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British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy

Stephen Merchant and Christopher Walken suit up for community service in <em>The Outlaws.</em>
Joanna Chin
Amazon Studios
Stephen Merchant and Christopher Walken suit up for community service in The Outlaws.

Stephen Merchant, best known for co-creating, with Ricky Gervais, the British comedy The Office, has a thing about power.

"I'm endlessly fascinated by [the] kind of people whose ego is corrupted, if you like, by a little bit of power," he says. "I think so much of ego is borne out of insecurity. And I'm always interested in, 'What are the insecurities that people have that turns them into monsters?'"

The British version of The Office was a mockumentary that set the template for shows like Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Abbott Elementaryand, of course, the American version of The Office. Now Merchant has a new show on Amazon Prime, called The Outlaws, which follows a group of low-level offenders who have been assigned court-mandated community service. Merchant says the series was inspired in part by his parents, who supervised community service in Bristol, England.

"My mother would tell me about the sorts of people that come through the door," he says. "They were all such a varied bunch."

One older offender, Merchant says, stole cabbages from people's gardens — just so he could participate in the social aspect of community service each year. Another participant, who Merchant calls "the world's laziest thief," was caught trying to steal the television from his next-door neighbor's house.

In the show, Merchant plays a hapless lawyer who's been caught by police in his car with a sex worker.

"I am one of the creators, I could give myself a sort of James Bond [character]," he jokes. Instead, he says, "I feel like I've typecast myself again as a sort of awkward loser, which I've played many times before."

Interview highlights

On mixing humor and drama in his work

That juxtaposition, I suppose, of tragedy and humor, feels to me [like] my interpretation of the world.

My life, it's had its dark moments and its tragic moments and it's had humorous moments within the same breath. Simple things like, I remember going to my grandmother's funeral and it was a very somber day. And yet, I'm in the hearse on the way to the graveyard and I can hear the reverend and the driver discussing something through the glass. And the driver says, "Do you drive, reverend?" And the reverend says, "No, I had to choose between drinking and driving, and I chose drinking." And they started laughing. I just thought, well, of course, because it's another day at the office for them. But for us, it was a very sad and somber day. And that juxtaposition, I suppose, of tragedy and humor, feels to me [like] my interpretation of the world. And so to me, those things sitting side by side seem completely normal, whereas, I think, for other people they can seem jarring or incongruous.

On casting Christopher Walken as a small-time criminal on The Outlaws

I think certainly for a show set in the U.K., the idea of an American — even just one American — being in that world seems quite glamorous, and it being Christopher Walken even more so. But the idea being that, on the surface, [Walken's character] seems mysterious and sort of exotic. And then when you peel beneath the surface, he's just another petty criminal and small person, if you like. And the idea of sort of playing with that and the expectations that someone like Walken brings to the audience and undermining it ... seemed very interesting. ... [Walken] can be funny, but he can also be scary, but he can be sweet. ... And, you know, Christopher's got a lot of things in his armory.

On working with Ricky Gervais at a radio station, and then later working together to develop the "mockumentary" format that characterized The Office

I got a job at the BBC and ... during a training exercise, I was asked to make a documentary — a real documentary — about something in my neighborhood, you know, a barber shop or whatever. And I said, "Well, could we do a fake one instead? My friend Ricky's very good. And we've got some observations about office life." And they allowed me, and so I had a camera crew for a day. And so Ricky and I went back to his old office and we kind of did a little taster of what became The Office. And very quickly, we had that rapport both on screen, on the radio and ... in the writers' room.

On Gervais' character, David Brent, on the British version of The Office

He is the ultimate middle manager. At the time when the show was coming together, political correctness was a big buzzword in the U.K. ... and yet it wasn't really internalized. It was sort of an act and whatever old kind of prejudices [people] had [were] still lingering. And to me, David Brent embodies that awkward transition. ... [He's] a suburban man who has his petty grievances and craves the adulation of his staff. He wants to be seen as a funny man, but also as a great boss. And suddenly a documentary film crew have shown up at his office, and it gives him the opportunity to present a version of himself to the world. But there's a big gap between who he thinks he is and who he really is. And that was what was so delicious about that character.

On comparing the tone of the British version of The Office with that of the American version

My concern on the initial [American] series was that it was too close to our version, and that it should kind of spread its wings more and be its own thing. And I think between the first and second seasons, Steve Carell had his hit movie, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and I think the network wanted to soften the Michael Scott character slightly and make him slightly more lovable in the way that Steve was in that movie. And I think that [executive producer] Greg [Daniels] very wisely agreed with that. And they started to take it away from the slightly bleaker, more existential version of the British version, and move into something just a little bit more user friendly. ...

I think the British audience is very used to laughing at quite small, petty men. And whether it's a sort of exorcism for us or something, I don't know. And I think I'm not sure that tradition is quite the same in the U.S. I think maybe you appreciate winners more than we do.

On gravitating toward socially awkward comedy, in part, because he is very tall (6 feet, 7 inches)

I've always been taller than everybody else. And that made me quite self-conscious. ... You wish you could go back and talk to your younger self with the knowledge you have now, and the knowledge I have now is people want to be tall. People dream of being tall. And for some reason I didn't realize that. ... I felt very awkward because I was taller than everybody else and I should have leaned into that like a superpower. And instead it did make me quite self-conscious. ...

It's also the just the simple things, like not being able to buy clothes very easily, and so many of the conventions of youth — going out with your friends and clothes shopping — it's like it was just kind of cut off to me because unless they were all going to come to the Big & Tall store, I wasn't going to find clothes that fit. And so you can't create a style. You can't create a look for yourself. You can't choose to be a rocker or whatever, because you can't find the clothes to fit. So you end up wearing whatever fits and so you never quite walk around feeling like you're owning yourself.

On his advice for writing a TV series

Someone had told me early on in my writing career, with a comedy or with a drama, you take your characters, you chase them up a tree and then you throw rocks at them.

Someone had told me early on in my writing career, with a comedy or with a drama, you take your characters, you chase them up a tree and then you throw rocks at them. And so season 1 [of The Outlaws] was chasing them up the tree. Season 2 is really throwing the rocks at them and turning up the heat under them. And it's been very enjoyable, because you've established a world and npw you can have a lot of fun with the characters and see the consequences of their actions. And I'm very pleased and we've already started talking about a third season as well.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger