He may be so tall that strangers use him as a landmark, but Stephen Merchant’s comedy career has always been in a certain someone else’s shadow.
But his debut stand-up DVD is entirely down to his own efforts, sharing no limelight – or indeed royalties – with ‘you-know-who’ . And on this evidence, he proves himself a stronger comedian than Ricky Gervais, whose most recent live show, Science, was a disappointment.
Superficially, there are the occasional similarities in what they do – but the differences speak much louder. Both, for example, boast about their Golden Globes, but Gervais does so with a high-status swagger into which you have to read any irony; Merchant does it with the desperation of a low-status character desperate to impress.
And impressing is what Hello Ladies is all about; Merchant’s quest to find the long-term relationship that has so far eluded him, despite the trappings of fame. For, as the hilarious cuttings he uses in the show prove, celebrity status has not conferred him with any level of respect.
Such desperation forms the basis of a ‘sympathetic loser’ persona which perfectly befits his tales of his romantic and social failings. But it persists even when he goes off topic on to more general observational subjects such as the availability of pornography, inappropriate text abbreviations and, erm, Venn diagrams. Sometimes the content of such sections plays out as you would expect, but his endearing delivery goes a long way. And he has the clumsy, trying-too-hard-to be suave turn of phrase down to a tee.
On screen, Merchant always seems to play placid, a benignly grinning, slightly awkward dolt. Here the awkwardness is still present, but the performance is a lot more physical, as he uses both the stage of the Oxford New Theatre and his own expressive face to great effect. The deployment of a close-up camera for one routine is one of the most primally funny images you’ll see on any of this year’s batch of stand-up DVDs.
An encore offers a change of pace as he conducts a ‘bad play’ from his student days with a couple of audience volunteers. It’s not as strong as his stand-up, and slightly too long, but still provides laughs from the desperate earnestness of the situation.
Hello Ladies has been one of the stand-out tours of the autumn, and the DVD shines just as strongly.
- Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies is out on Universal DVD today. Click here to buy from Amazon for £12.94.