December 6, 2012
It’s a fair assumption that most of the audience at Stephen Merchant’s three sold-out Astor shows were hard-core fans of the vertically unchallenged British comedian and his collaborator Ricky Gervais.
Gervais has had comedy superstar status for years – I remember seeing him gigantically reproduced on a whole-side-of-building billboard on Sunset Boulevard as far back as 2008. Merchant may be Larry David to Gervais’s Jerry Seinfeld, but he’s steadily emerging in his own right.
On the strength of this poised, neatly calibrated, and very, very funny solo show, it’s easy to see why.
In an hour and change of wry observations and false immodesty, he takes off from launch pads as varied as the pointlessness of high school maths and the futile search for a mate.
His best lines are exquisite: a hot girl approaches him in Trafalgar Square and asks if he’s going to be there long. Thinking he could be on to something, he says yes. “Oh great”, she replies, “My friends and I have agreed to meet back at you”. If it wasn’t so funny, it just might break your heart.
Like that gag, much of Merchant’s material is about gawky, bespectacled six foot sevenishness and its drawbacks, no matter that geeks like him rule the earth and he’s got BAFTAs, Emmys and Golden Globes to his name. Even if it’s not true, Merchant does a good job constructing an endearing underdog status when things go badly, and winning our complicity in his smug superiority when they go well.
You don’t need me to tell you about the show itself, because you can see it almost word for word any time you like on YouTube or dvd. Merchant’s great gift is his precise comic writing, and this is very clearly a carefully constructed show rather than a seat-of-the-pants leap into the unknown.
And that’s an interesting thing about stand-up comedy since the internet and cable television have increasingly exposed performer’s material, and archived their acts for instant recall. Audiences are now responding to routines they already know, often exhaustively. The transaction between comedian and audience is more about anticipation and recall, rather than surprise and discovery.
Whichever it is for you, Merchant emphatically closes the deal.
I’m afraid I missed Felicity Ward’s award-winning show at the Perth Comedy Festival, but a sprightly 20-minute sample of her act was a perfect kick start to the evening.
This review first appeared in The West Australian 8.12.12.