Brit nerd chases LA women

Stephen Merchant who plays a gangly English nerd who tries to hit on Los Angeles women (above) in Hello Ladies.

When the unrealistic expectations of a 2m-tall Englishman looking for dates collide with the unreasonable demands of attractive Los Angeles women, the result is the new HBO sitcom Hello Ladies.

Co-created by and starring Stephen Merchant, it is in a format tagged "cringe comedy", a field he and frequent collaborator Ricky Gervais explored in the shows Life's Too Short (2011), Extras (2005-2007) and in the series that made both their names, The Office (2001-2003).

Despite a notoriety for humour that makes viewers laugh even as they groan at the terrible social errors committed by the lead characters (especially on matters of race, sex and physical disability), Merchant seems dismayed by the perception that he takes pleasure in making viewers uncomfortable. "People say 'I watch your shows and they make me cringe' but I never set out to do that. It's not my aim. It's just that certain things make me laugh.

"And I guess those things are people being socially awkward, people being out of place, uncomfortable in their own skin," says the Bristol- born actor in a burr-inflected West Country accent on the telephone from Los Angeles, where Hello Ladies is set and created. New episodes appear on Mondays on HBO and HBO HD, with the third episode airing this Monday.

In it, 38-year-old Merchant plays Stuart Pritchard, a British expatriate in Los Angeles who single-mindedly pursues models and actresses, and fails miserably each time but refuses to give up his dream of having a stunning girlfriend.

The series is based on his stand-up act of the same name, in which he talks about his lack of success with women.

"The HBO series takes someone who is very English, and way too gangly and nerdy, putting him in the most glamorous place in the world and seeing how he operates," he says. "Not just in a fish- out-of-water way but because he has this ambition, a fantasy, of gaining access to this world of beautiful people, but the beautiful people don't want him there."

Hello Ladies might be the first American show in which he stars, but he says he is no stranger to working in the United States. "I've been going back and forth between London and America since they began the American version of The Office," he says of the successful NBC spin-off of the BBC original, which ended on its ninth season this year.

"I've directed episodes (of NBC's The Office) and done bits of acting there but I've never worked in the US properly, from beginning to end of a project. The two guys I created the show with (Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg) are former writers from The Office. I know them socially and professionally, so we've got good rapport. It wasn't much of a culture shock, really. The biggest change was driving to work in sunshine rather than in pouring rain in London."

Fans of both versions of The Office note that a key difference between them is that the manager in the British version (played by Gervais) is much more of a social and business failure than the one in the NBC version, played by Steve Carell. American audiences, it is said, cannot abide by a male character who fails constantly.

Merchant believes that while such preferences may be true of broadcast television, it does not apply on a cable network such as HBO, which has had a tradition of characters who are "flawed, unlikeable losers", in shows such as Eastbound And Down and Curb Your Enthusiasm, he says.

Despite having achieved a measure of success and fame, he says he himself is still single, a state his character in the show finds himself at the end of each episode, in spite of his best efforts.

"There're always ladies in my life, as you can imagine, but the great thing about going to LA is that now I get turned down by some of the most beautiful women in the world. I'm getting rejected by some stunning women," he says.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

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