Merchant is best known for his collaborations with Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington, as the co-writer and co-director of the popular British sitcom The Office (2001–2003), co-writer and co-star of Extras (2005–2007) and co-host of The Ricky Gervais Show in its radio, podcast, audiobook and television formats; the radio version won a bronze Sony Award. He is also known for his voice role as Wheatley in the 2011 video game Portal 2.
Merchant had his first dramatic role in a film when he was cast as Caliban in the superhero film Logan (2017).
Merchant was born in Hanham, Avon, the son of Jane Elaine (née Hibbs), a nursery nurse, and Ronald John Merchant, an insurance representative. He attended Hanham High School and later the University of Warwick in Coventry from 1993 to 1996, where he received a 2:1 Bachelor of Arts degree in Film and Literature.
Merchant was a former film reviewer on the student radio station Radio Warwick, where he began his broadcasting career.
The man behind the funniest show on W963, The Steve Show, highlights of which included an inspired take-off of the IRN news ("we spoke to Gerry Adams..."), an advert for Coventry Library ("Coventry Library makes no claims to be infinite"), attempting to give away an Aerosmith video to people on the toilet in Rootes [hall of residence], telephoning the library bridge security post to ask if they had seen a lost ball, as well as a series of snippets entitled At Home with Rose and Fred West. He once suckled milk from a cow's udder. This show stood out, as it was actually genuinely good. It's only a matter of time before Steve and his posse follow in the footsteps of Newman and Baddiel.
Members of Merchant's "posse" included film critic James King, Dan Warren, Neil the Maskell, and Geraint the Welshman. Recently, a number of tapes of The Steve Show, recorded at the time, have been rediscovered and are being distributed on various Merchant fansites.
Merchant began his career performing stand-up comedy at Bristol's Comedy Box, where, he recalls, "The first week I did really well. The second week I died on my arse. I realised that stand-up was not that easy after all." He also appeared as a contestant on a 1997 episode of the TV game show Blockbusters and worked for a short time as a DJ for Radio Caroline.
Merchant met Ricky Gervais for the first time in 1997, when Gervais (then in the position of "Head of Speech" at the London radio station XFM London) hired Merchant as his assistant. (Gervais said later that he had called Merchant for an interview simply because it was the first CV handed to him.) Merchant and Gervais hosted a Saturday afternoon radio show together from January through to August 1998, when both of them left XFM as it was bought by the Capital Radio Group. In the same year, Merchant was a finalist at the Daily Telegraph Open Mic Awards.
Merchant worked for seven years at XFM 104.9. The Saturday show never had a large audience; Gervais says "It's a tin pot radio station... It's not even the biggest radio station in the building." He created the features 'Hip Hop Hooray', 'Make Ricky Gervais Laugh' and 'Song for the Ladies'. After leaving XFM, Merchant began a production course at the BBC. As part of his coursework, he enlisted Gervais to perform in a 30-minute short film, "Seedy Boss," which became the earliest inspiration for their sitcom The Office. They collaborated on a sitcom pilot called Golden Years featuring a manager suffering a mid-life crisis; the pilot aired on Channel 4's Comedy Lab series in September 1998, but failed to find further success.
In mid-2001, BBC Two aired the first series of The Office, co-written and co-directed by Merchant and Gervais and starring the latter as paper sales office manager David Brent; the show initially received low ratings. Beginning in September 2001, Merchant and Gervais returned to XFM as co-hosts of The Ricky Gervais Show, another Saturday afternoon programme, which led to their fruitful relationship with producer Karl Pilkington.
They took a break from the radio show in mid-2002 in order to film the second series of The Office, which aired that year; in addition to writing and directing the show, Merchant made a cameo performance in the episode "Charity" as a friend of Gareth Keenan's character known by the name Oggy or Oggmonster. (Merchant's father also appears in multiple episodes as an office handyman named Gordon.) Merchant also directed a sitcom pilot called The Last Chancers, which aired on Comedy Lab in November 2002 and became a five-part series broadcast in December on E4.
Merchant and Gervais continued to host The Ricky Gervais Show through 2003, taking another break to film the Office Christmas special, which aired that December. The radio show went off the air indefinitely in January 2004. During 2004, Merchant appeared in a recurring role as a chef on Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and in a cameo on Green Wing, and served as a script associate on the Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker sitcom Nathan Barley. The same year, The Office aired in the U.S to critical acclaim. It went on to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy which both Merchant and Gervais accepted. This was followed in 2005 by a 4th series of the radio show, consisting of six episodes.
In March 2005, the American version of The Office premiered, with Merchant and Gervais credited as executive producers. They would later co-write the third-season episode "The Convict", and Merchant would go on to direct the fifth-season episode "Customer Survey".
In December 2005, with sponsorship by The Guardian, Merchant, Gervais and Pilkington began recording a weekly podcast (also called The Ricky Gervais Show). Throughout its first series (through 20 February 2006), the podcast was consistently ranked the most popular in the world, and was certified as the most-downloaded of all time by Guinness World Records. Two more series and three special installments (the "Podfather Trilogy") were recorded in 2006, with the final episode released on Christmas Eve. In late 2008, they recorded four more podcasts and began a series of audiobooks examining Pilkington's perspective on various subjects.
In July 2005, following a brief return of the XFM radio show (filling in for Adam and Joe), Gervais and Merchant's new sitcom Extras premiered on BBC2. The series features Merchant in a supporting role as Darren Lamb, the incompetent agent to struggling actor Andy Millman, played by Gervais. Series 2 of Extras aired in late 2006, followed by a Christmas special in December 2007; all three installments aired on HBO in the United States. Merchant won a 2006 British Comedy Award for Best TV Actor for his performance as Lamb.
In January 2007, Merchant began hosting his own radio show on BBC 6 Music, airing weekly on Sunday afternoons. Instead of comedy, The Steve Show focused on music and particularly "new music", defined by Merchant as "music you've not heard before." Many of the songs on the show were suggested by listeners or co-presenters. The show also featured several of his friends, including his housemate, his childhood friend, as well as actor Rufus Gerrard-Wright (who also appeared in an episode of Extras). A spring search for a "she-J" resulted in the addition of former Byker Grove actor Sammy T. Dobson joining the ensemble. "The Steve Show" aired for four seasons and concluded in May 2009.
Merchant began performing stand-up comedy in the late 1990s to critical success, though he decided to focus more on his work with writing partner Ricky Gervais after the success of The Office. Merchant returned to stand-up with a nationwide tour of the United Kingdom in September 2011, under the title Hello Ladies. The tour, which ended in New York, was later released on DVD. In late 2012, the tour continued in Australia and New Zealand. Merchant performed his first-ever stand-up tour of Scandinavia in October 2014, performing in 11 different cities as part of a European festival circuit.
Merchant's sitcom Hello Ladies premiered on 29 September 2013 on HBO, in which he played Stuart Pritchard, a website designer in Los Angeles who unsuccessfully chases beautiful women. It was adapted from his stand-up show of the same name. Merchant's frequent partner Ricky Gervais was not involved in any part of the show which was instead written by Merchant, Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. After its initial run of eight episodes, HBO did not renew the show for a second season but aired a special movie on 22 November 2014 that served as the series' last episode.
Merchant has played small roles in the films Hot Fuzz (2007), Run Fatboy Run (2007), and The Invention of Lying (2009). He has a supporting role in the 2010 film Tooth Fairy. On television, Merchant made a cameo appearance in a non-speaking role on the sixth-season premiere of 24; he also starred as a sports commentator in the unaired pilot No Skillz. In 2009, Merchant and Gervais collaborated on the film Cemetery Junction, set in working-class England in the 1970s, which received mixed to positive reviews on its release in 2010.
Later in 2010, Gervais and Merchant wrote, and had cameo roles in, Life's Too Short, a television show starring Warwick Davis. For television, Merchant and Gervais also produced An Idiot Abroad. In 2011, he lent his voice to the CGI film Gnomeo and Juliet and had a role in the Farrelly brothers' comedy Hall Pass. In 2013 he starred in I Give It a Year as the best man.
On 18 October 2013, he hosted an episode of the panel show Have I Got News for You and was featured in Short Poppies. In 2014 he made an appearance in Modern Family's "Las Vegas" episode.
In January 2011, Merchant appeared alongside many other comedians at the 'Free Fringe Benefit' at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, in a show of stand-up to benefit the Free Fringe at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival.
Merchant is the voice of Wheatley in Valve's 2011 video game Portal 2, a role which earned him widespread acclaim among reviewers. He has stated that the project was "exhausting", he is also "very pleased by the response people have had to it. What I was really pleased by how people seemed to respond to it in the way they do with a movie they've enjoyed, or a TV show they've enjoyed." In 2013, he reprised this role as the voice of the Ap-Sap in Team Fortress 2, a weapon based on the Wheatley core.
Merchant has provided the voice-over since 2009 of advertisements for Barclays and Waterstones. In 2014, he starred in two commercials for Newcastle Brown Ale and for the Cadillac 2015 ATS Coupe.
He is an executive producer for the Spike show Lip Sync Battle and in July 2015 Merchant opened his first play The Mentalists by Richard Bean alongside Steffan Rhodri in London's West End. He appeared in three episodes of The Big Bang Theory as Dave Gibbs, a guy Amy dates after she breaks up with Sheldon.
He has portrayed George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the Comedy Central series Drunk History. Through the show's first four seasons, Merchant is the only actor to play the same historical figure (Lincoln) twice.
He hosted a special Celebrity edition of the cult UK game show The Crystal Maze, on Channel 4 on 16 October 2016 — all in the aid of the network's Stand Up to Cancer campaign, in partnership with Cancer Research UK.
In 2017, Merchant played Caliban in The Wolverine sequel Logan. Merchant, along with John Krasinski and Allyson Seeger, are executive producers of Dream Corp, LLC, an upcoming animated series created by Daniel Stessen on Adult Swim. The series was announced as a pilot in May 2014, and a full season was approved in November 2015. Jon Gries of Lost fame will portray a principal character.
Merchant lives in Los Angeles, California, in a home once owned by Ellen DeGeneres. He has a second home in London. He is a self-described atheist.
Merchant has used his unsuccessful experiences in dating for his comedy act
Merchant is 6 feet 7 inches (201 cm) tall. Gervais likened him to an "upright lizard being given electro-shock treatment" on the dance floor and a "stick insect with glasses" or Beaker from The Muppet Show. Karl Pilkington has described his dancing as like a "bit of weird art" in the past but has since "got used to him", while Russell Brand likened him to a "graceful grasshopper". Merchant has commented that he prefers to liken himself to fellow tall man and English football player Peter Crouch, who is also 6 feet 7 inches (201 cm) tall. Merchant impersonated Crouch in a BBC sketch broadcast as part of the pre-match build-up to England's opening game at the 2006 World Cup.
Before the 2010 General Election, Merchant was one of 48 celebrities who signed a letter warning against Conservative Party policy toward the BBC.