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British comedian ups the uncomfortable ante in new HBO series

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'Is your name Google? Because you're everything I've been searching for': Merchant tries out a line on Hello Ladies.

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'Is your name Google? Because you're everything I've been searching for': Merchant tries out a line on Hello Ladies.

Finally, it's time for Britain's other master of cringe-inducing comedy to step out of the background and into the spotlight.

And when he does, he's going to cast a very long shadow.

Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais's writing/producing partner and occasional co-star on such brilliantly uncomfortable British concoctions as The Office, Extras and Life's Too Short, has largely remained anonymous while his comedy cohort became something of a worldwide phenomenon.

And not being noticed isn't the easiest thing to do when you're six-foot-seven, bespectacled and all angles and elbows. He may tower over pretty much everyone in any room he enters, but the 38-year-old native of Bristol, England, has remained mostly under the radar in pop-culture terms.

Maybe it's a relative measurement, but Merchant's fame is minuscule in comparison to the level of celebrity Gervais has cultivated during the past decade.

That might change this weekend, however, with the arrival on premium cable of Merchant's first major Gervais-less career step, the HBO comedy Hello Ladies, which premi®res Sunday, Sept. 29, on HBO Canada (check listings for time).

The eight-episode series, inspired by Merchant's like-titled 2011-12 standup tour, focuses on the romantic misadventures -- no, let's call them catastrophes -- of an awkward and mistakenly confident British web designer who has recently moved to Los Angeles and is trying to fit in with the beautiful people.

In an interview session during HBO's portion of the U.S. networks' summer press tour in L.A., Merchant confessed that there's an element of truth in Hello Ladies' humour.

"People ask me, 'Do things change when you become well known or you go on TV?' and my feeling is just that I'm getting rejected by a better class of women," he explained. "(That) would just be my genuine experience. I don't feel any more assured, really. I'm not the kind of gangly awkward teenager that I was, and I'm not as hapless as I was in my 20s, and I do have more self-confidence, but I still feel that even as we were writing the show, things were happening in the dating world that we could come in the next day and just write them straight into the show.

"You know, it seems like nothing changes. It's just different environments. The person who kind of wished he'd said something different when he was 25 is still the same person now who wishes he had said something kind of smart or been a little cooler at that moment. It's not like just because you get on TV, your fly stops bursting open at the wrong moment. That's who I always was, and that remains today."

It's difficult, however, to imagine that the real-life version of Merchant is anywhere near as awkward and socially inappropriate as Stuart, the character he plays in Hello Ladies (the title relates to Stuart's infallibly futile opening line when meeting women in social settings).

Simply put, Stuart is an idiot. He's completely inept when it comes to interpersonal communication, and he has absolutely no idea he's as much of a dolt as he is. In fact, he believes himself to be a bit of a player; it's the rest of the world that's slow to appreciate his charm.

Merchant, aided by series co-creators Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (of the U.S. version of The Office), has created a character whose cringe-inducing antics easily rival those of The Office's original U.K. irritant, David Brent, and Extras' wildly inappropriate background actor Andy Millman (both of whom were portrayed by Gervais).

There's an extra layer of discomfort added to the comedy by transplanting the gangly Brit to L.A., a town where image and style and superficiality are the currency of social intercourse.

"I think there's a common sort of fantasy (among the English) that Los Angeles, in particular, is kind of exotic and is full of glamour; the idea being that you probably grew up watching shows like Moonlighting or whatever, where there was something about the night," Merchant offers. "It was sexy, and it was people in ball gowns going to soir©es that overlook the city. And he's come here, and he's bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, but it's not quite the house he wanted.

"You can see the 'H' of the Hollywood sign, but only if you stand on the roof. It's that kind of place. He's sort of trying to buy into this fantasy, and it never quite comes to life for him."

Stuart's deluded view of himself as a player is bolstered by the fact the guys he runs with -- a recently separated moper named Wade (Nate Torrence) and a wheelchair-bound potty-mouth named Kives (Kevin Weisman) -- are actually bigger losers than he is.

But Stuart, thanks in large part to Merchant's keen ability to mine every wince-worthy moment out of a scripted exchange, looms above the crowd both in height and in borderline-offensive conversation.

Hello Ladies won't be for everyone; some will simply find it too uncomfortable to endure. But if Gervais's antics in The Office and Extras struck your funny bone in a positive way, you might find Merchant's first big Ricky-free foray to be a towering comedy achievement.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2013 C1

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Updated on Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 6:55 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo

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