboriously built up to. The heart does sink at the idea of having to see "what if doctors said soz" actually played out once it's been suggested. Yet time and again, he finds a great gag in there you weren't expecting. His mime of his sexual technique is almost creepy until he murmurs, almost to himself: "Line everything up." If he feels awkward, well, at least he can make you feel awkward too.

Comic cousins: Steve Coogan, Larry David, Frankie Howerd, Eddie Izzard and You Know Who.

Steal this: "It would be hard for you to spend the day as me. You'd need the built up shoes and the awards and stuff."


Leo Benedictus

The GuardianTramp

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