By Jessica Gelt
9:30 AM CDT, September 13, 2013
In mid-August, the British comedian and actor Stephen Merchant went to a party at fellow comedian Sarah Silverman's house. It was a jovial scene, populated by a who's who list of L.A.'s funniest people. Merchant ate some chocolate of questionable provenance that turned out to have weed in it.
Suddenly he found himself confronting "the existential nothingness of the cosmos." He went to the bathroom but failed to be sick. Next he tried to go outside to get some air and walked directly into a glass window, completely shattering it.
"In retrospect, it was a brown-colored glass; it wasn't even transparent," Merchant recalls ruefully, pointing to a cut on his head on a recent afternoon over lunch in the old animation building at Disney Studios in Burbank. "I think because my feet are so big they hit it first, and so the rest of me was relatively undamaged. Just 300 of Hollywood's elite looking at me, and I'm stoned out of my mind. I had no idea what was going on."
Hilarious accidents trail Merchant like swirls of cosmic dust around a metaphysical Pig-Pen from "Peanuts." But rather than dwell on the sour side of his luck, Merchant is making a bid to turn a fictionalized version of his painfully awkward persona into comic gold with his new show "Hello Ladies," which premieres Sept. 29 on HBO.
Shortly after telling the Silverman party story, Merchant spills some of his soda on his shirt and says, "Look at this! Didn't I tell you? I cannot eat or drink without.... It's crazy. And in a sense this summarizes what the show is all about, which is the disjuncture between the person you'd like to be and the person you are. You know, I'd like to be James Bond, but I'm clearly not."
Not only does Merchant star in "Hello Ladies," he also serves as director and executive producer alongside fellow producers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky.
Merchant rose to fame as the co-creator of the British version of "The Office" alongside Ricky Gervais. Making the move to leading man is a significant step into the spotlight for Merchant, who is used to being largely behind the scenes as a radio personality and co-host of "The Ricky Gervais Show."
"Hello Ladies" is adapted from Merchant's stand-up comedy routine of the same name. In it, Merchant plays the character of Stuart, a socially inept Web designer who moved from England to L.A. in hopes of living the Hollywood dream and finding his dream girl in the process.
After the first few episodes, it becomes impossible to believe that Stuart will ever snag a woman. His weapons-grade lack of tact coupled with his obsession with perfect-10 models who would rather eat three square meals a day than date him make his quest seem hopeless.
Watching Stuart tumble from a high stool into a table of drinks at a popular Hollywood club, or sing "Born to Be Wild" to a trio of smoking-hot actresses while popping out of the top of a stretch limousine that is making a slow and graceless three-point turn is the stuff of social nightmares. But it's funny as can be.
Merchant, 38, is 6-foot-7 and wire thin. He has big, bespectacled eyes and a slightly messy mop of dirty blond hair. Slouching a bit in his chair, he resembles a larger-than-life cartoon character — his limbs long and loose, his face animated as he describes the time he stepped in dog feces on his way into a wedding.
"I remember thinking in that moment that there's no way that this ever happens to George Clooney," he exclaims. "There's something about the cosmos that's working against people like me. If dog … sees George Clooney's feet, it just stays away. It knows, it's like, 'No, no, no, that's George Clooney. Look at this lanky British guy, we'll get on his feet.'"
Then there was the time his fly broke at the Golden Globes just as he walked by Pierce Brosnan, and the time he cut his hand badly at the glass store while pretending to be a competent working-class handyman type. But his funniest stories involve his failures with women, and it's these that he has parlayed (with varying degrees of fictionalized flourish) into the scripts of "Hello Ladies."
"You think that if you get on TV, or you become a celebrity or whatever, that a door is opened and people lead you through to this alternative reality, but it's not the case, of course," laments Merchant, insisting that while things are good for him career-wise, he still has trouble with the ladies. "I think I'm superficially charming. For the first couple of dates I've got some anecdotes, but once you scratch below the surface you realize that I got nothin'. I'd get bored of me."
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