Stephen Merchant is the award-winning co-writer and co-director of The Office, Extras and Life's Too Short. Here he talks to IdeasMag about learning on the job, writer's doubt and working with Ricky Gervais...
What does my writing schedule look like? If I’m collaborating with Ricky [Gervais], then it tends to be quite formalised, not 9 to 5 – we’re a bit lazy – so more like 11 till 4.
If we’re working on a specific project we’ll start with a lot of brainstorming, a lot of Post-it notes on the wall with ideas, scenes and jokes on, and then we’ll slowly build that into some kind of structure.
I do have periods of doubt when writing and it’s frustrating because you wish you could arrogantly bash out 30 pages and never go back to it. I think it’s useful to have these moments because it forces you to keep on trying to improve it, keep on questioning it, keep on cross-examining what you’ve done.
All the characters that we’ve done are all trying to raise their heads above the pack, which I think is a very human trait – we’re all trying to mark ourselves out. David Brent started as a few observations and, in the course of building The Office from its earliest stages as a training film that I did at the BBC, into a pilot episode and then into a series, he developed. Ricky had worked for a long time in offices and he had a sense of how David Brent ticks, so we could talk about him in any situation and we knew how he would act. That’s vital when you’re writing comedy, particularly sitcom. You need to know how the characters are thinking. If you put them in a war situation, how would they react? If you put them in the Prime Minister’s chair, how would they react?
I hadn’t had a great deal of directing experience before The Office. I had done a few bits and bobs on BBC factual programmes. It was useful, but it wasn’t really training for doing a dramatic piece. It’s not until you actually do it – that’s when you learn. All the practical or theoretical stuff, you could do for hours – it’s useful – but what happens when you’re actually there is that there’s a whole other bunch of pressures that you never anticipated. Half of learning to direct is managing your own anxieties and your time keeping, and figuring out what’s most important.
My ambition from a young age was just to have done a sitcom. I was a big Fawlty Towers and Blackadder fan and so once we had a show on TV, particularly when it was well thought of, then I felt like I’d done what I wanted to do. I wanted to do a sitcom and I’ve done it and so everything else now is just filling up the hours until death.
I went to university and I would recommend it. The thing about university is that you will never have that much freedom again. You think that you’ve got work to do but that changes when you get into the workplace, when you’ve got to make a living and pay for rent. At university there are ready-made societies, there’s an infrastructure for you to be creative within, which you’re not going to have when you’re out in the real world.
There’s a quote that is, “I can't give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.” You’ll never know what everyone wants and you’re more likely to do something that’s of no worth if you try and please everyone, whereas if you try and please yourself and like-minded people, more people will appreciate it.
There’s another one that is attributed to Woody Allen; supposedly he said, “80% of success is showing up” and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Get out there and do it; you’re not going to achieve anything by sitting around saying “I could be heavyweight champion of the world” – you’ve got to get in the ring at some point.