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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

My worst moment: Before Stephen Merchant was famous for ‘The Office,’ his stand-up comedy act sometimes bombed

Stephen Merchant during the
By Nina Metz Chicago Tribune

In “The Outlaws,” the British series created by and starring Stephen Merchant (now in its second season on Amazon), a group of people guilty of minor crimes must take part in a community service program in Bristol — only they somehow find themselves caught up in a scenario far more complicated than they anticipated. Christopher Walken also stars.

“When I first got into the business,” Merchant said, “I remember someone at the BBC saying to me: ‘In a good comedy or good drama, you should chase your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them.’ So Season 1 was chasing them up the tree and Season 2 is throwing rocks at them and anything else we can find lying around. Really turning up the heat. The stakes are higher, and the jeopardy and the threats are more extreme.”

Merchant first gained fame as the co-creator of the original British version of “The Office” with Ricky Gervais. He and Gervais teamed up again on “Extras” and “Life’s Too Short.” As an actor, Merchant also starred in his own series “Hello Ladies” and his other on-screen credits include everything from “The Big Bang Theory” to “Modern Family” to the X-Men film “Logan.”

When asked to share a worst moment in his career, well, there’s some irony there: Merchant creates symphonies of cringe for his fictional characters. What does it look like when that happens to him in real life?

“The most agonizing one was bombing on stage as a comedian,” he said.

Here’s that story.

My worst moment …

“When I first did stand-up, I hit upon this character who — the idea was that he was an arrogant comedian from my hometown of Bristol. This was probably in 2000. So I would come on stage and I would immediately take against the audience and decide that they weren’t showing me enough respect. I would say: ‘I don’t like the way you’re looking at me, the applause wasn’t big enough — I’m going to come on again and you’re gonna clap louder.’ And the whole joke of the bit was that I kept promising this dynamite stand-up act that I never got to because I kept getting distracted.

“The whole joke was a meta-comment, I guess, on stand-up comedy and egos. Without naming names, there was a comedian I’d seen once, when I was first starting out, who went on stage and read out a newspaper interview (laughs) about himself to the audience. And I remember thinking, wow, there’s an arrogance there!

“So that was the idea. And when it went well, it was the best because the audience got it. And the more of a (jerk) I was, the harder they laughed and it was just giddy, it was so much fun. At the end, I would say, ‘OK, look: You don’t like me, I don’t like you — I’m going to leave. And if you see me in the bar, don’t look at me, don’t talk to me.” So I would walk to the wings of the stage, wait for a beat and then walk back on and say, ‘I can’t get out that way.’ And I would have to walk through the crowd. And it was so much fun because they were on my side, they knew the gag, and the more awkward I made it, the funnier it became.

“But sometimes (laughs) the audience thought I really was an arrogant comedian. They did not get the joke. And then I was in trouble. Then I was really in trouble.

“One time in Exeter, which is maybe two hours from Bristol, I came on and I started the act and I immediately knew I was in trouble. Sometimes if it was not going great, maybe half the room was on board. But there was no one on board. I think it was 300 people and not a single person was going for this.

“And someone shouted a line that I thought only happened in movies, which was: ‘Call a taxi for the comedian!’ The whole thing went off a cliff.

“And the problem was, I didn’t have an act. That was my act! I’d probably been inspired by Andy Kaufman, it was that sort of thing. It was very conceptual. So the problem was, I couldn’t fall back on my other material because I didn’t have other material. I didn’t have anything!

“So it just kept getting worse and worse. And you didn’t get paid if you didn’t finish your 20 minutes, so I had to stay up there for 20 minutes. And I remember when I came off, the guy who ran the club said, ‘What you need is gag, gag, gag.’ And I was like, ‘I understand what comedy is about, friend.’

“So I’m walking out — pretty much like my character, who is supposed to be walking out in discomfort and shame — but instead of them laughing about it, I’m walking off in real embarrassment and shame.

“I was so crushed. And I remember calling my agent and saying, ‘I’m never doing stand-up again. You have to get me out of all future gigs. I can never go on stage again.’ And him saying, ‘Well, we booked you into this other gig,’ and I was like, ‘If they didn’t get it in Exeter, they’re never going to get it in regional provinces — this is too artsy, it’s too sophisticated, they’re never going to get it!’ And he was like, ‘Well, they paid upfront, you gotta do it.’

“And as I was leaving the club, one of the waitresses came up and she said: ‘I’m here every week, I see all the comedians who come through and I thought that was really funny. I totally got what you were doing. It was hilarious. Well done. Keep going.’ She was the only branch, as I was falling, that I could cling onto.

“So I got on the train and I went to the next gig. And I stayed in this little bed-and-breakfast and the next day I was thinking: I can’t do this act again tonight. It’s gonna bomb and I’m going to feel horrible. And I remember going to see ‘Scary Movie,’ which is a funny movie, but I could not laugh because I was in such a bad place. What am I doing with my life? Why am I so far from home?

“And then I went on that night in this other venue, it crushed! I was like, what’s going on (laughs)?”

How long into the act would Merchant know if an audience was getting the joke or not?

“Normally they need to get it within the first three or four minutes. And you could tell from the reaction to a few initial bits whether they were tuning into it.

“Some nights it was just a little flat; they got it, but they weren’t totally into the idea but they sort of went with it anyway. And there were nights where it just blew the roof off. And then there were nights like this, where there was not a peep. Just anger. And hate. Like: ‘We came out tonight, went spent money here, what are you doing?’

“When it’s going well, those 20 minutes go by in a flash and you want to stay on forever. And when it’s going badly, time slows down and every minute feels like an hour. You get that feeling in your stomach, like when you think a doctor might give you bad news or you think someone might break up with you. You can sense something’s coming that is not good and you’re anxious about it and your gut is telling you. All of that — the sweating — it’s all happening.”

There’s a real discipline involved in sticking it out when you’re falling apart inside.

“That’s right. It’s entirely ‘stick it out’ because you’re trying to be professional.

“And there’s part of you that thinks, maybe they’ll suddenly get it? Like a ripple of laughter might start?

“But you also start to slightly drift outside yourself, like you’re looking down at the experience. So I remember being very aware of the environment and how absurd it was. You know how in movies, it’ll start in a house and the camera will zoom up and it’ll come out of the ceiling of the house and then you’ll be looking at the house, then the street, then the neighborhood, then the city, then the country, then you’re up in the cosmos looking back the globe? It felt like that. Like I was pulled out and I was looking back down and thinking: What a weird thing this is that humans gather in a room and another human gets on stage and tries to amuse them. It all felt very surreal and strange. Why are they here? Why am I here? It was an existential crisis.

“And I knew, for the next gig, I couldn’t change my act. If you’re a guy who does funny observations about the differences between men and women, you can probably try and think of some new observations pretty quick. But it’s much harder when it’s this conceptual act — what, are you suddenly going to write 20 minutes of jokes in an afternoon? Maybe some people could do it, but I certainly couldn’t.

“And I knew my act had worked some of the time. It had worked. It was just, some audiences got it and some didn’t.

“I eventually stopped doing stand-up because I got busy with TV, and when I went back to it, I tried to do that act again. But by this time I was slightly well-known and it didn’t work for a different reason: They didn’t buy it because they knew who I was and they just thought I was arrogant because I was on TV.

“So it didn’t die in the same way, but it didn’t really land. Funnily enough, that’s when I had to rebuild the act from the ground up.”

The takeaway …

“They say never blame the audience, it’s always you. And I’m like, maybe sometimes it is the audience, you know?

“Or maybe what it’s about is finding the right audience. Not every audience is your audience. But your audience might be out there. Not everybody is going to be a fan and not everybody is going to love everything you do. So you just have to plow your own furrow — and maybe there will be enough waitresses out there, as it were, that will find it funny and you’ll find an audience.

“The other thing it gave me was: Once you’ve bombed that bad, you’re sort of a little bit fearless for a while because it was awful, but I survived. No one punched me. It was just embarrassing and I left and never saw those people again and I went on with my life. So in a way, you go back a bit recharged — not seeking out that feeling again, but being aware that if it comes, you’ll get through it.”