Smerch

This is the story of how the comedian Stephen Merchant robbed me of my friends, my dignity, and my breakfast.

***

I have upped sticks and headed North to Manchester to start a new job. A new job! One might assume that such good fortune might be the start of great things to come. On the contrary, I now have a whole new bunch of reasons to be comically insecure.1

This is a city in which I know almost no-one. Like starting Uni, I will have to build a new life from the ground up. Unlike Uni, however, Iʼm not surrounded by people doing the same. This will be difficult, and/or awkward. As well as this, I donʼt know the city very well at all. I was scouted for the job, and have moved to a room in a house a good hour-and-a-half from the city centre. My knowledge of Manchester extends as far as: two football teams, Oasis, a punk band no-one has heard of (even in their home town) and Karl Pilkington.

Aside from my mate Rick, who has just had a child, I have no friends in Manchester, and resolved to carve out a new life in this glorious Capital of the North, and all the potential new best-friends it contained. What a life we would have, experiencing art and music and comedy together…

Which is why just three short weeks later, I was watching the award-winning writer and comedian Stephen Merchant on my own.

Stephen Merchant. Photo by Robbie.

***

I love comedy; itʼs one of my Top Three Favourite Things of All Time. Iʼd describe myself as a ʻproperʼ comedy fan, although I primarily intake via podcasts and the like, as these can be enjoyed alongside daily life.2 I love a good gag gig, and have enjoyed countless nights with like-minded friends, but the absence of my chums will not dissuade me from seeing Mr Merchantʼs live act.

The irony of seeing a show primarily about loneliness in the company of sod-all was not lost on me, but needs must, and this might be the perfect way to meet a whole new group of mates… Perhaps a new set of comedy-loving friends will only be a few seats away… Perhaps there may even be a pretty young lady, inexplicably attracted to the skinny, awkward comedian, and who is willing to think ʻYes. I will settle for less,ʼ and go out with me instead. Maybe I will meet someone there…3

A comedy gig is not, strictly speaking, a social function. You arenʼt there to talk, youʼre there to listen. And laugh obviously, unless its rubbish, and even then heckling is discouraged. But maybe this time will be different… thereʼs something different about me these days – maybe itʼs my new job, maybe itʼs my snazzy new jumper, or maybe itʼs the air of loneliness and intense desperation that hangs over me like a damp rag. Good name for a band that…

Hopefully the need for company and a feel-good atmosphere will catalyse a connection or two. If my obvious solitude doesnʼt attract a mate – in either sense of the word – I wonʼt be at all surprised. But friendships have to start somewhere, and where better than a mutual interest in misery-based comedy…

***

Steveʼs first ever touring stand-up show is called ʻHello Ladiesʼ, and is about his failed search for a wife. It is sublime, exquisitely written, and will be available on DVD from the back-end of November for your convenience/the festive market.

Iʼm a big fan of the Lanky Co-Writer, and as a Pilkie-hipster proper fan, I have seen all of Ricky & Steveʼs visual work and heard not only all the podcasts, but all 192 hours of the old XFM shows as well – thank you pilkipedia.com – unless XFM are reading this in which case I definitely havenʼt heard any legally protected material. Unfortunately this meant I had heard Steveʼs first four anecdotes before.4

Iʼve always found Steveʼs jokes much easier to relate to than his colleagues, Ricky can be quite brash, and Karl never, ever admits heʼs wrong, but Steve is humble and wonderfully understated5 and is essential listening for anyone whoʼs got a bit of loser in them. I therefore assumed that I, a single loser, would be hilariously vindicated by some scrupulously honest comedy from a man whose personal life has not exactly had the same soaring heights as his career, and was both pleased and slightly disappointed to learn that Steveʼs love life, whilst far from stable, was thoroughly existent.6

Perhaps you could take from it that despite not having the oft-overlooked blessings of conventional attractiveness, athletic ability and a functional social life, Mr Merchantʼs love and enthusiasm for comedy not only provided fuel for his dream career, but perhaps some of the raw material as well; Steveʼs (and Rickyʼs) comedy is as poignant and salient as it is irrepressibly hilarious, and it comes from a very real, relatable place. His soul is clearly as nuanced as his wit is sharp, and itʼs that that (I reckon) his fans respond to, even if he is a lanky goggle-eyed freak with dance moves reminiscent of ʻa stick insect being given electroshock treatmentʼ or ʻa bit of weird art.ʼ

Alternatively; if you want to be pessimistic about it, (and I do) Steveʼs success has counted for nothing. Beauty really is skin deep if two BAFTAs, a British Comedy Award, a plethora of accolades, a Blue Peter Badge (!!) and a presumably obscene amount of wealth canʼt offset crippling astigmatism and the physique of an angle-poise lamp to win you the heart of a fair maiden.

I thoroughly enjoyed Steve – itʼs always nice to break the barrier between successful people and the regular plebs (us) and see that they have problems too, something that many celebrities often lose touch with. Incidentally, I saw Smerch in the same week that Ricky Gervais was under tabloid scrutiny for ʻmongingʼ all over Twitter. As a fan of the Chubby Funster, it was dismaying to see him fall so gracelessly, but as I always do in these situations, I asked myself, ʻWhat would iPhone Scrabble say?ʼ

End of.

***

Needless to say, Steve ripped it, by which I mean the show was good, not that he damaged public property. He wouldnʼt do that, he is a nice boy. Iʼve since seen the show on DVD and reckon my night was better;7 particularly the end segment involving the audience, which I wonʼt spoil for you, but is ruddy marvellous, especially the bit about GCSE Drama. God dammit…

ʻWhat a shame my friends couldnʼt be here to see this with meʼ, I thought, ʻIʼdʼve enjoyed it so much more with Dan or Terence or Joe – I should have given Rick a call, heʼdʼve loved to see this.ʼ

Iʼm ready to call it a night – Iʼve had a good time and will be able to do a blog about the irony of seeing a show about loneliness on my own. You know, the one youʼre reading now. ʻBlogceptionʼ, as the kids say these days.

But the night was not to end there. Iʼd had a pint and a laugh, and after seeing the show was feeling slightly more lonely than normal, and was prepared to chance my arm a conversation. To my left are two young men about my age, seemingly approachable and deep in conversation; comparing the show to some of Ricky, Steve and Karlʼs recorded material. I turn towards them, lean in and let my guard down, like a bloody fool…

ʻI couldnʼt help overhearing, youʼre fans of the podcasts? Have you heard the XFM shows…ʼ

We chat for a bit about how good Steve Merchant was, and still is, and the one on the left compliments me on my snazzy jumper. ʻYay! Friends!ʼ I thought, but I was wrong.

***

My new compadres are named Matt and Mike, and are senior and junior production editors for the BBC, respectively. Iʼm a little bit impressed. We bond a little as I tell them my similar credentials and that my company are doing a few bits of work for the BBC at the moment. Matt says ʻCoolio,ʼ and I laugh, because that is a rapper as well as a funny word. Mike does an approving grunt – after laughing himself hoarse at olʼ Stevie Merchant, his voicebox is a little worse for wear. He introduced himself thusly: ʻIʼm Mike, and I sound like Barry White! Barry Shitting White! How about that!?ʼ

Matt is 28 and resembles Aaron Barrett, the frontman of popular ska/pop-punk band Reel Big Fish, if thatʼs any help to you. Mike is 23 and looks like my friend Toby, who is not famous.

The boys invite me out for a drink. It is gone 10:00, and I want to be in bed soon, as Iʼve got work tomorrow, but I say ʻyesʼ, because I ought to take more chances, and this might be how friends are made. However will I earn their respect if I donʼt drink excessively with them? We walk briskly from the Manchester Apollo to a bar on Oxford Road, discussing amateur-level comedy and how everyone knows someone who thinks theyʼre funny but really isnʼt. Everyone except me, apparently…

About an hour later, Iʼve drunk much, much more than I intended. Inwardly, I seethe that this is what it takes to make friends as a young adult; it isnʼt enough to have a common interest, no! You must also make yourself chemically imbalanced and drench your dignity in liquid shame.

Matt and I are talking about productions suites and working for the Beeb. Mike is on the phone to his current girlfriend, whom he is telling that he sounds like Barry White. She doesnʼt believe him, so he tells her a few more times. Itʼs only a matter of time before Iʼm asked the inevitable question.

ʻDo you have a girlfriend?ʼ

ʻNo, no, Iʼm single.ʼ

ʻAnd is that out of choice, or are you sort of between girlfriends?ʼ

ʻYeah, out of choice I suppose, itʼs not really my thing –ʼ

ʻSo youʼre gay then?ʼ

ʻNo, no Iʼm a straighty –ʼ

ʻBecause if you were Iʼd be fine with that.ʼ

ʻNo, Iʼm not gay –ʼ

ʻWell you are well dressed. And skinny. Have you got AIDS?ʼ

ʻNo I havenʼt got AIDS!ʼ

ʻCan you prove that?ʼ

ʻErr… Not right now….ʼ

ʻThen until we know differently, let us assume that you are straight and have at least one fatal blood disorder.ʼ

ʻIʼll take that.ʼ

We then proceeded to have another pint and two further rounds of shots. By this point I was too drunk to remember to feel uncomfortable around these guys, and was focussing all my innate paranoia on dreading the next dayʼs hangover. I was able to remember the conversation because I drunk-texted my friend Dan the simple sentence; ʻMet some guys who asked me if Iʼm gay and have AIDS.ʼ8

A final round of shots burning the back of my throat, we wander outside towards a club. We are refused entry, not because I am clearly in work clothes and carrying a shoulder bag, but because Mike tried to kiss the bouncer. Even a rendition of ʻMy First, My Last, My Everythingʼ couldnʼt get us in, and when that happens, you know itʼs probably time to go home. Also, it was 11:15 – way past my bed time. Matt and I shake hands, promising to keep in touch, although we know that wonʼt happen.

After telling me one final time that he sounded like Barry White, Mike too bids me good evening. I get into a nearby taxi, after first making him promise me he isnʼt an illegal minicab. Safety first.

The next morning I have my third worst hangover ever. I exorcise most of my demons9 before leaving, and am only twenty minutes late for work, although my performance suffers terribly. I have two bits of work to start and finish that need to be in New York by 3:00 PM, but I also have two pints and three shots in me that need to be down a toilet much sooner.

An ʻevacuationʼ during work hours is a new low for me. I stare into the basin as my sick spirals away, with my career in tow.

At about midday I perk up, and the work is done early. I get an email from our New York clients commending my efforts. I read it out loud in a Bronx accent. Oh how we laughed. A colleague invites me for drinks after work, and I politely decline. No new friends for me.

***

A few weeks later I text my friend Rick, to see how heʼs getting on with the latest addition to his family. He asks me if Iʼd seen Steve Merchantʼs DVD. ʻMate,ʼ I reply, ʻI saw him live.ʼ ʻMe too,ʼ he replies. ʻThursday night. Third row.ʼ

My friend – my only friend in this city – was sat twenty feet away, and I was none the wiser. I tell Ric we should have arranged a meet up, and that this is all his fault, and that he is an arse. Now I definitely have no friends in this town.

Steve Merchant you hilarious bastard, this is all your fault.


I hope itʼs comical. If these arenʼt funny Iʼll probably have to do a murder or something in order to give these ramblings some function as a mentalistʼs manifesto. Not that it isnʼt that already.

Aside from the aforementioned Ricky, Steve and Karl, other comedy favourites include Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson, Danny Wallace, Simon Amstell, Charlie Brooker, Robin Ince, Tim Key, Russell Howard, Richard Herring, Dave Gorman, Danielle Ward, Larry David, Steve Coogan, Simon Munnery, Dan Antopolski, John Robbins, David Mitchell, Josie Long, Tina Fey,  Matt Forde, Bill Bailey, Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg, and JonRichardsonJonRichardsonJonRichardsonJonRichardsonJonRichardson. Thank you for asking.

This is fast becoming a catchphrase.

ʻWeʼve arranged to meet back at youʼ is a long-time personal favourite. Unless XFM are reading this too in which case I hate it. And I havenʼt heard it. Who are you again?

Humbly wunderstated?

As opposed to being non-existent. This is not really a valid sentence to say in conversation.

ʻOh howʼs the love life?ʼ

ʻThoroughly existent.ʼ

ʻAlright, alright, calm down.ʼ

Take that, Oxford.

I donʼt do a lot of drunk texting, mainly because (a) I donʼt really do a lot of drinking and (b) without any ladies playing a main feature in my life, I am free of any romantic angst that might initiate inadvisable messaging. The last drunk text I sent was in January on a night out at Uni. Frustrated with the shod being fed into my ears by the DJ, I texted my friend Dave the lyrics to Streetlight Manifestoʼs Point/Counterpoint in full, with horn parts included thusly; ʻbah badaba bah bah ba bah baʼ. As drunk texts go, this was quite harmless, and cost me nothing. Or it would have been, if Dave hadnʼt been in Australia at the time.

Vom.

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