-by Ken Plume
As co-creator of both the original British and American versions of The Office and now two series of the BBC/HBO hit Extras - not to mention co-host of the most downloaded podcast in history - you’d think more people would know the name Stephen Merchant.
Considering his collaborator on all of those projects is a rather larger-than-life chap named Ricky Gervais, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the other half of this remarkable comedic double act - even if Merchant does clock in at an impressive 17 feet tall (or maybe it’s only 6′7 - still, a veritable giant).
A BAFTA and Emmy Award-winner, Merchant has also recently won a British Comedy Award for his on-camera roll as the endearingly clueless agent of jobbing actor Andy Melman (Gervais), Darren Lamb, in Extras.
Speaking of Extras, the second series will begin airing on HBO this Sunday, January 14th, at 10pm, and the first series is now available on DVD. Merchant is also launching a music show on BBC 6 Music starting on the 14th, running Sundays from 3-5pm.
I recently sat down at my desk, phone in hand, and had a chat with Stephen about The Office, Extras, working with Ricky Gervais, podcasts, and the enigma that is Karl Pilkington. Warning - there are some spoilers ahead.
MERCHANT: Hello, is Kenneth available?
QS: This is he.
MERCHANT: It’s Steve Merchant calling.
QS: It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you.
MERCHANT: Thank you very much, and you…
QS: Would you prefer Stephen, or Mr. Merchant, or award-winning actor Mr. Stephen Merchant?
MERCHANT: I would obviously prefer all of those. I think Steve’s fine.
QS: Or I can change it up as we go along.
MERCHANT: If you wouldn’t mind, that would be good, yeah… just to get progressive. So in the end it’s just Sir or Lord.
QS: I could do that.
MERCHANT: Lord Merchant.
QS: Actually sounds pretty good…
MERCHANT: Mm. If I do more charity work I’m hoping I’ll get there eventually
QS: If Jonathan Ross can get an OBE…
QS: I think anything is possible.
MERCHANT: Exactly, for goodness sake.
QS: Congratulations on the British Comedy Award.
MERCHANT: Yes, I am officially the best comic actor in Britain for a year.
QS: Is there a changeover ceremony where last year’s best comic actor has to actually give you some kind of cup or something?
MERCHANT: No, it’s rather ignoble. You just go there, and if perhaps you’re nominated again, you just find out there and then if you’ve won again.
QS: Or that somehow your talent has waned through the year…
MERCHANT: Exactly. Exactly. I always remember Jerry Seinfeld making a gag about the fact that he was nominated for playing himself in Seinfeld and he won one year, and the following year he didn’t win, and he made a joke about how he had obviously not played himself as convincingly that year as he had the previous year.
QS: So, is that a concern that you have now?
MERCHANT: Well, obviously, once you’ve won a major award like that you very much want to… you don’t want to let it slip. You don’t want to let the crown slip. So I shall have to work very hard this year to be even funnier. But I have no real intention of doing anything this year in which I perform so my moment’s gone, I think, already.
QS: Or theoretically you could maintain the standard, having nothing to compare it against…
MERCHANT: Exactly. Exactly, yeah.
QS: It’s unfortunate that, even in your moment of triumph, Ricky could snatch it away and make it about him.
MERCHANT: Well, that was a little bit of a joke. I would hate for you to think there was any real animosity between us.
QS: No, clearly it was set up… but still, even then…
MERCHANT: They just gave it to me so they could get him on the show, I think.
QS: Isn’t that the only reason they give it to anyone related to him?
MERCHANT: I think so. They turned up, so I got it.
QS: I was shocked recently to see Ricky nervous on camera - the first I’d ever seen him nervous on anything…
MERCHANT: Was he nervous on that?
QS: No, I was watching the Night of Too Many Stars special they did here in the U.S. …
MERCHANT: Oh okay, yeah.
QS: … where he did a portion of the Politics show. The only time I’ve seen him nervous was in front of an American audience doing stand-up…
MERCHANT: Really? No, I didn’t see that, but I don’t know. I guess he’s stepping into unfamiliar territory there.
QS: I tried to convince him a year and a half ago that he should really get his DVDs out in the States and do the stand-up, since people were bootlegging it over here anyway.
MERCHANT: Yeah, yeah, yeah…
QS: Was the response to the second series of Extras a surprise to you?
MERCHANT: Do you mean for me personally as an actor?
QS: Both as an actor and obviously as a writer of the show. I watched the episodes as they aired a few months back, and it seems like there was a different tone to how people greeted it compared to series one. It seems like people were unsure about how they should respond to the first series, because they were judging it directly against The Office as a comedy piece.
MERCHANT: Yeah, sure.
QS: And it seemed that with the second series, Extras was able to stand on its own.
MERCHANT: I think so, yeah. And consequently I think some people enjoyed it and others said it wasn’t for them. Personally I was very pleased with it. I thought we did a lot of funny stuff in that second series. I had, personally, a great response from people as well. It was a very conscious decision for us to try not to emulate The Office inasmuch as we didn’t want to chase the same kind of pathos and the same emotional investment. We wanted to just have a slightly fluffier, slightly sillier show. And I think for that we sort of succeeded, and I think some people still criticize us for not being as emotionally rich, but that wasn’t really our intention. Our intention was just to have some fun scenes and… yeah, so I was very pleased.
QS: Is there any point where you were… I wouldn’t say concerned, but disappointed in the reaction that Extras was getting, particularly in regards to the tone of the show?
MERCHANT: I wouldn’t say disappointed. I think generally the people that enjoyed it understood exactly what we were trying to do, really, which was just to write some funny comedy. But I think we made it difficult with The Office, in that we had given people maybe a little bit more than they were expecting from a sitcom. That we were giving them a world which they could entirely invest in and a kind of emotional journey. Which is something we very consciously decided not to do with Extras. We just felt we would be judged against ourselves, and why not just give ourselves a bit of time off and just have fun. And bizarrely, we were still judged against ourselves by some people for failing to give them what we’d given them in The Office. And it was like, “Well, we’re not trying to give it to you again.” And I always find that slightly frustrating because you sort of feel like, you know, “Judge the show on its own terms.” Did it make you laugh? If not, fair enough. But please don’t judge it compared with either what we’ve done in the past or what someone else has done, because it seems to defeat the object, really. But that’s just the nature of the beast. My feeling is just to keep making shows and then hopefully you can have a bit of a body of work which in years to come kind of stands on its own two feet, and is not judged chronologically - if you know what I mean. People can just dip in and out of your oeuvre as they see fit. That may seem rather grand, that, but the people I always admired were people with varied careers, with very eclectic stuff in their canon.
QS: It also seemed in the second series that you really came into your own as an actor, as well…
MERCHANT: Yeah, certainly we beefed up my role, and I really enjoyed that, and I had a lot of good feedback from that. That’s something I enjoyed the most, was just getting to play a two dimensional character who looks an awful lot like me and speaks like me. It’s not a great performance in the great works of comedy, but I was quite pleased with myself because I’m quite nervous as a performer. I don’t remember lines very well. I’m often sat down so that I can have the lines printed up around me or hidden under notebooks and stuff. So I was quite pleased that I got away with it.
QS: But compared to how often Ricky will corpse on camera, you look profoundly professional…
MERCHANT: Yeah, the two of us together, sometimes we can barely get anything done. A couple of instances he’d just barely get in the door before I’d be gone. That’s a great… what a great way to spend the day. I know that we’re burning money fast and people are looking at their watches, but to us it’s so much fun. That’s kinda the reason we do it, I think, is because we just enjoy that. One of the reasons I gave myself more of a role is just I really love acting opposite Ricky. I just think we’ve got a natural sort of… I hope a natural sense of each other’s timing and what each other’s gonna do. So that was great fun for me.
QS: Personally, I think you’re being incredibly self-critical to describe the part as such. I think it was an amazing comic performance that you turned in during this past series…
MERCHANT: Thank you. I appreciate that.
QS: And I don’t think that, in particular, you could have pulled off the Robert De Niro scene if you didn’t have the chops to do so…
MERCHANT: Yeah. I think what it is is that I’ve got no… I sort of feel instinctively like I’m quite funny, but I’ve got no real objective opinion of it. Do you know what I mean? As I’m doing it I’ve got no sense of whether I’m doing it right or wrong or funny. I’m very much dependant on Ricky to reassure me and tell me that it’s working. Not because I’m insecure, I just have got no…
QS: No barometer for that?
MERCHANT: Yeah. I cannot tell. And even when we’re in the editing room, I look at my performance and I’m just not really sure what I’m doing.
QS: Is there any point or any scene where you did feel that, “Yes, this is funny…”?
MERCHANT: There were times where I’ll deliver a line in certain way, or at least I’ll feel, “Oh I know what I was trying to do there, and that seems closest to it.” But I’m very dependant on Ricky and the others to guide me on that. I just… I don’t know what it is. And that’s the thing that’s always frustrated me with Ricky; he’s got an amazing sense of always being able to watch himself performing, even as he’s doing it. He’s able to direct himself in that way, and he’ll say, “Oh, that was a bit broad, let me go again. I want to try something else.” And I’m sort of getting there I think, but I do feel like I’m quite dependant on him to steer me along the right path.
QS: I’ve always been curious, since you describe it so much as a footnote, but what was your stand-up career like?
MERCHANT: Well, I went through various phases. The one I was most comfortable with was this kind of conceit that I was a stand-up comedian who, in my own mind, was very successful and big and famous in my home town. But that I was angry and frustrated with the rest of the world because they didn’t know who I was and they hadn’t yet seen my genius. And so it sort of sprung from the idea of, “Could I do a routine in which I never actually did my act?” I was constantly promising an act but never arrived. It may sound more high concept than it probably was. So the idea was I’d come on and I would go, “I’ve got a great act for you. Simply brilliant. I’m a little frustrated with the level of applause at the beginning there. It was just not what I’m used to, so I wonder if we can just maybe do that again. Just really light me up.” And then I come on again and I go, “Yes, okay. But you - you sort of look like you’re being a bit negative.” And so the whole conceit was, you know, I just got more and more angry with the audience that they weren’t a good enough audience, and I wasn’t doing it for their pleasure. It became funny - hopefully it became funnier… the longer I fail to get to my act, the funnier it became and eventually I run out of time and I never actually got to my act.
QS: Isn’t that essentially, in some ways, Darren Lamb?
MERCHANT: To a degree, yeah. To a degree. Although Darren’s actually more pleasant than my character on stage was. I was quite mean spirited. I was quite vindictive and spiteful. I like him because he’s quite harmless. He’s quite a nice bloke. He really seems to be quite optimistic about things. There’s something enormous fun to play a character who’s perennially optimistic about the world, even as he’s failing and things are falling down around him.
QS: It seems like you and Ricky have a tendency to write fish-out-of-water characters…
MERCHANT: Certainly people who are out of their depths.
QS: Yeah, people who profoundly do not belong in the career path they’ve chosen.
MERCHANT: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s party because we… it seems like that’s so truthful about so many people. You endlessly meet people who quite clearly shouldn’t be in the lives that they’re leading. I’ve got a friend who’s a lawyer who constantly bemoans the fact that he’s a lawyer, and is constantly trying to get out from the business, as it were, and it’s like it keeps sucking him back in as though it were something from Carlito’s Way. He’s just a man who… it’s really bizarre, and you think, well, you’ve got to work really quite hard to become a successful lawyer. So he has this sort of double life where secretly he’s going clubbing and stuff and has to disguise and hide this from his other lawyer colleagues who think he’s very straight-laced. It would be a wonderful character because he’s leading this weird double life. That’s the nature of David Brent. He should never have really managed to get to that position in the office. And once he’s there, he’s struggling to remain in that position because it’s just not who he is.
QS: In a lot of the characters it almost seems like they should have stayed in the level just below where they find themselves… sort of like a Peter Principle of comedy.
MERCHANT: Exactly. You’re exactly right. They just overreached a little bit. Although in the case of Darren Lamb I think it’s that he decides one day he’d quite like to be an agent. It was sort of an arbitrary decision. And he’s had some cards printed. And as far as he’s concerned, that’s it. He’s off and running. There’s a guy I went to school with and after our first series of The Office I bumped into him in the street back in my home town and he came up and he said, “I’m thinking of becoming a TV producer, Steve,” and I said, “Oh yeah,” and he went, “Yeah, yeah yeah. Do you need a producer for your show?” I said, “Well no, I’ve got one already.” He went, “Okay.” And this was a completely arbitrary decision. He’d been working as a caretaker the week before, and now he decided, “Well, maybe I’ll do TV producing.”
QS: But, really, I can think of no better prior career to move into producing from…
MERCHANT: Exactly, exactly! Again, it’s that sort of… I don’t know, the perennial optimist who just thinks, “Yeah, I’ll give that a go. Why not?”
QS: The perennial optimist is another recurring theme within the shows you’ve done.
MERCHANT: Yes. Yes. Well, in…
QS: Particularly in the face of overwhelming evidence that they shouldn’t be optimists in a given situation.
MERCHANT: Yeah, quite. Yeah. I think in the case of Extras it was much more… basically, we were doing variations on Laurel & Hardy. An idiot leading slightly less of an idiot. Or the other way around. There’s something about Laurel & Hardy that constantly comes back to us when we’re working and writing. Because they’re such a perfect comic creation that the world they inhabit, their relationship, what they aspire to - I mean, it’s just perfect. They’re two men - one of whom aspires to sort of be dignified and socially accepted, and he’s constantly thinking, “Okay, today’s gonna be my day.” And somehow can’t seem to jettison this dead wood that he carries with him, who constantly drags him back down again. But it’s so warm and they’re so clearly utterly dependant on each other. It’s just a wonderful comic device, really.
QS: Why do you feel, in the face of all this evidence, that Andy would stay with Darren?
MERCHANT: Again, I think it’s because there’s a sort of… I think he’d feel guilty if he left. There’s a strange allegiance he has to him. He’s somehow… he’s almost protecting him by keeping him close because if he cut him loose, he’s almost scared of what would happen to Darren. It’s like he’d flow off into the universe and something terrible would happen. I quite like that, that sense that he’s slightly protective of… that he never really kind of explodes until maybe the final episode.
QS: And then it pretty much resets itself.
MERCHANT: Yeah, and Darren pulls it out of the bag at the last minute, through his charmlessness…
QS: Was that always the intention for that arc of the second series, that there would be this redemption of Darren’s character?
MERCHANT: Well, you can say it’s a very loose arc. But yeah, there’s just something nice about the way that… again, it was… my character’s not a villain. He’s just a bit hopeless, and wouldn’t it be sweet if he was able to sort of magically solve everything without having changed his ways. Just through sheer good fortune and a novelty pen, he’s able to rescue another man’s career.
QS: How different is the writing process, if at all, between The Office and Extras?
MERCHANT: I think we possibly approached it slightly more from the idea of “what are some funny ideas about,” “what are funny things we’ve experienced,” and “what would be a funny idea.” Whereas in The Office it tended to be a little bit more from the character first. It would be, “Okay, what would it be like if David Brent did a job interview?” Whereas sometimes with Extras we will approach, “you’ll never believe what happened to me”… there’s a degree of that in The Office, but yeah, sometimes we think of funny ideas and then we attach them to the show a little bit more, which is a slightly different way of working. But essentially it’s the same, which is us sitting in a room, kinda throwing ideas around and brainstorming and improvising. So it remains roughly the same.
QS: And in the ersatz mirror universe version of The Office that we saw in the second series of Extras, When the Whistle Blows, how close was that to any notes you might have actually gotten from the BBC for The Office?
MERCHANT: That was basically what would’ve happened if we’d made all the wrong decisions and not stuck to our guns. And we were very lucky. I mean, Ricky was in his 40s or late 30s and he just thought, “Well, I’m not gonna compromise this idea I’ve got.” It was very much like the Seinfeld thing where he says, “I’m not going to compromise my artistic integrity.” It really was that with the BBC. It was, “Here’s our vision. I’m not desperate just to be on the TV - let’s do it my way or not.” And they went, “Okay,” and we were slightly shocked. But yeah, whereas obviously with Extras and When the Whistle Blows, it was very much, “What’s the worse thing that can happen all the way down the road for him?” And also because he’s willing to accept it. He could have walked away, but that’s very difficult. It’s difficult to walk away when you’re given an opportunity. So you compromise and it becomes agonizing. So it’s not really born from experience, more from the, you know, there but for the grace of God go us, really.
QS: The knowledge of the way it could have gone.
MERCHANT: As you say, a kind of terrible parallel universe version.
QS: Is there any area that’s a taboo subject for comedy, for you? Anything that’s untouchable?
MERCHANT: Any subject is theoretically valid territory to explore in a comedy. It’s very much how you approach it. And I think if you approach it… let’s say you approach the area of disability, but your intention is to laugh at disability rather than to laugh at attitudes and experiences surrounding disability - that, I think, is not something I’d feel comfortable with. Ricky and I are very careful to talk long and hard about whether we feel we’re exploiting a particular area for laughs, or whether we’re dealing with a subject in the appropriate way. And people would say, “Oh, your comedy’s not politically correct. It’s politically incorrect.” And we never think that’s the case. We’re always very careful to approach these subjects from the right angle, if you know what I mean. So I think generally, hopefully, there’s always an attitude in our work where you can sort of see what, as it were, the right view should be - or as far as we’re concerned - about a particular subject. You see him rolling his eyes at the camera to let you know that David Brent made a fool of himself.
QS: It always struck me that you’re both doing this modern day comedy of manners…
MERCHANT: Well, exactly. I think it’s not… it’s not an intention to shock - it’s that so many areas have been used in comedy and overused and diluted. They’re just not as comic anymore. And, to us, the things that make us laugh are social faux pas… are the fear of walking into a room and embarrassing yourself in front of a room of your peers. I mean, those are concerns which we both find funny and terrifying. Years ago it was always, “Don’t embarrass yourself in front of the vicar, or in front of your boss.” And I think those still remain, but maybe the parameters have shifted slightly, so people are less worried about embarrassing themselves in front of the vicar. But maybe they are anxious about saying the wrong thing in front of a person of color. So, to me, it’s the same old comic tricks, but just with a slightly different emphasis. And those are very genuine anxieties. There’s an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm - I think it’s the first pilot, actually - where he walks past the black guy and he’s very… he sort of nods and says hi and everything. And he says to his friend, “I feel this incredible burden to make it clear I’m not racist around black people. I have to go out of my way to be friendly. To make it clear to them that I’m on their side.” And I think that’s a wonderfully truthful and honest thing about anxieties that so many white liberal people feel.
QS: That you’re perpetually walking in a cultural minefield…
MERCHANT: Yes, because you… what we’re not… people aren’t racists, necessarily, or they’ve no issue about disability, but they don’t necessarily know what the rules are… they don’t know what can they talk about, what can they joke about. Our producer is disabled on The Office. So over time, because you’re very comfortable around his disability, you just joke about it and you make remarks about it just like people would about my height or about Ricky’s weight, or whatever. But obviously to an outsider that may seem like, “Oh my goodness, they’re talking about areas which I wouldn’t be comfortable going into.” So it’s very much about context and about who you know and how you know them and what that sort of shared cultural understanding is. And those are the areas that we’re just fascinated by in comedy. Where there are certain expected ways of behaving, and if you don’t quite understand those rules, or you break them by mistake, hopefully there’s some humor to be had.
QS: And obviously characters like David Brent and Andy Melman are really about overcompensation for their social mores…
MERCHANT: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, there’s the instance where he sees the girl with cerebral palsy and he goes out of his way to pretend to be religious so as not to offend her religious sensibilities, because it’s something which is very important to her. There’s nothing wrong in a sense with pretending to be religious in order to not offend someone, but you’re suddenly being a hypocrite. You’re lying to your own beliefs, and in doing that, you potentially come unstuck. So, to us, that was a fairly… we’ve got a fairly sophisticated point. It wasn’t about laughing at cerebral palsy, it was about laughing at the anxiety someone feels and the way they start to change their ways of behaving, even to the point of attending a prayer meeting and lying in an effort not to offend… and also to try and get off with a woman. But I think that’s quite a sophisticated area to be exploring in comedy. I’m quite proud of it.
QS: I think one of the great things about both The Office and Extras is it sort of expanded the arena, along with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, of what comedy could accomplish in a social context.
QS: As far as addressing, like you said, those sort of unspoken mores and thoughts and beliefs and the way people comport themselves in modern society.
MERCHANT: Exactly, exactly. And I think a lot of those shows where everyone is incredibly right on and politically sensitive, it’s not being very truthful about the way people are. Andy Melman is not a bad man, but he doesn’t always know the right way to behave in certain circumstances. Or sometimes he does, and his friend puts him in it, or sometimes he says the wrong things behind closed doors that he would never say to someone to their face. As we all sometimes do. And then of course he gets caught out. So, to me, that’s just - that’s the way everyone acts. I just think that’s the way people behave. You’re a liar if you never tell a naughty joke or say something a little inappropriate or gossip about someone. I just don’t believe people are like that. Everyone’s something of a hypocrite, really.
QS: I thought it was a bit surprising and a bit disappointing, particularly in the response to the end of the Christmas specials for The Office, how disappointed a portion of the audience was in what they perceived as a happy ending for those characters…
QS: My understanding was that, within the world that was created, as in real life, you can have good moments along with the painfully awkward or bad moments that lead up to it…
QS: It’s interesting how they perceived a lack of realism in what was… I mean, it is real. That sometimes things can happen the “right way”…
MERCHANT: Well, I think there’s a couple things that work, because it wasn’t like we gave them a fairy tale ending. All that David Brent did was stand up, really, to a friend of his that he’d always idolized. I’d like to think that it was the… we’d loaded the significance of that friendship so that when he told his mate to fuck off, that had a huge impact. That suggested he’d grown up a little. But that’s really not a big dramatic moment if you really stop to think about it, in most dramas or TV shows. I think what we were lucky on with The Office was that everything was calibrated down a little. So, in a sense, him just saying that was the same as him striding in and punching him in the face. It had that much impact within that world. But, also, I think that we were never cynical. Some of the things we enjoyed most about The Office were the moments that Tim and Dawn shared, or the moments where Tim’s kind of joking with Gareth and not at him. You know, those moments of affection. We were never condescending to those characters. We liked them and so why weren’t we gonna give them a little bit of Christmas cheer? We liked those people, and in the end it’s a TV show, and I don’t think it betrayed anything. So just give them those little rays of hope.
QS: Was the response surprising to you at all that people would perceive it as, “Oh, they went the Hollywood ending on it…”?
MERCHANT: Well, generally, I haven’t experienced it. I think some people felt that, but I think generally more people have told me how much they loved it and cried. When people tell me that they cried when Dawn came back in, that’s probably my single proudest moment from anything’s we’ve done, because I just think to have been able to manipulate an audience - and that’s what it is, in the end - to be able to manipulate them to the extent that they have a physical reaction I just think is… I’m just so deeply proud of that. I mean, laughter is one thing, but to move someone, I just think… and that’s part of the reason I think Ricky and I are keen to move into drama, because it’s so rewarding as a writer and director to get that feeling of manipulating an audience. Manipulating sounds like you’re being kind of conniving, but…
QS: I know you described it as being a bit broader, and I know you just described Darren as being sort of a two dimensional character, but I think you did achieve moments like that in Extras, as well.
MERCHANT: Well, I think possibly by default, but it certainly wasn’t something that we were chasing, particularly. We did want that occasional moment off affection, particularly between Andy and Maggie. We wanted that sense that they were two people sort of adrift in the world and they only really had each other.
QS: Just the scene of Maggie’s breakdown in the apartment at the end of the first series…
MERCHANT: Yeah, yeah.
QS: I would say that it simply was not just a broad comedy that you two were doing…
MERCHANT: Well, thank you. I think possibly we shied away from that a little in the second series kinda deliberately. But yeah, I think there were moments of that, yeah.
QS: How different did you find it working in the American arena, writing the script for the US Office that aired a few months back?
MERCHANT: Well, we wrote the script quite a while ago, which we then handed to those guys and they pretty much did their work on it, because they had to fit it into the narrative arc. So, actually, what you ended up seeing was far more their work really than ours. But I love the whole process of American TV. I love the way that you have… that someone comes up with an idea and then you sort of put it into this machine, and out the other end comes, hopefully, a work of art. Some kind of work of art machine, which is incredible. And so it was exciting for us, I think, just to sort of put it in one end and see how it came out the other end with it. And so, yeah, we were very pleased with the outcome. We have such… well, I’m particularly a huge fan of the American version. I just think they’re really doing something interesting and particularly brave, I think, on American network TV.
QS: Is there anything you think you’ve left unaccomplished, narratively, with the original version of The Office?
MERCHANT: No. I’m very pleased with it. I wouldn’t want to revisit it, and I feel that it’s there and it’s packaged up in a neat little bow. But what I love with the American version is it’s like I’ve won a competition where I was able to ask talented people to… I’d given the constituent elements of a TV show, and they send it back to me, fully made, fully scripted, with comic actors, in an envelope, once a week, and it’s sort of brilliant in that respect. So what I love about the American one is the way that they move our story on and they expand it into different areas, and I love the fact that Michael Scott’s got a bigger kind of emotional private life and things, which was not an area we really explored sufficiently. And I love seeing how the romantic strands work themselves out. I love seeing the whole thing have a longer life, if you like. A longer life.
QS: Is your view that the Slough Office exists in the same universe as the Scranton Office?
MERCHANT: Well, I sort of feel like ours is preserved in amber now, like a fossil. It’s there, solidified, that final moment of them all having their photo taken is sort of trapped now in time. But yeah, if I had to, then it would be nice to think that they both existed in the same world. And maybe the world of Extras, as well. Maybe it’s some strange weird universe. Parallel universe.
QS: Do you have a feeling that you’ve sort of created a continuity, in some respects?
MERCHANT: Between the American and English version?
QS: I would just say within the work that you’ve done, thematically, do you feel that there are through lines you can look at, in the worlds that you’ve created so far, in those two series?
MERCHANT: Yeah, and I think certainly the plans we’ve got retain the same themes of frustrated ambition and lives of quiet desperation, and people aspiring to things and never achieving them. Those, I think, are the thematic elements that interest us and which I suspect will continue to be in our work. I just think there are some things that are perpetually interesting and perpetually heartbreaking. I’m not particularly interested in things like Lord of the Rings because I don’t see why I need to enter another world with goblins and whatever else in order to have an adventure. I just think there’s enough adventure in this apartment block that I live.
QS: What appeals to you at this point about pursuing more straightforward drama?
MERCHANT: I think it’s the emotional payoff for the audience. I think it’s the way that you can press more buttons than you can with comedy. We did it to a degree in The Office, but I just think there’s a weight off your mind. You don’t have to feel like you’re chasing a laugh when you don’t want to. Still the slight frustration with a sitcom is you sort of are obliged to give the audience a certain comic kick every now and then, when sometimes it’s nice to just not do that. And that’s why I think shows like The Sopranos - obviously everyone cites The Sopranos - but a number of shows like that which manage to be hysterically funny but also… I don’t know, just so much more rich and reward the viewer in ways I think it’s much harder to do in comedy.
QS: And is developing a project like that within the television arena still your intended mode of expression, or are features a path you’re interested in?
MERCHANT: Well, I love TV. I think at the moment, particularly, TV has really managed to make use of what is great about television. The serial episodic element. The returning audience, being able to have a long stretch of episodes that builds up a world and then you can pay things off in a much more grand way. Much more novelistic, I think, in some respects. I think a TV show like The Wire is remarkable in the way that it doesn’t give you the rewards and the beats that you expect from TV. That it demands that you’re not really going to feel satisfied until the 22nd episode or the 12th episode or whatever it might be. And I think there’s nowhere else you can do that. You can’t do that in films even, really, because you’re always slightly prohibited by the length of the film. Whereas with TV you can… I mean, Tony Soprano, as far as I’m concerned, he’s completely real and lives and exists and breathes and has a real life which I’m allowed to kind of eavesdrop on occasionally.
QS: And so how solidified are your plans for whatever these future dramatic exploits might be?
MERCHANT: Not particularly solidified yet. More the sort of solid ambitions, but no actual concrete ideas, really. We’re talking a good talk, but I’m not sure we are necessarily walking the walk.
QS: And to these rumors of another series of Extras? How are things looking on that front?
MERCHANT: Probably not gonna happen at the moment. I don’t know where those rumors came from.
QS: Probably just a hope and belief that surely such a good series will be followed up with another…
MERCHANT: Well, possibly. I think we do get bored very easily and… that’s a terrible thing to say. There’s always that slight itchiness to move onto something else. Although, yeah, it’s a shame that I don’t get to… because I did enjoy playing that character, so that’s the one thing I’ll miss is putting on those bad sweaters.
QS: In the wake of that, have you seen an increase in acting offers? Obviously you have the cameo on 24 coming up…
MERCHANT: This is really not a cameo, this is an extra. This is me walking on and… I’m not even walking on. I’m sat behind a desk and someone hands me a computer disk and I type something. Really, people shouldn’t get excited by that. That’s a bit part.
QS: How did that come about?
MERCHANT: That’s just because I happen to know Joel Surnow, the producer who created that show, because I met him at the Golden Globes, and we sort of stayed in touch. So we went down to visit the set, and he just said, “Look, put this outfit on, and sit behind this desk.” And I was such a fan of the show I couldn’t believe my luck.
QS: Have you seen an increase in offers after Extras, where people are coming to you wanting to hire you as an actor?
MERCHANT: Not particularly, and that’s a constant frustration. I’m expecting the phones to be ablaze, but… I guess it’s Christmas time, maybe.
QS: Now that they read this they’re going to feel completely bad about the fact that they haven’t just beaten down the door.
QS: “I knew he was waiting, we should have called.”
MERCHANT: I’m just sat here by the phone, so it’s just waiting for it to… I should say that what they see me do in Extras is pretty much the limits of my ability. I can do that with slightly different degrees of West Country accent.
QS: I would bet good money that you’re underestimating yourself.
MERCHANT: Well, possibly.
QS: I would even bet American money that you’re underestimating yourself.
MERCHANT: Well, yeah, I’m more than happy for someone to take you up on that.
QS: I’ll just bet Ricky on it.
MERCHANT: Yeah, great.
QS: What are the future plans for the podcast?
MERCHANT: That will probably be put on hold for a little while. We’ve got one more coming out at Christmas, and then hopefully it will… we’ll maybe do occasional ones next year, but I think we’ve exhausted ourselves… or rather we’ve exhausted Karl this year.
QS: So what happens? Do you just put him back in storage after the run ends?
MERCHANT: Well, in a sense, we just have to let him go back out there and he has to go and play with some insects and dig up some worms and whatever it is he does with his time. And hopefully he’ll recharge his batteries and we can just present him to the world again.
QS: Is it difficult to call him back in and get him back into performing shape?
MERCHANT: Well he’s not really a performer… I mean, it’s not really a performance. It’s just him opening his mouth. That’s the remarkable thing about him. He’s a never-ending well of comic gems.
QS: Have you noticed a change in him over the past couple of years at all?
MERCHANT: Only a frustration at the level of attention. He doesn’t relish it. He doesn’t like it. He finds it unnatural. That’s why Ricky’s constantly trying to persuade people to make him more famous, just to annoy him.
QS: He’s become, what, this figure of graffiti across the U.S.?
MERCHANT: I know… It’s amazing, isn’t it? Just amazing. That really is the power of the internet. It’s making him into a kind of currency that people share. I get asked more about Karl when I’m in the States than anything else. It’s extraordinary.
QS: He’s become the new Kilroy.
MERCHANT: Exactly. Exactly, yeah. Whatever happened to Kilroy? Kilroy was here, apparently.
QS: It was stunning to see… Although anyone who makes a comment about eating a knob at night…
QS: …really kinda deserves the infamy that they achieve.
MERCHANT: Quite, absolutely, yeah. But I think that will certainly be something that Ricky and I are most proud of when we look back on our lives.
QS: But what happens to him when your influence is gone? Does he just sort of go back into limbo…
MERCHANT: This is what we’re all waiting to find out. Yeah, who knows?
QS: Is there a level with Karl?
MERCHANT: Is there a level with him?
QS: Yeah, as far as, what’s Karl’s natural level when you don’t observe him? Kind of like Schrödinger’s Karl.
MERCHANT: Right. If no one’s looking at him, what’s going on? Probably not a great deal, actually. It’s an interesting question. I think he seems very happy in his own world. In my mind he’s… whenever we’re not there, he’s like… is it Linus? Is that the character in Peanuts who just sat in the sandpit playing with sand? With his little towel?
QS: Yes, that’s Linus.
MERCHANT: In my mind Karl is just perpetually sat in a sand pit, just happily making sandcastles. Occasionally being distracted by a wasp or a fly. That’s my default vision of Karl.
QS: So, really, there’s no kinetic motion.
MERCHANT: No. It’s just happy in his own mind, in his own universe, like a young child would be.
QS: Just a man perpetually affected by outside forces.
MERCHANT: Yeah, just waiting for things to stimulate him. Yeah. Passing children throwing things at him. A tennis ball bonks off his head and he considers that for a moment. And then he looks up at the sun and he realizes he can’t really look at the sun because it’ll burn his eyes so he looks away and that gives him a moment of thought which lasts an hour.
QS: It’s almost like watching a frozen picture of evolution.
MERCHANT: Yes. Exactly. It’s frozen at the point… someone across the way has just invented fire, and Carl can just see something flickering in the distance and he’s wondering what it is, but not really gonna bother to wander over there and look.
QS: No. Because a part of him doesn’t want to know.
QS: Why bother with the natural order of things?
MERCHANT: Yeah, why bother. You’re messing with stuff. We don’t need fire. We’ve got by fine without it. It looks dangerous.
QS: Food is fine raw.
MERCHANT: Exactly. We got by fine like that. We don’t need fire to digest.
QS: It’s amazing to discover an archetype like that still in existence.
MERCHANT: And that’s why I think he captured people’s imaginations, because I think once they listen to one conversation with him, everyone knows how Karl’s going to react. They don’t know what he’s going say. They can never imagine the angle from which he’s going to approach something. But they sort of understand the way his mind is going to work. They know it’s not gonna be the obvious approach. And so he’s perfect in that respect.
QS: What’s the moment that perfectly encapsulates Karl for you?
MERCHANT: This is a quote I read that apparently he said on one of his shows. I don’t remember him saying it, but it’s on one of the websites and I assume it was real, which was, “What are those things in the film Gremlins called?” And that just seems to capture it, really. He’s got some of the facts, but he’s not really processed them. There’s a sense of inquiry, there’s a sense of intrigue. He’s intrigued by these Gremlin things he’s heard about.
QS: It’s almost like a mental version of the film Groundhog Day.
MERCHANT: Yeah, exactly.
QS: It’s like there’s a reset button every day, and it’s the same Karl as yesterday that comes in.
MERCHANT: Exactly, exactly. (laughing) Nothing we taught him or spoke to him has gone in and stayed there.
QS: It makes you wonder where the arresting point was. At what point did he stop and there’s a fully formed Karl?
MERCHANT: I think it was probably around the age of 15 or 16. And then he just stopped.
QS: I really wonder what would happen if you two had never found him.
MERCHANT: Well, yeah. Here we are. Exactly. I’m sure someone could write quite an interesting theory piece on that.
QS: I’m surprised that Ricky hasn’t.
MERCHANT: Yeah, absolutely.
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