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Writer-director-producer-actor Stephen Merchant rose to comedy stardom in collaboration with comedy icon Ricky Gervais on an impressive succession of hugely successful television projects in the U.K. and United States. Having received his start in stand-up comedy, he and Gervais became partners in crime as the co-hosts of a short-lived weekly radio show prior to sowing the seeds for what would evolve into the hugely influential workplace sitcom "The Office" (BBC2, 2001-03), which he co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed. Success from the series led to more work with Gervais on another popular radio show, acting and writing jobs on other BBC programs, and the smash-hit adaptation of "The Office" (NBC, 2005- ) on American TV. In addition to his usual duties, Merchant also performed in his and Gervais' next series, "Extras" (HBO, BBC2, 2005-07). His performance as the well-meaning, but utterly incompetent talent agent Darren Lamb earned Merchant a British Comedy Award for Best Actor. Other collaborations with Gervais included the feature dramedy "Cemetery Junction" (2010); the travel series starring their clueless radio producer Karl Pilkington, "An Idiot Abroad" (Sky1, 2010- ); and the series "Life's...
Writer-director-producer-actor Stephen Merchant rose to comedy stardom in collaboration with comedy icon Ricky Gervais on an impressive succession of hugely successful television projects in the U.K. and United States. Having received his start in stand-up comedy, he and Gervais became partners in crime as the co-hosts of a short-lived weekly radio show prior to sowing the seeds for what would evolve into the hugely influential workplace sitcom "The Office" (BBC2, 2001-03), which he co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed. Success from the series led to more work with Gervais on another popular radio show, acting and writing jobs on other BBC programs, and the smash-hit adaptation of "The Office" (NBC, 2005- ) on American TV. In addition to his usual duties, Merchant also performed in his and Gervais' next series, "Extras" (HBO, BBC2, 2005-07). His performance as the well-meaning, but utterly incompetent talent agent Darren Lamb earned Merchant a British Comedy Award for Best Actor. Other collaborations with Gervais included the feature dramedy "Cemetery Junction" (2010); the travel series starring their clueless radio producer Karl Pilkington, "An Idiot Abroad" (Sky1, 2010- ); and the series "Life's Too Short" (HBO, 2011- ), while his acclaimed stand-up comedy tour "Hello, Ladies" proved he had plenty to offer all on his own. Astonishingly prolific, he had amassed a career's worth of credits in a scant 10 years, and along with Gervais, earned the respect and adoration of fans, both famous and not, for their consistently hilarious work together as a comedic team.
Stephen James Merchant was born on Nov. 24, 1974, in Bristol, England to parents Ron and Elaine Merchant. The plumber and nurse would add a daughter, Alexandria, to the family four years later. From early on, young Stephen was obsessed with comedy, writing and radio. His hero was fellow tall man and local celebrity, John Cleese, and Merchant dreamed of someday writing a TV show as highly-regarded as "Fawlty Towers" (BBC2, 1975, 1979). Despite being a shy and bookish teenager who went through a six-month phase of wearing bow ties, Merchant was not shy about pursuing his talents. He participated in school theatrical productions and started working as mobile DJ when he was 16. At one point, the 6'7" teen decided that if people were going to be literally looking up at him all the time, it might as well be because he was on a stage or screen. Merchant enrolled at the University of Warwick in Coventry, where he studied film and literature and helmed his own comedy and music radio show which built up a considerable local following.
After graduating from college in 1996, he returned to Bristol and began doing stand-up comedy, experiencing some success in the arena and eventually winning the Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award. In 1997, he applied for a job at London's alternative rock station Xfm as an assistant to the Head of Speech, Ricky Gervais. Gervais hired Merchant, who was 13 years his junior, after explaining that he had no idea what he was doing, and that if Merchant was willing to do all the work, he could get away with whatever he liked. The two were an instant comedy duo - one, a round, cackling, prankster; the other, a lanky, reserved straight man with a seemingly high tolerance for Gervais' irritating habits. A month into their working relationship, the radio station was bought out and the two accepted offers to leave voluntarily. Merchant enrolled in a TV production training course at the BBC, and for his short film project, he called upon Gervais to shoot a largely improvised 10-minute piece called "Seedy Boss."
This 1998 short was the basis for what would become "The Office" (BBC2, 2001-03) both in its one-camera execution - born out of necessity due to the limitations of shooting a student film - and its main character - egotistical, self-proclaimed funnyman and boss David Brent. Over the next few years, while Merchant went on to write for Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Eleven O'Clock Show" (Channel 4, 1998-2000), word of mouth had spread on the hilarious "Seedy Boss." Eventually, it made its way to the brass at BBC2, who requested a pilot episode. Merchant and Gervais began shooting in early 2000, but were unhappy with the initial result, as it did not yet capture their vision of coming off like a pieced-together documentary, rather than a standard sitcom with a beginning, middle and end. They nailed it the second time around, prompting the impressed BBC execs to order a full season of the brilliant and subtle portrait of monotonous office life in a nowhere British town.
"The Office" debuted in the summer of 2001, going on to become one of the most successful comedies in BBC history, adapted into versions for American, French, German, Canadian and Norwegian audiences. The show earned two Golden Globe Awards, three BAFTA Awards, three British Comedy Awards, and an Emmy for the American version of "The Office." With this incredible "Office" success, was the even more amazing fact that Merchant achieved his childhood dream by the young age of 26. The same year that "The Office" hit in 2001, Gervais and Merchant launched "The Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant Show" on their alma mater radio station, Xfm. The hilarious, rambling, conversational weekly program that made their rather odd producer Karl Pilkington an international hero/curiosity, won several awards and earned legions of rabid fans and several fan sites. In 2005, the show began to be produced as a podcast, and purportedly ranked the most downloaded program in the world, according to the Guiness Book of World Records.
Following the end of the duo's sitcom's two-year U.K. run, Merchant directed an unaired comedy called "The Last Chancers" for Channel 4. Then the multi-talented writer-producer stepped out from behind the camera for appearances on British TV comedies "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" (Channel 4, 2004) and "Green Wing" (Channel 4, 2004-07). In addition to his other commitments at the time, he also worked as a script consultant on the sitcom "Nathan Barley" (Channel 4, 2005), even as he and Gervais conspired on their next critically acclaimed collaboration. "Extras" (HBO, BBC2, 2005-07). This latest series about struggling actors premiered in July 2005 and was a departure from "The Office" in more ways than one - not the least of which being that this time Merchant co-starred onscreen with buddy Gervais. It still held true to their earlier "Office" vision of keeping its distance from traditional sitcoms, being stylistically more in line with HBO's other near-cinematic offerings, "The Larry Sanders Show" (1992-98) or "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (2000- ). Like the former, "Extras" recruited top celebrities such as Kate Winslet or Ben Stiller in guest roles where they each poked fun at their image. Merchant played Gervais' scene-stealing, ineffectual agent/part-time car phone salesman. For the first time out from under Gervais' considerable shadow, his acting chops were recognized with a Best Actor honor from the British Comedy Awards in 2006.
In January of 2007, Merchant began hosting his own music-oriented show on BBC 6 Music. Later that year, he appeared in the highly anticipated British action-comedy flick, "Hot Fuzz" (2007), as well as "Run Fat Boy Run" (2007), another comedy starring Simon Pegg and directed by former "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004) star David Schwimmer. More acting gigs came his way with a cameo in Gervais' first solo writing-directing effort, the comedy-fable "The Invention of Lying" (2009), as well as a meatier role as the exasperated supervisor of Dwayne's Johnson's reluctant "Tooth Fairy" (2010). Much of this time, however, had been spent gearing up for his role as co-writer, producer, director and actor (in conjunction with Gervais) on the comedy-drama feature "Cemetery Junction" (2010), starring newcomers Tom Hughes, Christian Cooke and Jack Doolan as three childhood pals coming of age in a small U.K. suburb. He went on to appear with Pegg once again in the pitch-black comedy "Burke and Hare" (2010) then lent his voice to the bizarre marionette WWII action-comedy "Jackboots on Whitehall" (2010).
Busier than ever, Merchant and his comedic cohort, Gervais, created, executive-produced and appeared in "An Idiot Abroad" (Sky1, 2010- ), a reality show that sent their former radio producer Karl Pilkington to the farthest reaches of the globe in an effort to push the quirky Brit "outside his comfort zone," with hilarious results. The endeavor proved successful enough to merit a second season, possibly to the dismay of the oft put-upon Pilkington. Also that year, the popular podcast of his and Gervais' old radio program was adapted into the animated series "The Ricky Gervais Show" (HBO, 2010- ) with surprisingly successful results. Early the next year, he picked up a supporting role alongside stars Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis in the comedy "Hall Pass" (2011), then provided more voice work in the animated comic fairy tale "Gnomeo & Juliet" (2011) and vocalized Wheatley, the helpful, albeit highly neurotic, spherical robot in the popular video game "Portal 2" (Valve, 2011). He and Gervais soon turned up with their latest satiric offering, "Life's Too Short" (HBO, 2011- ), another mockumentary, much in the vein of "Extras," in which audiences followed the fictionalized, often humiliating, struggles of Lilliputian actor Warwick Davis as he attempted to revive his acting career. Stepping out from Gervais' shadow again, Merchant triumphantly returned to stand-up after years away from the stage with his critically-acclaimed, self-deprecating comedy tour "Hello, Ladies" in September of 2011, selling out dates in the U.K. and U.S.
By Bryce Coleman
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