It's 8am, and Stephen Merchant is in pain. The 6-foot-7 Englishman strained his back the night before while lip-synching to DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's "Boom! Shake the Room" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in a clip that's about to go viral.
Merchant, 38, is no longer just Ricky Gervais's lanky, Emmy-winning cowriter, the guy whose head was cropped out of press photos when The Office scored a Golden Globe for best comedy. Now he's created his own HBO sitcom, Hello Ladies, in which he stars as Stuart, a hapless, penny-pinching British bachelor who's failing to tear up the L.A. singles scene with his recently separated best bud Wade (Nate Torrence), paraplegic frenemy Kives (Kevin Weisman) and tenant Jessica (Christine Woods). While Merchant admits over breakfast that he might be scaring away eligible honeys who might assume he is exactly like his TV counterpart, this time he won't have to share any of his material with Gervais.
"When I first did radio with Ricky, I'd tell stories about my bad dates to make him laugh," says Merchant of how his failed romances turned into comic fodder. "In my twenties, I was trying too hard."
Yet Stuart's fatal dating flaw isn't his enthusiasm. He eschews attractive, interested women in order to preen for aloof models, leading to mortifying situations, many of which come from Merchant's real life. For example, in one episode he curses out a boy while hitting on the child's godmother at a friend's wedding. At least Merchant and his alter ego are not alone. "Hollywood is full of guys who were basically nerds that couldn't get dates," says Merchant. "Now they're getting revenge on all the people who laughed at them."
Today, the actor — who is single — just wants to avoid Stuart-style embarrassment. "I was going to a wedding, and I stood in some dog s--t. I thought, 'This doesn't happen to George Clooney.' There are some people who are born cool. It's some weird karmic thing they're handed. Mine was 'We're going to make you awkward and self-conscious, but you're going into comedy, so at least it's going to work out.'"
Hello Ladies airs Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.