Stephen Merchant on How Being Tall and Having a Funny Father Made Him a Comedian

Fighting with My Family's writer-director Stephen Merchant traces the roots of his comedy career back to a childhood full of laughter.

I feel a real connection with the family in my new film, Fighting with My Family. My own family is a little less rowdy and bawdy, less rough around the edges, but we also have that ease with one another. The way you can give each other shit, but it’s never taken to heart, and how you use humor to laugh and communicate with each other.

Growing up, humor was always an important part of family life. My dad was – and still is – very funny, and he and I shared a love of watching and enjoying comedies together, especially Laurel and Hardy. My dad was a plumber and a builder, so there was some of that earthy, working-class humor in the house when I was growing up. He was quite sarcastic – dry and droll – and could be quite self-deprecating, but also very goofy. When my sister Alex had a sleepover with her friends, she would beg him not to embarrass her, but then do something stupid like pulling his underpants up over his trousers. I was always slightly in awe of how relaxed and funny he could be in company. As a teenager, I would often happily sit with him and his friends and just listen to them banter.

I was definitely influenced by dad’s sense of humor. Though I was never really part of any social group at school, humor allowed me to navigate different social groups. It was definitely a good “social lubricant,” as it were. Someone said to me once, “Do you think you used humor to control when people laughed at you?” That’s maybe true. Humor was a good way of counteracting the fear that someone was going to mock me.

Being very tall from a young age, I always felt like I stood out, whether I liked it or not. In everyday life, I was trying to blend in, and performing was a way of taking ownership of that. If you’re going to stand out from the crowd anyway, why not take full control of it? It was only later that I realized, “Oh, everyone wants to be tall. This is a superpower, and I’ve somehow been ashamed of it!”

I was never the kid who’s clearly a born entertainer and dances on the kitchen table. I wasn’t a show-off. When I was young, though, I would sometimes co-opt my younger sister Alex into doing little comedy routines; at Christmas, I would get her to help me recreate Two Ronnies sketches and we would force the family to sit and watch us. I think my parents just wearily sat through it and then clapped politely.

Stephen Merchant as a teenager

I remember getting a school report once that said, “Steven’s a smart kid, but he constantly tries to see the funny side of things.” It was a criticism. I remember thinking, “Is that not a good thing?” From quite a young age, I had ambitions to do what I do now. All my school years were geared towards being in comedy – I was always aiming for this. I had this weird confidence and was very self-possessed, believing I could do this for a living. I don’t know where that confidence came from.

The moment it clicked for me as a performer was when I was about 14 and I acted in my first school play. The play, which had been written by one of the teachers, was set in the 1950s and was about a dance contest. I was playing a comedy vicar (I had the dog collar and everything) and I had to announce the winners of this dance contest. I was just supposed to open this envelope and say, “And the winner is … Barbara and Jack.” On the first night, I opened the envelope and said, “And the winner is … pint of milk and two loaves of bread. Oh, I’m sorry, that’s my shopping list.” I felt the thrill of getting a laugh and I thought, “Well, this is cool.” I remember the teacher who wrote the play was angry with me and said, “You improvised that line. I never said you could do that!” I thought, “Ooh, I’m a bit rock and roll, I’m a bit outrageous.” Each night I would change the line slightly, and then she would be angry and I would feel rebellious.

I was probably a bit exhausting at school. I was always making jokes, and never really making real connections because I was always joking around. Probably as a defense mechanism, an anxiety about being laughed at. One of my friends said to me once, “The thing is, Steve, you’re funny, but then people get bored of you.” I remember thinking, “Wow.” It was shocking. After that, I tried to go completely the other direction – people would be having a laugh and I’d say, “Yeah, but what about the situation in the Middle East, guys?” trying to put a downer on things to seem much more weighty and profound. Fortunately, somewhere along the line, I figured out a balance between the two.

As a teenager, my plan was to emulate John Cleese; he was a great role model and he and I had a lot in common. He had grown up in Weston-super-Mare, near where I lived in Bristol. Like me, he also went to school in Bristol, was very tall, and was a writer and a performer. I wanted to go to Cambridge and be in the Footlights, like he had, but my teacher told me, “Look, you’re not going to get the grades for Cambridge,” so I didn’t apply. (Turns out I did get the grades in the end, and I could’ve gotten in!) That threw a slight wrench in the works, but I was very single-minded – always doing comedy, writing comedy, trying to perform – so I figured it out anyway.

Stephen Merchant on the mic at Radio Warwick

I applied to other colleges, including the University of Warwick. I was more than happy to go there, as they had a radio station, which excited me, and I was studying film and TV. I was diligent about taking full advantage of everything that was there, and eagerly threw myself into radio and sketch comedy. I started off a bit nervous and shaky, but by the time I finished, I was actually a pretty good DJ. I also made a couple of sub-Tarantino-style gangster movies with friends and took a sketch show up to the Edinburgh Festival. All of this indirectly fed into what I did later.

After graduating, I was applying for jobs but wasn’t getting interviews and started thinking, “Oh God, this is not really panning out …” Even though it probably wasn’t a long stretch of time, at the time it felt like an eternity. Then I sent my resumé to Xfm, and that’s where I met Ricky Gervais.

I was ambitious and hard-working and had a lot of self-belief, but also aware that I didn’t know anybody or how to do a lot of stuff. Because Ricky was older, he was more calm and relaxed in himself, and that rubbed off on me. Initially, he was more a boss and a mentor figure, but things began to even up when we started working more closely together. We went on the radio together as a double act and had an easy rapport. In a sense, we were just staggering from moment to moment, but then we got the opportunity to move to the BBC, and The Office developed out of that.

I’ve always wanted to direct. It was always writing, performing and directing. I remember when we went in for a meeting with the BBC about The Office, they said, “Well, why would we let you direct it?” I said, “Well, we might be the next Orson Welles.” It sounds terribly arrogant, but it was just saying, “Well, none of us know. We might be, we might not … but we might be.” I clearly had some feeling we’d be able to figure it out.

Stephen Merchant is an Emmy-, BAFTA- and Golden Globe-winning actor, comedian, writer, director and producer who first shot to prominence as co-creator (alongside Ricky Gervais) of BBC’s The Office and Extras. He wrote, directed and acts in Fighting with My Family, based on the true story of WWE wrestler Paige, which stars Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost and Vince Vaughn; the film opens in theaters on February 14. In 2017 Merchant was widely lauded for his performance as the mutant Caliban in Logan, alongside Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Prior to that Merchant was star, co-creator, co-writer and director of HBO’s Emmy-nominated Hello Ladies, a sitcom based on his live stand-up show of the same name. In 2010, Merchant and Gervais directed their first feature film, a 1970s-set comedy-drama titled Cemetery Junction. Merchant’s additional film credits and cameos include Table 19, I Give It a Year, Hall Pass, Tooth Fairy and Hot Fuzz.