Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Merchant’

For anyone that read my review of Life’s Too Short, you will be aware of how much I adore the co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

Mr Gervais has already plunged into stand-up comedy, forming another successful string on his comedy bow (to a point…. Fame began what was a downward spiral in his live shows. Animals and Politics were incredible. They were clever, thought provoking and above all, hilarious. Ricky certainly deployed a comical egotism in these shows, which was very likeable, but somehow in later tours it no longer seems like an act. He has become Brent, offensive and arrogant, but worse still, the shows suggest a laziness and complacency that can accompany award-winning success. He introduced Animals as a ‘lecture’, and it certainly had the feel of one, just hosted by the cool, young teacher in school. You leave the show having learnt something, a testament to Gervais’ comic writing and intelligence. But in his last 2 shows, you don’t. They didn’t really seem structured and barely skimmed their relative subject matters – Fame, for example, barely dipped a comic toe into the trials of being famous, a subject vast in scope and its potential for comedy).

Smooth operator...

Enough ranting…. It seems about time that Stephen Merchant took a punt too. I’ve always found him hilarious. He has proven time and time again, especially over the course of the XFM shows, that his Bristolian vowels and proficient improvisational ability are perfectly suited to the comedy circuit. However, a feeling of trepidation also felt entirely natural when I heard about the prospect of a live show. I mean, this man has been involved in the comedy industry for the best part of 15 years and only now is he getting involved in stand-up (this is not entirely true. Having committed myself to some research – or in other words, reading his Wiki page – I see that his career actually started in stand-up, although in his own words, it didn’t really set him on the path to stardom, “The first week I did really well …The second week I died on my arse. I realised that stand-up was not that easy after all.”) He certainly looks comical, with his squinty eyes and lanky 6ft 7″ frame, a physicality which he uses very effectively in the show combined with a close range camera and a big screen! He is also patently a very established comedy writer, but I was intrigued to see how well he could transfer his penchant for situational comedy to stand-up.

I was not let down.

First I must say what a tragedy it is that his tour sold so badly. We actually managed to obtain free tickets for the night, seemingly alongside many others up in the circle, for answering a simple question on See Tickets’ Twitter page (it was actually my girlfriend that did it <3). Having been asked a few hours before we (she) even saw the question, we really thought that there was very little chance of bagging free entry. To our toothy-grinned surprise though, See Tickets were not just giving out one set but multiple. Even better, they were simply tweeting the same download code to every ”winner” which was therefore visible to everyone! (Was this an administrative error, or a sign of how nonexclusive these tickets were?) We didn’t even need to enter the competition to obtain our seats! So my lovely purple-headed girlfriend clicked on the link and got us our tickets. Unlucky to everyone who paid £35 a pop to sit in the stalls, including my brother, ouch, sorry bro.

Watch a clip of the show below, as Stephen talks about venn diagrams….


It’s a real travesty that the show sold so poorly. I put it down to the fact that he has been marketed as Gervais’ sidekick, an almost anonymous face in comparison, when really he is a successful comedy creator in his own right. It must be really disheartening to Stephen Merchant, perhaps forming an insecurity about creating another tour in the future. I sincerely hope not because the show was great! Significantly, it’s his insecurity that makes him, and the show, so loveable. Stephen is innately awkward, bumbling around stage (apt considering his gaming cameo as the voice of Wheatley in Portal 2), much like his character Oggy ‘Nathan’ Ogmonster in The Office. This personality trait is even reflected in his management of heckles – as one unfair patron shouted that “No one gives a shit”, he charmingly responded with an almost childlike defensive torrent of “Just leave it mate”. In fact, the show is really devoted to this insecurity. ‘Hello Ladies’ refers to Merchant’s difficult search for a partner, with the content of the show detailing his struggles, from the obstacle of his height to the dangers of sexual endeavours.

Merchant is particularly likeable as a comedian. His delivery, accent and tone are all very engaging, supported by pacey and well-constructed jokes. He even ended the night on an impromptu reimagining of a play he wrote in school, entitled ‘Choices’. Although I felt that it dragged on somewhat, and would probably be more memorable if it was cut half way through, it was a brave success. Not many comedians would risk bringing on two strangers to perform with him on his first tour. The skit was thoroughly enjoyable, demonstrating a naivety of script and such a hilariously superficial treatment of potent social issues that it was believable as a childhood play. For me this was the real mark of its success, not only was it consistently funny, it was entirely feasible as a real play he wrote as a teenager.

It’s a bit of a spoiler but see the play below:


Generally, I have nothing but praise for the show, a very pleasant surprise indeed. However, I did have a few minor quibbles. Unfortunately, you can’t help seeing Ricky Gervais in his performance. There is a very similar style of delivery to many of his jokes that is inescapably Gervais. Although it still worked perfectly, I cannot help but think that he is doing himself a disservice by not distancing his act from his comedy partner. In fact, Stephen actually declares in Hello Ladies that a significant reason for doing the show in the first place was to get away from Gervais! Moreover, Merchant also has an egotism on stage, often referring to his Golden Globe successes. Somehow this manages to be endearing though as part of the act, like he is overcompensating for what he lacks in good looks or average height. It’s just worryingly reminiscent of Ricky. It has to be said that this was not at all damaging to Hello Ladies, but he must ensure that he does not let this egotism consume his actual character – like Gervais seems to have done – or he will lose the very thing that makes him so likeable.

Overall it was a top show, and a real surprise. Absolute bargain for free too!

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…. so perhaps that explains why the set up has been shamelessly replicated from The Office.

I’m a huge fan of comedic writers Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I adore their catalogue of work, spanning sitcoms, stand up, podcasts and radio shows. The Office is one of the most interesting and emotionally engaging comedies that I have ever seen. It was one of the first mockumentary style sitcoms (ignoring undervalued earlier examples like Operation Good Guys), and the juxtaposition of hilarious, sometimes even slapstick, comedy with romantic, emotional plot lines is truly praiseworthy. I welled up like Gwyneth Paltrow at the end of the Christmas specials and I attribute this to the incredible creation and development of the sitcom’s key characters. Although they are entirely different, every character is immediately likeable. In following the series, you inevitably become more and more enamoured with the characters, feeling a real investment in their successes and failures. You are desperate for Tim and Dawn to get together, willing Brent to stand up to Finchey, and it’s a testament to the writing skills of Gervais and Merchant that they provide this conclusion. With The Office they haven’t just written a comedy, they have told a story.

I believe the above paragraph demonstrates effectively my love and admiration of The Office. So when I learnt about the arrival of a new sitcom from the pair, focussed on the trials and tribulations of Warwick Davis (I ❤ Star Wars!), I was suitably excited. That’s what makes it so disheartening to discover how bad it is….

I have watched the first three episodes and apart from the odd snigger I have been entirely disappointed. Perhaps the most obvious problem is that it’s just not very funny, but as that is something innately subjective I will skim over it for now. The biggest fault I have witnessed is that it appears to be a shameless amalgamation of The Office and Extras. Obviously the premise is similar to The Office, a mockumentary comedy following a business manager. It is shot in very much the same way, with regular cut aways to Warwick Davis being interviewed, just like Brent. Furthermore, the celebrity cameo appearances are unavoidably reminiscent of Extras. Unfortunately the comparisons are far more damning than these quite superficial ones.

Warwick is Brent. His mannerisms, his speech, his attitudes are all exactly the same. He has a pretentious ego, assuming that everyone knows who he is and admires him, with a feeling that the world owes him something. He even speaks with the same tone and pace. Talk about Mini Me.

Watch this clip:


It seems insane to me how similar they are. It doesn’t help that both of these scenes have taken place after a failed comedic skit. The awkward, ill-placed confidence of Warwick’s wedding speech reminds me heavily of Brent’s welcoming talk with Swindon and his blundered motivational speech.

Comparisons are noticeable in other characters also. The dreary secretary is Maggie from Extras. Both are bumbling females, perpetually making mistakes, often ruining opportunities for the male protagonist. They speak out of turn, they say the wrong things and every episode cause embarrassment. Also, Warwick’s inept accountant plays very much the same character as Stephen Merchant in Extras as Gervais’ agent. Both characters are completely incompetent; they are entirely ineffectual in their jobs, and are seemingly kept on out of pity. It is an interesting irony that the accountant, played by Steve Brody, also played Brent’s bumbling agent in The Office Christmas specials.

Another gripe I have, beyond the blatant repetition, is that I am unsure why Gervais and Merchant really need to be in the show. Perhaps it’s going somewhere and there is a significant reason why they need to be in it, but so far it’s seemed like nothing more than a vehicle to massage their egos. Their role has been to demonstrate how successful and profitable they are, in comparison to a failing Warwick Davis, a man who is desperate for their attention and friendship in the hope of securing future acting roles. The show is as much about them as Warwick, which completely undermines the whole premise. In episode two Johnny Depp came to speak with Gervais, and part of his response was “I write and direct all my own stuff”. This line really stood out to me as a needless pitch of self-assurance and perhaps explains why they feel they deserve to be central characters in the show, for no real reason.

I will endeavour to watch the rest of the series in the hope that I will be proven wrong. I’m not confident.

Developer: Valve Corporation

Publiser: Valve Corporation

Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC

Price: £39.99 (£36.99 on Gamestation)

(Please note that post this may be a little spoilerific, so if you haven’t played/finished Portal 2 yet then exit here)

A wise man once said ‘Perfection is hard to improve’. Never has this phrase been more accurate than when used to describe Valve’s ingenious FPS puzzler, Portal.

Originally bundled in with the Orange Box in 2007 as an additional side-project, Portal was a surprising hit. Capturing the hearts of Half-Life fans the world over with its quirky puzzles and dark, sarcastic charm the game has sold almost 4 million copies (excluding Steam sales) over the last four years.

Pour-tal. (I'm so sorry)

Unexpectedly, Portal rapidly began to receive acclaim, in many cases overshadowing Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, which were very much anticipated successes. Awards included the Game of the Year, Best Game Design  and the Innovation Award at the 2008 Games Developers Choice Awards, amongst many, many others.

Years later, we now found ourselves handling the sequel. But how does one replicate the success of a title that has become so critically-acclaimed, especially something praised for its originality and innovation? How do you transfer a fledgling side-game to a stand-alone hit? Well, ask Valve, because somehow they managed it.

To the game…

For fans of the original, expect plenty more of the same. Once again you take the role of mute protagonist Chell, awoken from stasis after the destruction of GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), the artificial intelligence computer system that you combat in the previous title. Chell’s stasis is disturbed by a small personality core called Wheatley, who attempts to guide her towards an escape pod as a means of rescue. In the process of doing so however, they accidentally awake the dormant GLaDOS, who, bitter and aggressive after her prior downfall, proceeds to rebuild the decaying Aperture Science labs in order to put Chell through another cycle of rigorous and dangerous tests.

Portals in action

The game physics remain generally unchanged in Portal 2. Testing your spatial awareness, the player must use ingenuity and experimentation to progress from chamber to chamber with their trusty Portal Gun. But there are also some interesting additions this time round. Instead of relying solely on the use of two portals, there are also Hard Light Bridges (long panels that can be used horizontally to bridge a gap or vertically as a resourceful shield), Tractor Beams and three types of gel: Repulsion (a blue gel that causes the user to bounce when they come into contact with it), Propulsion (an orangey-red gel that increases the speed of any user passing over it) and Conversion (a white gel allowing any surface to become portal-able when ‘caked’ in it – a little in joke there); the latter device is particularly game changing as it enables an endless amount of possibilities.

Bridge the gap!

These new additions are key to Portal 2. They ensure that the game is not a simple revamp of the original, adding new degrees of difficulty and variation. For veterans they establish dimensions unexplored previously, keeping it fresh and interesting. Importantly, Portal 2 has a really accessible learning curve. As with the first game, the first few test chambers function as an interactive tutorial, instructing the user on the basics of portal usage. Experienced players may find this a little tedious, but can run through them quickly enough that it should not become a problem. As the game progresses, portals must be used in more inventive ways, testing the creativity and logic of the player, with the new gameplay elements added continually for extra obstacles. In the later chambers, when Hardlight Bridges, Gels and Tractor Beams are combined, the game really comes into its own, setting impressive challenges.

The levels are well designed and really show off the sequels improved graphics. Between chambers, Chell is often treated to more detailed passageways, complete with growing foliage and transforming surfaces as GLaDOS attempts to rebuild a decaying facility. Escaping the somewhat sterile environments of the original, which were almost entirely centred around very small-scale and repetitive lab designs, the player also gets a glimpse into the vast scope of the Aperture Science building, with long distance shots that sometimes seem endless.

The bumbling Wheatley aka Stephen Merchant

Portal 2 definitely seems a bit gloomier, aided considerably by a beautiful ambient soundtrack. This goes hand-in-hand with perhaps the most impressive voice acting ever witnessed in a game. Ellen McLain (GLaDOS), J.K. Simmons (Cave Johnson) and a surprise appearance from Brit comedy writer Stephen Merchant (Wheatley) provide the perfect comedic delivery of a hilarious script that is notable for its wit and charm. GLaDOS appeals to the child in all of us, regularly spouting the equivalent of ‘Your mum’ jokes (“Oh good, you finished the test. Let’s see what the data says. Hmmm, it says you’re a terrible person. Weird, we weren’t even testing for that.”), with Merchant’s Bristolian accent lending itself particularly well to a clumsy, dim robot. And referring to audio, don’t forget the outro song… It’s sure to be another Valve classic.

Add to all this a newly developed multiplayer system and you have a winner! The campaign can be played co-operatively in both split screen and online modes. PS3 users can play over Steam using PSN, finally allowing console and PC gamers to cross formats (although currently, due to PSN’s outage, this won’t be possible for the near future), and will also receive a free promotional code for the PC or MAC version. Disappointingly, Xbox Live users can only play with other Xbox owners, but hey, at least it’s actually working! Impressively, the co-op mode is made up of all new test chambers, doubling the hours of play time. Co-op is much more than just a name in this title; it is completely vital. The multiplayer chambers cannot be completed alone, some requiring the use of all 4 portals at your disposal.

Best of auto-mate-ons

And it appears that Valve have thought of everything: For users playing online without a mic the developers have included various tools, such as a Ping Tool, a cursor used for highlighting a pa