From the GQ archive: The towering wit behind The Office, Extras and the only essential podcasts ever recorded steps out from that "pathetic little fat man's" shadow to collect GQ's comedy accolade.
If you didn't know - and frankly, what's your excuse given that he's co-written and directed The Office and Extras, starred in jaw-achingly funny podcasts and radio shows, cameoed as Mr Peter Ian Staker in Hot Fuzz and dispensed his dry Bristolian wit at many award ceremonies - there is a moment in the final episode of the second series of Extras which anointed Stephen Merchant, GQ's Comedian Of The Year, as a comic genius, a man as funny as he is tall (6'7").
As the incompetent agent, Darren Lamb, he has managed to set up a meeting between Robert De Niro and his client, Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais), but the latter has not shown up and the atmosphere is Siberian. Racking his brains for an icebreaker, Lamb's face is a canvas of Arctic emptiness, until a glimmer of inspiration crosses his features and he realises he has a conversation opener. "Have you ever," he asks the world's greatest actor, "driven a taxi for real?"
Seconds later, permafrost still unbroken, he shows De Niro his "nudie pen", the joke-shop staple wherein a swimsuited woman loses her clothing, to the delight of Mr Method. "Are you looking at me?" grins the agent at the pen. "I am now."
It's a neat distillation of Merchant's portrayal of Lamb, which contributed so much to the enjoyment of the BAFTA-winning comedy, which concludes this Christmas with a one-off special.
It also deals in the area of acute social embarrassment, which he has made his stock-in-trade as a performer and writer. Yet goofing idiotically opposite a cinema legend was not the cause of any particular angst to the level-headed Merchant.
"We were just so relieved he was there, it didn't even occur to me to be nervous," he smiles. "Until they're there, you never believe they're going to show up. There's no incentive. Certainly not the money. And the prestige is negligible."
Show up they did though; whether it be Kate Winslet talking dirty, Ronnie Corbett snorting coke ("Just a little whizz to blow away the cobwebs"), Daniel Radcliffe flicking condoms onto Diana Rigg, or the aforementioned Robert De Niro ogling nudie pens. So swiftly has Extras become part of the comedy culture that it's worth remembering that no British show had ever tried anything like this before, yet satisfaction with the star turns has been far from universal.
"I read some critic," says Merchant incredulously, "who said Samuel L Jackson wasn't in it very long. What? Don't we get a few points that he's in it at all?
"People still think De Niro's not in the room with me," he continues, bemused by this Capricorn One-style conspiracy theory. "So where were we if he was doing this himself? How much harder would that have been?"
It's not a whinge, more a wry observation, and the longer one spends in Merchant's company, the harder it is to imagine him deviating from a sanguine calm. It's a trait which separates him from much of the showbiz herd. It's not that he's not excited by the way his profile has been changed by his appearance inExtras, it's just he has a very reflective way of expressing it. Asked to name his most cherished memory, he muses for a while.
"I think it was hearing David Bowie playing the music that he'd written around the lyrics that we'd sent to him," he decides, recalling Bowie's excruciatingly funny sing-along immolation of Millman: "Pathetic little fat man/No one's bloody laughing." "There was a moment when he was playing where we thought, 'We've just written a song with David Bowie.' That was extraordinary."
Once again, it's an instance of hyperbolic embarrassment, a private moment of shame and humiliation, projected and amplified to a ridiculous level. Between Extras and The Office, Merchant has given us scores of these moments. The last time I met him, he was with Gervais, who goaded him into telling the story of a disastrous attempt at the high jump which ended in glasses-askew humiliation in front of a group of girls. This anecdote proved to be the template for the now legendary podcasts, which the duo, along with producer Karl Pilkington, have delivered. When not marvelling at some fresh vista of Pilkington ignorance, most of the shows see Gervais prompting Merchant to reveal some moment of shame. Mistaking joss sticks for drugs, trying to woo a girl by reading Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance only to see her get off with a lad who had been dancing round the room with no trousers on and, possibly best of all, a moment on Copacabana beach when the tide ran out suddenly as he attempted a sly wee, all recalled in painful and exact detail. It seems almost academic to ask, but does he suffer acutely from embarrassment?
"I'm crippled by embarrassment all the time," he confirms. "I'm neurotically worried about embarrassing myself. The more I try to fight it, the more it happens. I don't know why. I think it happens to most people but they don't want to talk about it. Why would you tell people about an embarrassing moment? You'd want to forget about it. But to me, it's like a weight off my mind if I can share it."
Nor has success dimmed his ability to find himself in awkward social situations. "The moments of glamour, I only see refracted through the eccentricities of those moments," he explains, with a caveat not to think him too pretentious. He recounts a journey to the Emmy Awards in a limo with Gervais, who, stricken by hunger, stops off to buy Cheesy Wotsits. As the red carpet beckons, Merchant notices his friend's hands and teeth are covered in fluorescent orange detritus.
"So there's an ice tray in the limo," he explains, "which Ricky's scooping out to rub on his hands and his teeth. Those are the things we remember. We remember at the Golden Globes, Clint Eastwood not recognising us [a camera cut to the Hollywood legend expressing bemusement as The Office was declared the winner]. I remember at the BAFTAs one of the buttons coming off the flies of my suit and saying, 'This would never happen to James Bond.' The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance moments continue."
It's ten years since Merchant, 32, became Gervais' assistant as head of speech at radio station Xfm. Merchant grew up in Hanham, a Bristol suburb where his father was a plumber and mother a nursery nurse. Recounting the thrill of having Ronnie Corbett on Extras, he recalls, "I adore The Two Ronnies. I used to re-enact them for my parents - against their will."
A bright schoolboy, albeit with a challenging fashion sense, he wore a bow tie believing it lent him an air of Wodehousian sophistication: "I'd have liked to have been cool but I wasn't interested in fashion." Merchant went to Warwick University where he studied film and literature.
Hints at his talent emerged with a student radio show and a flirtation with stand-up - "First gig, amazing. I think I'm the king of comedy. Second, mediocre."
However, the chance meeting with Gervais was undoubtedly pivotal for both men. A decade on, Merchant is still clearly more than happy with the partnership. "Ricky gives me great confidence," he reasons. "He doesn't seem to have the qualms that I have. He's more anxious that he's perceived as a nice man, which he is. Because he's conscious of trying to be a 'good bloke'."
When I joke that after the special might be a good time to cut the older man loose, his sense of humour temporarily deserts him.
"It would be silly to rattle the cage for the sake of it," he replies earnestly. "I think what would be important would be to keep pushing ourselves a bit."
Although the pair talk of moving into more serious drama - inspired by their obsession with The Sopranos - Merchant realises that his reputation still revolves around comedy. Typical of his thoughtful approach is his response when I ask him how close he is to the person he portrays in podcasts, with reference to him being "careful" with money.
"The problem is, if I answer that truthfully, it undermines the persona I've created," he argues. "That's the danger because honest as I want to be, if I give you the true insight into my life, it chips away at the creation of the persona. I don't like wasting money. I've been raised by a man, my father, who feels the same way and I feel like I would be disappointing him if I paid over the odds.
"For instance," he says, "I don't want to go out for lunch and spend £20. My father took sandwiches all his working life. What? I've got to spend £20 on a pasta dish? It's absurd. A sandwich is fine. A pork pie, even."
So is that the real him talking or his comic persona? Probably a bit of both. Likewise when the conversation turns to sex and drugs. Does he believe in the theory of laughing women into bed?
"I don't really buy into that idea," he smiles ruefully. "It's confidence. You watch squat ugly blokes try their luck - and if you've got no shame and you're willing to chat to 15 women and accept 14 fuck-offs, you'll succeed. The thing that always held me back was the fear of an embarrassing situation."
And has his drug experience broadened since his early joss stick experimentation?
"I was never exposed to it," he deadpans. "Not for want of trying. I have never been one of the people to whom people whisper, 'Come into the toilets, it's all kicking off.' I'd be in there like a shot. Especially if it's free. But people don't see me as that rock'n'roll figure. I've never lived that rock'n'roll life. I'd like to, but I'm too anxious. I don't want to OD or go to prison. I don't want to get arrested, or hurt myself, because beyond the social embarrassments, life's too good."
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of British GQ.