British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy
Merchant co-created the British Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. His new show, The Outlaws, is about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. He spoke with producer Sam Briger about what inspired the new series, his best writing advice, and how being very tall (6'7") has informed his personality.
Other segments from the episode on May 10, 2022
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Stephen Merchant is best known for co-creating, with Ricky Gervais, the incredibly influential British comedy "The Office." Merchant has a new show on Amazon Prime called "The Outlaws" about a group of misfits in Bristol, England, who have to complete court-ordered community service. Our producer Sam Briger spoke with Stephen Merchant last week. Here's Sam.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Comedian, writer, director and actor Stephen Merchant found inspiration for his new show "The Outlaws" from his parents, who supervised people sentenced to community service for more minor criminal offenses. He also set the show in his hometown of Bristol, England. Merchant plays a hapless, recently divorced lawyer caught by police in his car with a sex worker. Among the other outlaws is a small-time criminal played by the always great Christopher Walken. Merchant co-created the show with Elgin James, and it's been picked up for a second season. Along with "The Office," Stephen Merchant co-created, with Ricky Gervais, the show "Extras" and had his own HBO series "Hello Ladies." He can also be seen playing a mutant superhero in the movie "Logan" and a Gestapo agent in "Jojo Rabbit."
But let's start with a scene from the new show. Here, the six outlaws have shown up for their first day of community service and are meeting their supervisor Diane, played by Jessica Gunning. The second voice you'll hear is Stephen Merchant's.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OUTLAWS")
JESSICA GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) Some people think that community payback is an easy option, a soft touch. News flash - it ain't. You will repay your debt to society by working the number of hours mandated by the court. My name is Diane Pemberley. I'm your supervisor, and I could be a good guy or a mean bastard - your choice.
STEPHEN MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Good guy, please.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) You don't choose.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) You said it was our choice.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) It was a figure of speech.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) It wasn't entirely clear.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) Are you a troublemaker?
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) No, no, definitely not.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) When I call your name, say here. John Halloran.
DARREN BOYD: (As John Halloran) Here - shouldn't be.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) Frank Sheldon.
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) What's the agenda, Brenda?
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) Christian Taylor.
GAMBA COLE: (As Christian Taylor) Yo.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) OK, what are you people not getting? Just say here. Myrna Okeke.
CLARE PERKINS: (As Myrna Okeke) Here in body, not in spirit.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) I don't even know what that means. Gregory Dillard.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Yeah, that's me.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) Just say here.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Yeah, here. Yeah, here.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) Rani Rekowski.
RHIANNE BARRETO: (As Rani Rekowski) Here.
GUNNING: (As Diane Pemberley) Thank you.
BRIGER: So that's a scene from the new show "The Outlaws," co-created by my guest, Stephen Merchant. Stephen Merchant, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MERCHANT: Well, thank you so much for having me. So honored to be here.
BRIGER: So, like I said, the show is, in part, inspired by your parents. So they supervised community service.
MERCHANT: They supervised community service offenders - as they used to refer to them - as you say, in my hometown of Bristol. And even as a sort of teenager, I always thought it was an interesting world because my mother would tell me about the sorts of people that come through the door, and they were always such a varied bunch.
I remember she told me about an old guy who was caught stealing cabbages and other vegetables from people's garden allotments. And she realized that he was coming back constantly and that he sort of just liked the social aspect and was sort of getting himself arrested to then get community service to then come back each year. And, I mean, why he didn't join, you know, a sort of - I don't know - an amateur dramatics society or something? But - and then there was a guy I went to school with who was the world's laziest thief. He once got caught breaking into a house to steal a TV. And the homeowners came back, and they said, Dave, what are you doing? And he went, I'm not Dave. And they went, yeah, you are. You live next door. And he was breaking into his own neighbor's house. I mean, he didn't even go a block over.
And so my mother would tell me about these people. And I just thought, what an interesting bunch, you know, of people that would never normally associate or encounter each other in any other walk of life. And for some reason, that parked itself in my head. And it's been there ever since, until we made the show.
BRIGER: So was that your parents' main job, or did they volunteer for that or...
MERCHANT: My father began as a plumber and went through various jobs but, yeah, sort of settled into the community service world sort of later in life, as did my mother, who'd got a sort of job and then sort of brought him in. It was a bit of nepotism, I think. She'd sort of got him a job there. And that was what they did, really, until they retired, yeah. And so it sort of was - you know, they were very tangentially involved with law and order. And I've always wanted to do a show that sort of got a thriller-y (ph) aspect, a crime aspect, and it seemed like an interesting sort of backdoor way into a crime story.
BRIGER: Are your parents still both alive?
MERCHANT: They're both still alive, long since retired. My mother proudly says that that character you played there, Diane, played by Jessica Gunning, who is very much a kind of butt of jokes in the show - my mother proudly says, oh, it's based on me. It's based on me.
BRIGER: Yeah, well, that was my question. It seemed like it was not necessarily the most flattering portrayal of someone doing the job your parents had.
MERCHANT: Well, it's not my mother at all. It's just - it is the job that she used to do. But, of course, it's a lot more fun to make the character, you know, a sort of would-be authoritarian who's got no real power but thinks they have. It's a much funnier way to do it. My mother, I think, was just - was much more - didn't have that kind of ego, just kind of got on with the job.
BRIGER: So do you have a bone to pick with middle managers? I sort of sense a trend through some of your writing.
MERCHANT: (Laughter) Do I have a - no, I don't have a bone to pick with middle managers specifically, but I'm endlessly fascinated by kind of people whose ego is corrupted, if you like, by a little bit of power. And that's endlessly interesting to me. I don't know why ego is constantly fascinating. And I think so much of ego is borne out of insecurity. And I'm always interested in, what are the insecurities that people have that sort of turns them into monsters?
BRIGER: Well, your character Greg is a bit of a sad sack. He's a nice guy but socially awkward and terrible at his job as a lawyer. Why is that the character you wrote for yourself? What do you like about playing that kind of role?
MERCHANT: Well, I regret that because I feel like I've typecast myself again as a sort of awkward loser, which I've played many times before. I could have given myself a - you know, as I am one of the creators, I could have given myself a sort of James Bond...
BRIGER: Yeah, I agree. You could have been the romantic lead or something.
MERCHANT: ...Debonair guy in a tuxedo. But I always wanted that character in there. I was fascinated by the idea - in fact, I sort of know someone who's a little like this, who sort of woke up at middle age and found themselves to be a lawyer and thought, how did I get here? I never wanted to be a lawyer. You know, I wanted to be in a band or something. And I love the idea of someone who's drifted into law. You think - it doesn't seem like a job you can drift into. But he'll - by his own admission, is someone who did a lot of his research, you know, through Wikipedia.
And so that seemed interesting to me - you know, someone who, on the surface, has a respectable job but is just clinging on by their fingernails and doesn't really know what they're doing and sort of sweet talk their way through it. And that character was always in the script. And then if you've got me on set anyway, why am I going to cast someone to play that character? I may as well do it myself. It's very much in my wheelhouse. And so I ended up putting on another bad suit and playing it.
But you're right that it is - it's a lot of fun to play and it's a lot of fun to play someone who's kind of socially awkward and who, you know, is drawn into a crime world and is sort of the nervous - you know, the nervous character - doesn't really want to be there. One of my big early comedy influences was Bob Hope, and I always loved that idea of the character who sort of has to sort of - you know, the coward in a dangerous situation is endlessly amusing to me.
BRIGER: Well, among yourself, you have a lot of other great people in the cast, including Christopher Walken. And I read that he was your first choice for this role. Why did you want him in particular?
MERCHANT: We always had the idea of a character who feels a bit like a sort of "Man Who Fell To Earth." He seems exotic, little bit glamorous. And I think, certainly for a show set in the U.K., the idea of an American, even just one American, being in that world seems quite glamorous and, it being Christopher Walken, even more so. And - but the idea being that on the surface, he seems mysterious and sort of exotic. And then when you sort of peel beneath the surface, he's just another sort of petty criminal and small person, if you like.
And the idea of sort of playing with that and the expectations that someone like Walken brings to the audience and sort of undermining it or starting to peel it away seemed very interesting. And so he also is able to do - you know, he can be funny, but he can also be scary, but he can be sweet, and he can be funny. And, you know, Christopher's got a lot of sort of, you know, things in his armory. And so there's a kind of - there's so many elements that you can play with when you're playing with someone who's sort of iconic in that way.
BRIGER: Well, let's hear a scene with you and Christopher Walken from "The Outlaws." I'll just set this up a little bit. Walken and two of the others who are mandated to do community service have been in this abandoned building. And they've found a big suitcase of cash. And they suspect, like, it's stashed drug dealer money, and they want to split it up among themselves. But Walken says, you know, we can't just start spending this. We're going to have to launder it. They don't know how to launder money. So they pull you aside in this scene because you're a lawyer, and they want to see if you can help them out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OUTLAWS")
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) How can the big man help?
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) Can we ask you a hypothetical legal question?
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) OK.
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) Imagine a lovely, sweet old lady finds a large bag of cash.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) What's her name?
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) Beryl.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) And where did Beryl find this money?
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) She found it at the bottom of the garden.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Sounds unlikely.
BOYD: (As John Halloran) Yeah, well, Beryl's a lucky old cow. What are you going to do?
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) Beryl is not a wealthy woman, and this money could help her out of all kinds of financial jams. So she comes to you. You're her lawyer. She says, Greg, I need to wash this cash pronto, and I need a paper trail that makes it look legit.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Beryl sounds a bit shifty.
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) No, she's a sweetheart. You'd like her.
PERKINS: (As Myrna Okeke) What would you do?
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) I'd say, thanks for coming in, Beryl. Always a pleasure to see you. But I can't help you with this, obviously, because you're talking about money laundering, which is a major crime, and we both go to jail.
PERKINS: (As Myrna Okeke) To which Beryl says, yeah, right, absolutely. But theoretically, what would you do?
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Well, theoretically, Beryl, we'd need to funnel it through some kind of shell company.
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) Smart. And how would you do that?
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Well, I'd use an existing client's account at my law firm, like Lady Gabby's.
PERKINS: (As Myrna Okeke) How does that work?
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) I'd have Julie in the accounts department pay the money into Lady Gabby's account and then have Julie issue you a check.
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) Greg, I knew you're the man to turn to. I want you to do that for me.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) As I said, Beryl, I can't because it's money laundering.
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) Greg, do you remember when you told us about how you forged signatures on legal documents, that you covered up chaos that's full of evidence of your total incompetence and professional negligence? You want me to call your boss right now, tell him all about that?
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Is this still Beryl talking? Are you Beryl?
WALKEN: (As Frank Sheldon) Yeah.
MERCHANT: (As Gregory Dillard) Beryl?
PERKINS: (As Myrna Okeke) Yeah.
WALKEN: (As Gregory Dillard) Beryl?
BOYD: (As John Halloran) Yeah.
BRIGER: That's a scene from "The Outlaws," which is co-created by my guest, Stephen Merchant. That scene includes the great Christopher Walken. And, you know, Stephen, a lot of people do, like, Walken impressions, you know, imitating, like, his idiosyncratic rhythm of his dialogue. But, you know, listening to that clip, I noticed just how melodic his voice is.
MERCHANT: Well, he's spoken, I think, about how he - punctuation, to him, is a detrimental thing. If he obeys the punctuation too much, for him, it feels like it interrupts the sort of rhythm of speech. And I think for him, he almost sort of ignores that, and it gives him a sort of - I don't know what the word is - almost like a sort of - like an improvised, jazz-like quality that sort of - that, you know, the notes are sort of in unexpected places. There's a different kind of rhythm and cadence to it. And it makes it intriguing, and I think it makes you lean in, you know, as a viewer. It's unique.
BRIGER: Well, we need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, our guest is Stephen Merchant, whose new show on Amazon Prime is "The Outlaws." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CURE SONG, "IN BETWEEN DAYS")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with comedian, writer, director and actor Stephen Merchant, who co-created the British comedy "The Office." His new show is a comedy thriller on Amazon Prime called "The Outlaws." Well, the show is part comedy, part thriller. And I was wondering, when you were writing it, was it at all a challenge to sort of find the right balance of humor?
MERCHANT: The idea of mixing humor and drama and thriller seems perfectly acceptable to me. I feel like my life, you know, it's had its dark moments and its tragic moments, and it's had, you know, humorous moments within the same breath, you know. And simple things - like, I remember going to my grandmother's funeral, and, you know, it was a very somber day. And yet I'm in the hearse on the way to the graveyard, and I can hear the reverend and the driver discussing something through the glass. And the driver says, do you drive, reverend? And the reverend says, no. I had to choose between drinking and driving. I chose drinking. And they started laughing.
I just thought, well, of course, because it's another day at the office for them. But for us, it was a very sad and somber day. And that juxtaposition, I suppose, of sort of tragedy and humor, feels like it's been shot through - I - that feels to me sort of my interpretation of the world. And so to me, those things sitting side by side seem completely normal, whereas I think for other people, they can seem jarring or sort of incongruous.
BRIGER: You said you've been - you were a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock's movies. Did those movies at all influence the way that you wrote or shot "The Outlaws"?
MERCHANT: Well, certainly, again, the mix of suspense and humor that you see in a lot of Hitchcock and I think a lot of my favorites from that period - you know, I think Billy Wilder was a master of sort of juggling those tones as well in something like "Sunset Boulevard," which, on the surface, is a sort of film noir but also kind of a sort of Hollywood satire and a character study and a story of aging and, you know, so many things in there. And yet at times, very sort of - you know, when they're burying her sort of pet chimpanzee, it's a very surreal and odd, blackly comic moment.
I've always been drawn to things which sort of juggled those tones. And I think even things like "The Sopranos," which, on the surface, are - you know, is very much one thing, there's so much humor in that show and so much - that classic episode "The Pine Barrens," where Paulie and Christopher get stuck in the snow while trying to bump someone off, and Paulie loses his shoes - you know, it's very funny, almost like a sort of Samuel Beckett play. And also, interestingly, when I was growing up, I was very influenced by "M*A*S*H," the TV show. And in the U.K., "M*A*S*H" was shown without a laughter track. It didn't have an audience laugh track. So to me, that was my experience of "M*A*S*H." And when I came to the U.S. and I saw it in reruns, there's, like, this kind of audience laughter plastered all over the show.
And it seemed so strange to me because, to me, that was a show about Hawkeye using humor in the face of death and in the face of sort of existential, you know, crisis, to sort of get himself through the day. And suddenly with a laugh track - I don't know - he seemed slightly objectionable. I sort of felt like, Hawkeye, stop making one-liners and get on with that surgery. And it's funny how that - so to me, something like "M*A*S*H" was a much darker, more intriguing show without an audience laugh track. And again, it - I didn't take it to be a sitcom. I took it to be a sort of comic drama, I suppose. So I don't know. Is it something to do with perception or or how something is received? It sort of shifts the way you appreciate it.
BRIGER: Yeah. Here in the states, we like our existential crisis with a bit of a laugh track behind it.
BRIGER: Well, you know, your first big success was "The Office," the original British version that you co-wrote and co-directed with the star of the show, Ricky Gervais. And people probably remember, but the show takes place at a paper company in Slough, which is a city west of London, and the office is run by Gervais' character, David Brent. How would you describe David Brent?
MERCHANT: You know, you mentioned earlier about my obsession with middle management. And obviously, you know, he is the ultimate sort of middle manager. At the time when the show was coming together, political correctness was a big buzzword in the U.K. I'm sure it was here. And it seemed very interesting to us. So there was a number of people that we'd worked with who were trying to pay lip service to this new culture of sort of political correctness. And yet it wasn't really internalized. It was sort of an act and that whatever old kind of prejudices they had was still lingering.
And to me, that - David Brent sort of embodies that awkward transition and, you know, a sort of suburban man who, you know, has his sort of petty grievances and craves the adulation of his staff. He wants to be seen as a funny man but also was a great boss. And suddenly, a documentary film crew have shown up at his office, and it gives him the opportunity to present a version of himself to the world. But there's a big gap between who he thinks he is and who he really is. And that was what was so delicious about that character and what was I think makes it a very sort of kind of rich character and one that was, you know, as you know, remade in the states with Steve Carell in that role.
And I know it captured it to us something about a lot of sort of, I suppose, almost what we'd call little Englanders, you know, people in sort of provincial towns who were perhaps craving status, and it's not really there. And so they have their little fiefdoms, whether it's the office they work in or whatever. And yeah - and it captured a moment in time. And it was also - at that time in the U.K., there was a spate of reality TV that was about real-life people and just following them around. And there was a woman called Maureen who was taking driving lessons, and she became a sort of national icon for a while because she was sort of a hopeless driver. And the idea of sort of the ordinary person being elevated to celebrity and all of their sort of flaws and quirks being magnified seemed very interesting to us. And we sort of leant into that with the fake documentary style.
BRIGER: Well, let's hear a scene from "The Office." This is Gervais filling out a performance review for the receptionist for the office played by Lucy Davis.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
RICKY GERVAIS: (As David Brent) OK. If you had to name a role model, someone who's influenced you, who'd it be?
LUCY DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) What, like a historical person?
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) No, someone in sort of general life, just someone who's been an influence on you.
DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) I suppose my mom. She's just - she's strong, calm in the face of adversity. Oh, God, I remember when she had a hysterectomy...
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) If it wasn't your mother, though. I mean, it doesn't even have to be a woman. It could be a, you know...
DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) Man. OK. Well, I suppose if it was a man, it'd be my father.
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) Not your father. I mean, let's take your parents as red. I'm looking for someone in the sort of work-related arena who's influenced...
DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) Right. OK. Well, I suppose Tim, then. He's always...
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) Well, he's a friend, isn't he? Not a friend, someone in authority. Maybe I didn't, you know...
DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) Well, then I suppose Jennifer.
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) I thought we said not a woman, didn't we? Or am I...
DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) OK. Well, I suppose you're the only one who...
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) Oh, embarrassing. This backfired, hasn't it? Oh, dear, very flattering. Can we put me? I don't know.
DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) OK. Tim then.
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) We said not Tim. So do you want to put me or not?
DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) OK.
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) Right. So should I put strong role model?
DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) OK.
GERVAIS: (As David Brent) Yeah.
BRIGER: So, I mean, that's a very funny moment, but it's such a terrible moment where she's trying to talk about her mother's hysterectomy, and he just doesn't hear any of it.
MERCHANT: Right. Right. Well, I hadn't heard that for a long time. It was very charming to hear that again.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with comedian, writer, actor and director Stephen Merchant. Merchant's latest series, "The Outlaws," is about a group of misfits court ordered to do community service. It's streaming on Amazon Prime. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SASHA MASHIN'S "SOME THOMAS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with British comedian, writer, director and actor Stephen Merchant. He has a new show called "The Outlaws" about a diverse group of people guilty of low-level offenses who are court-ordered to do community service. Merchant plays Greg, a recently divorced, sad sack lawyer. "The Outlaws" is streaming on Amazon Prime. Along with Ricky Gervais, Merchant co-created the British comedy series "The Office," which was adapted into the American series of the same name. They also co-created "Extras."
BRIGER: So when you came up with the idea for "The Office," you and Ricky Gervais had a radio show. Was that a live show?
MERCHANT: Yeah. That was a live sort of DJ, music and conversation show.
BRIGER: So you know, for that kind of job, you really have to be on your toes a lot. You have to be, like, filling up the space and, also, very responsive to your co-host. You know, they say something, and you have to have a retort. Did that kind of set the template for how you two would write together?
MERCHANT: Well, we actually began at a radio station, but we weren't on air. We were actually behind the scenes. And Ricky had somehow sweet-talked his way into this job. It was a new radio station in London. And he had got a job as the head of speech, which is absurd, really, I mean, particularly if you've heard Ricky speak. I mean, he sometimes doesn't even finish a sentence, you know? He sort of gets bored with it and moves on to another one.
BRIGER: What does that title mean?
MERCHANT: Well, in theory, he was supposed to be providing content for the DJs, whether it was jokes or little jokey news items or competitions, things like that. And he very quickly decided he needed an assistant. And my resume happened to be in the office. I was trying to get into radio. And he pulled it off the top of the pile and called me up for an interview. And we hit it off. And so for a short time, I was sort of his assistant. But we very quickly discovered that, you know, we had a great shared sense of humor. And we got on very well. And so by the time they put us on the air, as they eventually did, we - yeah, we had a rapport and a kind of double-act thing going, which, like you say, sort of translated into the writers' room.
But while we were at the radio station, I got a job at the BBC. And I sort of jumped ship. And I - and during a training exercise, I was asked to make a documentary, a real documentary, about sort of something in my neighborhood, you know, a barber shop or whatever. And I said, well, could we do a fake one instead? My friend Ricky's, you know, very good. And we've got some observations about office life. And they sort of allowed me. And so I had a camera crew for a day. And so Ricky and I went back to his old office. And we kind of did, if you like, a little taster of what became "The Office."
And very quickly, we had that rapport both on screen, on the radio and on - and in the writers' room. And so much of, I think, kind of finding a creative partner is about sort of discussing the things you love, about bonding over the things you don't like and - yeah, and finding you've got a sort of shared outlook and a shared sensibility.
BRIGER: So obviously, there was an American version of "The Office" that was also wildly popular, starring Steve Carell's Michael Scott, paper company in Scranton. And there's a lot of similarities between the two shows, particularly, like, in the early episodes of the American version. But they definitely have a different tone to them. How would you compare them?
MERCHANT: Well, I take pride in the fact that I was something of a historian of comedy and TV. And I'd studied it at university. And one of the things I'd noticed when they tried to adapt British shows to America was sometimes, the original British people came and tried to do it themselves. And often, they didn't work because, much as we grow up with American TV and culture, we don't really - we haven't lived here. It's not in our bones, being American. And it was important to us. And I sort of was very kind of - battered Ricky about this idea that we needed an American to do it, and also who would understand and get the sensibility of our show, but translate it effectively to America. And my concern on the initial series was that it was too close to our version and that it should kind of spread its wings more and be its own thing.
And, I think, between the first and second seasons, Steve Carell had his hit movie, "40-Year-Old Virgin." And I think the network wanted to sort of soften the Michael Scott character slightly and make him slightly more kind of lovable in the way that Steve was in that movie. And I think that Greg, very wisely, sort of agreed with that. And they sort of started to take it away sort of from the slightly bleaker, more existential version of the British version and move into something just a little bit more user friendly - is that right? - and sort of still kind of with some sharp edges and still with some satire and still with some sort of dark comic moments but just - you know, open up the world, open up the other characters and just bring a little bit more sunshine into this grey office.
BRIGER: Yeah, that sounds right to me. It feels like the British version is much more sort of cringe-inducing and awkward. And even the David Brent character is more repugnant than the Michael Scott. I'm just wondering if you think that British audiences have different expectations than American audiences in terms of comedy in your experience.
MERCHANT: Well, I think what we have grown up with in the U.K. is a series of hit comedies about quite unpleasant men, right back to a comedian called Tony Hancock in the 1960s, who, at that time, was the biggest comedy star in the U.K. And he was - on screen, played a sort of failing actor who was quite petty and, you know, quite selfish. And he would clear the streets, famously. When his show was on, the streets, the pubs, everything would be empty. People were watching Tony Hancock. But he's quite a malevolent character. And he's - and then that was sort of followed in the '70s by Basil Fawlty, the John Cleese character. Again, he's a sort of petty, little Englander, hotelier.
And I think we were sort of in the tradition of that. And I think the British audience is very used to sort of laughing at quite sort of small, petty men. And whether it's a sort of exorcism for us or something, I don't know. And I think - I'm not sure that tradition is quite the same in the U.S. I think, maybe, you appreciate winners more than we do, you know? We quite like laughing at losers. So maybe that's something to do with it. I don't know. But like you say, certainly, I think they soften some of the edges of Michael Scott, but I think in a very effective way.
BRIGER: You said that you gravitate towards socially awkward comedy, in part because you were an awkward teenager. And I think that has something to do with just how tall you are. You're 6 feet, 7 inches. Is that right?
MERCHANT: That's right.
BRIGER: How old were you when you started to outgrow your peers?
MERCHANT: You know, like, it seems like I always was. I can't really remember - probably, you know, in my early teens. My memory is that I've always been taller than everybody else. And as you say, that made me quite self-conscious. And you know that dream that you wish you could go back and talk to your younger self with the knowledge you have now? And the knowledge I have now is, people want to be tall. People dream of being tall. And for some reason, I didn't realize that. And no one ever bloody well told me. So I was very - I felt very awkward because I was taller than everybody else. And I should have led into that, like a superpower. And instead, it did make me quite self-conscious.
And I think - you know, someone once said to me in an interview, do you think you went into comedy to control when people laugh at you? And I don't know if that's true. It may be true. Certainly, I think there was a feeling that if people are going to point and laugh at you anyway, they may as well pay you to do it. That was part of it.
BRIGER: Well, you know, you said you felt awkward at that age, but I bet you probably were physically awkward. I mean, your body changed so rapidly. You - probably - a lot of people are clumsy, like, in their teenage years.
BRIGER: You don't really know how to even control your body at that point, especially if it's grown so tall so quickly.
MERCHANT: Well, I think it's also that you - just the simple things, like not being able to buy clothes very easily, you know? And so many of the sort of conventions of youth - you know, going out with your friends and clothes shopping. And it's like, it was just - just was kind of cut off to me because unless they were all going to come to the big and tall store...
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.
MERCHANT: ...You know, there - I wasn't going to find clothes that fit. And so you can't sort of - you can't create a style. You can't create a look for yourself. You can't choose to be, you know, I don't know, like, a rocker - you know? - or whatever because you just can't find the clothes to fit. So you end up wearing whatever fits. And it sort of - and so you never quite walk around feeling like you're owning yourself, you know? You feel like you're sort of making do a little bit. And it's funny that little things like that, which - yeah, which dictate sort of how - your self-confidence, I suppose.
BRIGER: I'm not super-tall myself, but I've noticed that people really feel compelled to talk to tall people just about, like, how tall they are. Like, people will go up to strangers and ask them their height. That's probably happened to you. People have probably asked if you played basketball. But, I mean, what do you think that compulsion is, that desire to talk to tall people?
MERCHANT: I think it's not just about, do you play basketball, and, what's the weather like up there, which I get a lot of. It's also making jokes. I think people can just meet you. And, you know, I remember being in a bar not so long ago - ordered a drink, and the person I'd just met said, that's a tall order. And everyone laughed. And I just thought, you'd never make a joke like that about a very small person.
BRIGER: No, that's a - it's a terrible joke.
MERCHANT: Well, it is. But it's funny because I think what it - I mean funny in the sense that, you know, it's amusing looking at it from the outside because I think people think tall is a victory, that somehow you've - it's an achievement. As I said, because people want to be tall, I think they think that you somehow accomplished something. And therefore, why would you be self-conscious about it? Why would you be offended if they brought it up? It's a success. It's something that you can be proud of, and therefore, they can comment on it, whereas, as you say, for me, it's just - I've heard all the comments before. I've got no new take on them. It's not a conversation starter.
Do I play basketball has a very binary answer - yes or no - and it's no. There's nowhere to go with that conversation. And so, you know, it's odd that people feel, you know, they can comment on it, you know? And it's interesting. In a climate in comedy in which there's sensitivities to every subject matter, being tall is one that people can still openly joke about.
BRIGER: Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, our guest is Stephen Merchant, whose new show on Amazon Prime is "The Outlaws." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LARY BARILLEAU AND THE LATIN JAZZ COLLECTIVE'S "CARMEN'S MAMBO")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with comedian, writer, director and actor Stephen Merchant, who co-created the British comedy "The Office" with Ricky Gervais. His new show is called "The Outlaws," and it's a comedy thriller that you can find streaming on Amazon Prime.
I want to talk to you a little bit about your acting. You know, when you were working on "The Office," you only appeared in one scene. It was a very funny scene, but it was short. But then when you and Gervais co-created the show "Extras," you had a recurring role as his actor's terrible agent. And I just wanted to play a scene from that. Gervais has come to your office to talk about his new sitcom, "When The Whistle Blows," which debuted the night before. And both of you thought it was terrible.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EXTRAS")
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) What are the reviews like?
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) If I was being kind, I'd tell you it was a mixed bag.
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Let me have a look.
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Really?
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Yeah, let me see them.
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Bear (ph)?
SHAUN WILLIAMSON: (As Shaun Williamson) Yeah.
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Can you bring some of the reviews in?
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Why has he got them?
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Got to do something with his mornings, hasn't he?
WILLIAMSON: (As Shaun Williamson) Found another one.
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Oh, have you?
WILLIAMSON: (As Shaun Williamson) Perhaps it's unfair to judge a sitcom on its first episode, but when a TV program makes you want to gouge out your own eyes rather than watch one more minute, you know it's probably not your cup of tea.
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Ouch. Go on. Pop it in the scrapbook.
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) No, don't pop it in the scrapbook. Put good ones in the scrapbook.
WILLIAMSON: (As Shaun Williamson) What good ones?
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) There's no good ones?
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Best one was the Telegraph.
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) What did they say?
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) They didn't review it.
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Career's over.
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Well, no, because despite what they say, the viewing figures were really good - 6.2 million.
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Six million people watched it last night, and yet none of these liked it.
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Well, these people know about comedy, don't they? They know what they're talking about. But the general public - I mean...
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) You said, if you get your own show, the offers would come flooding in. You said the phone would never stop ringing. Have you had any phone calls at all?
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) No.
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) No.
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) Oh, no, what am I talking about? Sky called.
GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) And?
MERCHANT: (As Darren Lamb) They said they can put your dish up Thursday.
BRIGER: Stephen Merchant, I - you're very funny in that part, but I read that you don't really love acting that much. Is that true?
MERCHANT: Well, I think what I find frustrating about it is that when I am a sort of actor for hire, I can only see my little piece of the puzzle. And I think what I enjoy about directing and writing is you get to see all of it and you get to kind of have an involvement in all of it. And I don't know if that's control freakery (ph) or whether it's just liking - you know, enjoying the jigsaw puzzle of it and, you know, like - sort of helping finish the jigsaw puzzle is interesting.
And - but actually, over time, I've begun to enjoy acting more. I think partly - when I started, I - you know, I was - and even, to some degree, in "The Outlaws" - you know, I'm playing comic characters, which feel like an easy fit for me. And so I feel like I can do them quite well. And I - and they aren't challenging for me in the sense that they - you know, I sort of know what I'm doing, whereas I find writing and directing much more nutritious. You know, it's tougher. It's harder. It takes more sort of imagination in a sense.
But in recent years, I've started to broaden out my acting. And, you know, most recently in the U.K., I played a real-life serial killer called Stephen Port, who killed a number of young men. And the BBC made a drama about the families trying to get justice. And that was a very, very serious role for which, you know, I had to research and I had to - he had a different accent, so I worked with a voice coach. And that I found a very, very stimulating job. And it was probably the first time as an actor where I got the same nutrition, if you like, as I do as a writer. So I think over time, I began to find acting more interesting, more challenging and more, as I say, nutritious.
BRIGER: So, you know, obviously, we're a radio show. We're always interested in people's voices and accents. Can you tell us a little bit about learning a different accent and what that accent was?
MERCHANT: I was very intimidated. I come from a place called Bristol in the West Country. I have quite a distinctive accent if you're from the U.K. And I try to think how I would describe it. It's a bit like how pirates speak. The exaggerated version of my accent is that (imitating pirate) yar, son, Jimmy - you know, it's sort of that kind of seafaring voice. And my accent sort of, you know, has a whiff of that to it. In fact, I didn't even realize I had an accent until I went to university. I'd grown up in Bristol. Everyone spoke the same way.
And I went to university and discovered that my accent was considered slightly parochial and kind of - I was just - I was sort of considered a yokel. I guess that's the best way to describe my accent. So it's generally regarded as being the voice that a farmer would have or, you know, a sort of ill-educated yokel. And actually there's still a kind of snobbery, I think, in the U.K. about my accent.
BRIGER: So you're a pirate farmer?
MERCHANT: I'm a pirate farmer (laughter).
BRIGER: So "The Outlaws" was renewed for a second season. Can you tell us anything? I think you said it's a heist. The theme is about a heist.
MERCHANT: Well, no, there's a heist episode, but the theme is really just expanding on the first. We were lucky enough to actually end up shooting two seasons back to back. We got closed down because of the pandemic, but then when we came back, we'd had time to write a whole second season, which allowed us to plant a lot of seeds in the first, which could then pay off in the second. So all the cast comes back, including Christopher. And someone had told me early on in my writing career with a comedy or with a drama, you know, you take your characters, you chase them up a tree, and then you throw rocks at them.
And so Season 1 was chasing them up the tree. Season 2 is really throwing the rocks at them and turning up the heat under them. And it's been very enjoyable because you sort of - you've established a world and now you can have a lot of fun with the characters and see the sort of consequences of their actions. And I'm very pleased. And we've already started talking about a third season as well. So I feel there's quite a lot of mileage in these characters.
BRIGER: Great. Well, I look forward to seeing the next season. Stephen Merchant, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.
MERCHANT: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Stephen Merchant co-created and stars in the series "The Outlaws." It's streaming on Amazon Prime. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by the German group The Clarinet Trio. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON QUARTET'S "KING OF THE ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.