Stephen Merchant Tells Us How He Uses Laughter As A Trojan Horse To Lure Audiences Into His World

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If there were anyone in the world who could find the humor in my predicament, it was Stephen Merchant.

The Office co-creator and comedy writer was early for his interview, and I was in Boston’s famed Fenway Park. By the time Merchant’s people called me from his press junket for Fighting With My Family, I had raced to a (mostly) empty bathroom on the first base line apologizing for what he may hear. There was at least one flush in the course of our time on the phone. It was not from me. I don’t recall if the man washed his hands or not because I was too busy worrying about whether the call would drop. It had already done that once.

Other interview subjects may have just called it quits there, but a comedy writer seemed like the best possible subject given the circumstances. And Merchant has basically made a living out of making the most out of painfully awkward but entirely human situations. Merchant’s The Office hit America and changed the way comedy is viewed by a huge segment of the population. The mundane can be funny, and romantic, even.

Merchant spoke with Uproxx about how laughter is his trojan horse, what working with The Rock was like, and why Fighting With My Family is a movie for everyone, even if you’re not a lifelong wrestling fan. He also spoke about dealing with trolls, and whether a younger Merchant might have joined their zealous ranks were he growing up today.

Wrestling is a very specific genre that has some hardcore fans, but there’s a large portion of the population that really doesn’t know much about it. What’s your approach to making a film about a wrestling story that would connect with everyone?

It was important to me from the beginning to appeal to the non-wrestling fan as much as the wrestling fan. I wanted it to work for people who might think, ‘This is not for me.’ I wanted to tell this story which, to me, felt like it was about so many other things. It was about family, it was about sibling rivalry, it was about the pressures parents put on their kids, it was about ambition, loneliness, it was about feeling like an outsider and embracing your inner freak and sort of pushing forward when the world seems to say they’re not interested in you.

And, most significantly, it was about what happens when your dreams don’t come true. When you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep on going. So I thought there were a lot of universal themes that had nothing to do with wrestling, it just happens to be the backdrop. So those were the things that I was focused on and hopefully that’s what connects with people.

This is a wrestling movie that has The Rock in it so I have to ask about The Rock. Anything that he does these days gets a lot of attention, but was working with him on this just business as usual?

Well, I’d worked with him before on a movie called Tooth Fairy. I got on well with him then and we had a good rapport, and we stayed in touch over the years and so nothing has changed, really, since then. Except that he’s eight times as busy as he was back then. Once he’s with you, though, he gives you enormous attention and focus. He’s very collaborative, he doesn’t try to impose his will on things. He listens, he discusses. He sat with me, he brought me up to speed on wrestling and worked with our actress. He helped shape some of the matches. So he was very much the same as he was before. He’s an easy person to work with, and I’m not someone who likes an environment where there’s conflict, people shouting at one another. I want us all pushing in the same direction and that’s what it was with The Rock.

The only thing is I tried to write this Rock-style promo which he ran for the kids at one point. And he said ‘I think I can do better than this’ and he went off into the corner, did some magic, came back and rolled the cameras and he just rips off this two-minute perfect Rock promo speech. It was like, wow. It’s dazzling.

One of the hallmarks of your work is telling a story that does have heart in it. Sure, there are comedic elements in there, but the overall story carries emotional weight. How often do you consider that when you’re writing?

It’s funny because when we first did The Office and were first starting out we were often portrayed as sort of cynical people. That we were kind of mocking and satirizing the world, but we had nothing but affection and love for our characters. Speaking for myself, I’m sort of a romantic at heart, really, and I like making you laugh but I want to take you on an emotional journey that has kind of an emotional resolution in the final episode or the end of the movie. The laughter, to me, is always kind of serving the purpose of something greater. If I’m just making you laugh, it’s sort of a hollow victory for me. I want to sort of use that and then, without you realizing it, you’re suddenly in tears of emotional joy or feeling inspired or uplifted or whatever it might be. It’s like a Trojan Horse that lures you into my world. In the same way that I don’t think The Office is about selling paper — it’s about people and how they interact — I think the same thing here. It’s not about wrestling, it’s about the people.

I’m sure you get asked about The Office all the time but I’m curious if you think much about how much comedy has evolved since the original show and then its adaptation in the US. Does it seem like we’re in a difference place when it comes to how people want to laugh and what they find funny?

Do you mean in the sense that people are more sensitive?

I think that but also in the sense of how the show was shot. It’s sort of become a hallmark for a very different style of sitcom.

I do feel like if we could make some money from every TV show or comedy where people are making fake documentaries we could be very wealthy. But it’s not like we did it for the first time, others had done it before, including This Is Spinal Tap. So we were just stealing from the greats. In terms of how it’s sort of evolved? Maybe. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say because I feel like I’m so immersed in it. I’m in the weeds with comedy so I can’t even analyze it anymore. I don’t know where we are. I don’t know if people want silliness or sloppiness. I’m really pleased that the romantic comedy seems to have made a return — I’ve always been a fan so I kind of missed them when they went away.

I know I tried with The Office to have sort of a romantic comedy element. But the thing that pleases me with The Office, or at least the American version, is that it’s still enormously popular on Netflix and seemingly with a lot of teenagers who have never even worked in an office. That’s a real thrill. A real payday.

It’s funny you mention younger The Office fans. A few months ago I took my girlfriend to Niagara Falls, where you filmed the wedding episode, of course. And on the viewing platform a group of teens was near us and one said ‘This is where Jim and Pam get married’ and another shouted ‘SPOILERS! I’m only in season two!’

That’s amazing. That’s great.

The Office is a show that’s certainly been given new life through streaming platforms. Others like Frasier and maybe Cheers have seen new audiences in a similar way. Have you thought about how that impacts older shows today?

I remember early on in my career someone talking to me about what they called ‘the long tail’ and this idea that things kind of continue to live now. When I was growing up it was really hard to see a show before the advent of, really, DVDs and that kind of stuff. To really get hold of DVDs from other parts of the world — If I wanted to watch M*A*S*H, let’s say, it was hard for me to find that. I had to wait for it to be repeated on the BBC in the UK or maybe get a hold of some illegal, imported tape that didn’t work on my British machine. You know, it was hard to discover things after the event.

I always used to tape stuff on VHS because I was fearful that it might never be screened again, so I had to make a copy. Whereas now, everything’s there. Just kind of sitting, whether online or with a streaming service. Waiting to be discovered. And that’s great, that people are still discovering shows that I’ve made. I mean, we made the original version of The Office 20 years ago and people are still discovering it, still saying they just watched it. So it’s real thrill to be in this age where nothing dies, really. It’s just sitting there, waiting to be discovered years later.

On the same end of that coin, technology gives people access to you directly online. There’s got to be a lot of messages coming your way — does that feedback impact the way you feel about your work or how you approach it?

Well, I try not to give undue attention to both the nice things and the bad things people say on Twitter. It’s lovely to hear kind words, but if you accept the nice ones you have to accept the bad ones, too. I love that fans can interact with me and talk to me but I try not to go too far down that rabbit hole because I do feel at some point that you might go insane. So I’m really cautious with it. But I’m really lucky because, on the whole, the response I get on social media is very loving and very positive and there’s not a lot of name-calling or hate. But I sometimes sort of wonder if I was 15 and I was a big movie fan and comic book fan and I was on Twitter: would I be a troll? I remember when I saw the Batman movie in 1988, the Tim Burton Batman movie. I was very excited about that. And I was furious that he had made the Joker the person that killed Batman’s parents. We all know that was Joe Chill, it was not the Joker that did it. And yet they changed the rules! I was furious as a comic book fan. And I sometimes wonder if I had access to Twitter would I have been sending abusive messages to Tim Burton? Would I be at-mentioning him “HOW DARE YOU BURTON?” From theanonymoustallmanbristol2496. Who knows? Maybe I would have been.

So I understand people’s passions and I understand that sort of love/hate relationship with people they admire. As someone who’s on the other end of it, it can be a little intimidating.