Interview: Stephen Merchant at the Union

Jack Whitehead 30 January 2016

Stephen Merchant, co-writer of The Office and Extras (in which he also acts), roused the Cambridge Union Society on Wednesday with his anecdotal humour and self-depreciating manner. Over the course of the event Merchant covered such disparate topics as comedy vicars, celebrity culture, and Donald Trump, all in his distinctive voice so instantly recognisable to gaming fans of Portal 2 and the robotic core Wheatley that he brought to life: “That's, uh… God. I was quoting God."

Merchant offered comedy but not at the expense of insight. Academically astute enough to have enrolled at Cambridge – something that never happened, despite the three As he achieved at A-level, because of his teacher’s dissuasion – Merchant spoke fluently about his craft whilst simulatenously demonstrating it.

Whether discussing the difference between American and British humour, the censorship of comedy, the difference between writing and acting, or even just the comedic arts in general, the writer/actor/presenter offered considered opinion interspersed with wit and dramatic story telling, reluctant to garner tired and repetitive comedy at Trump’s expense, despite the audience’s apparent insistent considering the number of questions asked about the Republican candidate.

Offering discussion of a more reasoned nature on the anti-intellectualism apparent in the presidential race in comparison to the first leaders of America, Merchant also spoke seriously on the absurdity of celebrity culture, seeming to convey a disillusion at finding himself in the deep end of Hollywood; a situation that nonetheless offers comedic gold in the form of embarrassing celebrity encounters. Yet, laying bare ideas of aspiration to celebrity, Merchant dips out of comedy for a moment to note that ‘all your demons stay with you’.

When speaking with Merchant after the event, the perceptiveness evidently behind his finely crafted comedic writing becomes even more apparent. Expressing an interest in having studied philosophy at Cambridge if he had attended, Merchant offers his thoughts on hard-line politicians and their appeal to those disillusioned with the current state of political affairs both here and in America.

“They fill this gap for people who feel they are not being spoken to. There’s been this groundswell of support for the outsiders.”

Ever the pursuer of comedy, Merchant muses that “it’s quite fun to see”, stating he’d like to see Corbyn in power “for a week or so”. He claims he’s not cynical about politics, although he did descibe the mutable political scene as “like moving chairs on the titanic”.

Consideration comes across in his attitude towards creative production as well. Spurred on by his enjoyment of both the American and the British versions of The Office, Merchant describes his recent realisation that “it’s so hard to do anything, just to even write the end, to make a thing that exists. The idea that you would dismiss something in three hundred snotty words in a review just seems to me crazy. I’m almost uncritical of everything now.”

This valuation of hard work comes up again when asked about award shows. Comparing them to their “equally absurd” corporate equivalents, Merchant laments the “great impact [they have] on the industry":

“For me, it’s nice to put on a tuxedo and go to an awards ‘do’. But the novelty of that does quickly wear off. The novelty of sitting in a room writing has never worn off. In the end, almost everyone I’ve ever met in Hollywood, if they’re having real success, they’re working really hard, and it’s not working hard to walk up a red carpet.”

Running out of time, I ask Merchant – who’s been slipping in jokes all night – whether he feels compelled to be funny? He replies with a comparison of tonight’s event with live comedy:

“If I’m doing a stand-up show and you’ve paid to come and see me, I feel an obligation to make you laugh. In something like this, I was asked to come, and no one told me that there was any kind of prescription about what the evening should be. If I can share with you some funny stories that occur to me then I will, but not since the age of about twenty-five have I felt the urge to make people laugh when I am off ‘duty’.”

Merchant doesn’t seem to stop working however. As we wrap up he calls back to the night’s event, claiming “I would much rather have a civilised conversation about Donald Trump.” That the juxtaposition of ‘civilised’ and ‘Trump’ constitutes a joke reveals the indistinguishable nature of Merchant’s humour and his job; apparently he’s always in the office.