Ricky Gervais At Home: God-Hating, Dinners with Seinfeld and a 'Kind' New Netflix Show
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"I'm not doing it for your amusement. I'm doing it for mine."
Ricky Gervais howls with laughter, an extended cackle that his friend Christopher Guest calls "the greatest laugh ever." Gervais is amused by questions about his latest medium of choice, Twitter, which he uses to lob 140-character bombs at fans and detractors. Religion is a favored topic: "We shouldn't even need the word 'atheism.' If people didn't invent ridiculous imaginary gods, rational people wouldn't have to deny them." Later: "It's almost as if the Bible was written by racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, sexually frustrated men, instead of a loving God. Weird." And, more recently, "If God existed, religion wouldn't."
The prolific feed, with nearly 5 million followers, is as much a tool for plugging his work -- including a new show, Derek, bowing Sept. 12 on Netflix -- as it is for his own twisted take on market research. "How you know you're doing something right is that as many people hate you as love you," he says, acknowledging gleefully that his atheist rants provoke the most intense reactions. (To consider his musings blasphemous, he adds, he'd have to believe in God; he hasn't since he abandoned Christianity at age 8.)
For more than a decade, Gervais, 52, has been finessing this image as the king of cringe comedy, mining humor from others' discomfort for TV shows, films, stand-up and more. If Louis C.K. is the critics' favorite comic, Kevin Hart the touring dynamo and Jay Leno the industry punching bag, Gervais has carved his niche as the semilovable wiseass in the corner. Says longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant, who got his start as Gervais' assistant at a London radio station, "He's your cheeky best friend who somehow gate-crashed the house of showbiz and put his feet up on the table."
"Original," "fearless" and "smart" are descriptors often employed to characterize Gervais' work, but they seem just as representative of his comedic philosophy. If asked, he'd add "outsider," likely the result of a career trajectory that didn't involve working his way up through the clubs or failed sitcoms. Instead, Gervais catapulted onto the scene with his 2001 BBC creation, The Office, which he co-wrote, directed and starred in. At last count, the mockumentary, as brilliant as it was uncomfortable, has aired in more than 100 countries, with seven remakes including the since-ended U.S. iteration, making it easily the most successful adaptation of a British sitcom in 30 years. The show turned Gervais into a bona fide star, a multimillionaire and, most impressively, an icon within the comedian community. Says Larry David, "When I watch his work, I often go, 'I wish I had thought of that.'
But when the door of his new, still-unfurnished apartment on New York's Upper East Side opens on this late June afternoon, I can't help but wonder whether the Ricky Gervais I'm meeting is the provocative prick from Twitter or the thoughtful goofball his friends describe. Will this be the man who famously introduced Robert Downey Jr. at the 2011 Golden Globes with a reference to the Betty Ford Center and described I Love You Phillip Morris as a film about "two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay -- so the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists"? Or will Gervais be the sympathetic force on display in Derek, a series about caretakers in a retirement home that's so gentle and sweet, critics didn't know what to make of it when it aired on the U.K.'s Channel 4?
Over the course of an hour and a half, hints of both Gervaises emerge, with the man in his uniform jeans, dark shirt and sneakers as warm as he is biting. What becomes clear as he ping-pongs between comical and sincere is the consideration with which he formulates his material, noting that while the subjects he tackles range from uncomfortable (the uneasy comedy of The Office and, later, Extras, Life's Too Short and An Idiot Abroad) to taboo (his unflinching stand-up, in which rape, murder and Hitler are fair game), they never are his target. "I want to take the audience to places it hasn't been before, otherwise what's the point?" he says. "I want to lead them through this terrible, scary land because then they'll come out the other side and it was great. It was a rush. Their parachute opened, and they landed."
Jerry Seinfeld, who with his wife regularly double dates with Gervais and his longtime girlfriend, Jane Fallon, suggests it's that ability to take people outside of their comfort zone that sets Gervais apart. Seinfeld compares Gervais to a matador: "Those guys walk out, and they don't do much. And the more still they stand, the more riveting it is," he says. "You have a stadium full of people who are captivated. And it's that same thing: 'Look at the nerve of this guy.' And not just that, look at his grace. We all know the pressure, so let's see how eloquently they can dispose of this very dangerous position they're in."
When Derek hits Netflix, viewers inevitably will ask whether the matador has gone soft. The show tells the story of a middle-aged caretaker (written, directed and played by Gervais), who works in a nursing home, accompanied by his pal Dougie (played by longtime Gervais pal Karl Pilkington); a nurse named Hannah; and his "best friends in the world," the home's residents. It's more drama than comedy, and Gervais is betting that his audience is ready for a kinder persona that eschews laughs for introspection and, in certain cases, tears, as it grapples with helplessness and death with a humanity not often seen in Gervais' work.
He's still sorting out whether this is an anomaly or a new direction. "As you get older, you start realizing that when you're young, the most important thing is being popular. Then when you hit adolescence, it's being clever. Then it's being funny. And now it's about kindness, and that trumps everything else," he explains, noting that he's left behind the veil of irony that defined his TV efforts including Office and the actors sendup Extras, which won him a best actor Emmy in 2007. There's no gap between how viewers see Derek, a selfless, slow-witted misfit, and how Derek sees himself -- a far cry from David Brent (Office) or Andy Millman (Extras), whose blind spots fueled the comedy.
Before it even aired in the U.K., Derek found itself at the center of controversy. Critics caught a glimpse of the titular character in the trailer and assumed the comedian had found his latest victim in the mentally handicapped. "Gervais mocks the easiest of targets, people with mental disabilities, those without the intellectual capacity to defend themselves," wrote the Daily Mail. But Gervais denies that Derek is disabled, insisting that, unlike his past characters, this one's only flaws -- a peculiar look, shuffle and childlike naivete -- are superficial on purpose.
"It's so much closer to real life in that it's serious with funny moments," says Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who will look to make as big of a splash with Gervais' about-face as he has with originals House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange Is the New Black. Although it was Gervais who approached Sarandos about distributing the dramedy -- he was turned on by Netflix's immediacy, footprint and lack of creative interference -- Sarandos raves about the series' depth and confirms that he will air a second season. (HBO, which aired several of Gervais' previous shows, passed on Derek, turned off, perhaps, by the tonal departure.) For a comic who suggests the Ten Commandments by which he abides are, No. 1 through No. 9, "Thou shalt not bore," and No. 10, "Thou shalt have final edit," Netflix seems an ideal fit.
"Some execs are great, and they save projects, but I don't want that because I don't want my projects to be saved. If I made it rubbish, I want it to be rubbish," says Gervais, acknowledging a disdain for such things as focus groups. He and Guest (Best in Show) like to tell a joke in which one Hollywood exec says, "What'd you think of that new movie?" And the other one replies: "I don't know. I'm the only one who's seen it." As he peers out at his 12th-story view, Gervais attempts to defend his "control freak" tendencies that largely have prevented him from working within the studio and network system. "It's not because I think what I do is perfect," he says. "It's because if I didn't do it that way, I wouldn't be doing it at all. Someone else would. It's like getting a model kit, then getting someone else to build it for you. What's the point? I want to make it."
Sarandos reveals he's had conversations with Gervais and his team (including WME and the U.K.'s United Agents) about other collaborations, too, though it's not clear where the comic will find the time. In addition to Derek's second season, which he'll begin filming in November, he's preparing material for another stand-up tour and plans to sign a record deal for his Office character, whom he recently revived through his YouTube series Learn Guitar With David Brent. The installments began as a stunt for charity, but Gervais hopes they will be the basis for a movie about Brent trying to make it in the music industry. Nearer term, he's rehearsing with a band for high-profile charity gigs at year's end. Additionally, Gervais is in talks to direct, write and star in another film and has aspirations to play a villain (think the Riddler) in a superhero movie. One show that's off-limits, though, is the Oscars. "It's a thankless task, and it's not right for me," he says, joking that he did enough damage during his three years as Golden Globes emcee.