LOS ANGELES – If someone is going to borrow Ricky Gervais’ cringe-inducing act, it might as well be his writing partner.
Stephen Merchant, co-creator of the Gervais series “The Office,” “Extras” and “Life’s Too Short,” is front and center in HBO’s “Hello Ladies,” as Stuart, a British Web designer under the delusion that he can find true love in Los Angeles. Instead, the character trips from one embarrassing situation to another in ways that resemble the 6-foot-7 actor’s real-life stabs at romance.
Merchant was in London’s Trafalgar Square on a recent New Year’s Eve when he thought an attractive woman was checking him out.
“I’ve been on TV a few times, thought I was looking pretty good and was looking for some romantic action,” he said. “She came through the crowd towards me, looked up and said, ‘Are you going to be here a while?’ When I said I was, she said, ‘Great, because my friends and I have arranged to meet back at you.’ ”
One relationship that remains on solid ground is the one with Gervais, even though he’s not involved in “Ladies,” which is based on Merchant’s stand-up routine. Instead, Merchant teamed up with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who wrote the Cameron Diaz movie “Bad Teacher” and served as executive producers for the American version of “The Office.”
“Ricky’s actually been with his girlfriend since they were probably 20, so he’s never really experienced these types of things,” said Merchant, who met Gervais in 1997 when they were working for BBC radio. “It didn’t feel like a natural fit for he and I to work on this.”
Gervais used his solo time to create “Derek,” a surprisingly snark-free, sentimental journey about finding kindness in a retirement center that’s currently available on Netflix.
“Ladies” is more in line with what we’re used to getting from English comics: over-assured men totally unaware that they have kidney pie all over their face.
“I think there’s a veneer of optimism in American TV comedy,” Merchant said. “In England, we don’t mind ending on a more sour note.”
Merchant said that despite his show-biz status, he continues to be a social misfit. The only change is that he’s being rejected by a better class of women. He recalled attending the Golden Globes a few years ago and feeling pretty snazzy.
“I saw Pierce Brosnan walk by and I thought, ‘Wow. He looks good.’ Then I thought that I was looking pretty good,” he said. “I look down and some buttons had broke for some reason and my underwear was being exposed to Pierce and the other Hollywood stars. I borrowed a safety pin from Ricky’s girlfriend and went into the bathroom. I realized Pierce Brosnan would never be in the toilet fastening his pants. That’s the key distinction between the person I would like to be and the person I am.”