Stephen Merchant at The Reykjavík Comedy Festival
My brother is a fourteen-carat, stone cold wanker. At age twelve he spoke fluent French, at fourteen he was the fastest 100-metre runner in Ireland for his age, at eighteen, he captained our school choir and won a scholarship to university for academic excellence, by nineteen he spoke fluent mandarin. My name’s Tom and I’m his older brother. Yesterday I started putting raisins into my porridge. Raisins contain polyphenolic phytonutrients that can improve your ability to see in the dark, and in Iceland around this time of year I reckon that it’s a shrewd bit of thinking. But society wouldn’t notice. Society wants blue rosettes, golden arches and red-letter days; society wants polyglots, athletes and university fellowships. Society doesn’t care much for mavericks, and a little bird has given me raging inkling that this rankles with Stephen Merchant. It rankles terribly, and he in turn is suffering from a terrible rankling.
You see, Stephen has always been depicted as the sidekick to Ricky Gervais, a Robin to his Batman, a Garfunkel to his Simon. He has never enjoyed the same level of credit or celebrity as his jolly other half and his creative contributions are arguably diluted, and cloaked to the public eye by the dissembling prefix ‘co’: co-writer, co-director, co-star. Doing stand up is a valorous attempt to make his own mark, and once and for all step out of Gervais’ looming shadow.
Merchant was at his best when poking fun at himself. At the start of the show, for instance, he projected a series of slides to illustrate just how bad his perceived subordination to Ricky Gervais is in the media. One image, taken from the 2004 Golden Globes ceremony, from a major British newspaper, posits Ricky clutching the award and grinning smugly whilst his lanky sidekick only manages to get his chin into the shot, with the rest of his head just lopped off. It’s a fairly poignant image, and Stephen’s pantomime indigence had the crowd in stitches.
The laughs kept coming, but as the show progressed fresh material began to dwindle. He too easily brought all his gags to a lewd conclusion. At one point for instance he came out with a brilliantly funny yarn about the inventor of the Venn diagram. Lambasting John Venn’s arrogance in naming this pointless invention after himself, he imagines Mr. Venn barging into Victorian pubs going “OY OY! It’s the Vennorator here!” and then putting his diagram to use by surveying the women who wanted to
- a) Lick his balls,
- b) Give him a blowjob or
- c) Do both.
Funny? yes, but the alpha punchline sort of spoils the surreal magic of the original joke.
That’s where it feels like this show falls flat. Although Merchant may look like a great ungainly flapping albatross he is actually quite the alpha-comic. Every second gag is about his sex life, from masturbating to VHS porn as an adolescent to the clumsy nature of his bedroom exploits. At times it got a bit raw, lines like “I’ve done the whole groupie thing, its not for me,” can work if said by someone who is sympathetic and self-deprecating, but Stephen’s vulnerabilities are undercut by his overriding comedic persona, which finds its most fertile ground for material in the cheapness and gloating arrogance of his character.
What redeems the overall show, apart from Stephen’s genuine funniness, is his candour: he may not be apologetic for his meanness, but he doesn’t gild the lily either and that gives him likeability.
The material has been years in the making, so you’ll get your moneys worth, but don’t be expecting Merchant to be at his brilliant best.
Date: 26/10/14 Time: 20:00 Event: Reykjavik Comedy Festival