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Ricky Gervais on Stardom After 40 and the Road to His 21st Emmy Nom, for 'Derek'

The irrepressible Brit, a best actor in a comedy series nominee for his performance as the titular nursing home employee on Netflix's dramedy, spouts off about his life and work — and cracks jokes about Nelson Mandela, Kim Kardashian and AIDS

2013 Issue 30: Ricky Gervais
Austin Hargrave

Ricky Gervais is one of the most famous and celebrated comedians in the world — and yet few had ever even heard of him before he turned 40 about 13 years ago.

During the relatively short period since then, he has made up for lost time by becoming one of the most prolific and multi-talented entertainers out there: a hilarious stand-up comedian (with four sold-out world tours), a no-holds-barred awards show host (who can forget the 2010, 2011 and 2012 Golden Globe ceremonies?), a star of films for children (including The Muppets and Night at the Museum franchises) and, above all else, the creator, writer and star of several of the most memorable TV comedies of all-time: BBC Two's The Office (2001-04), a British workplace comedy that spawned an American reincarnation; BBC and HBO's Extras (2005-07), through which he continued his exploration of fame that began with The Office; and Netflix's Derek (2012-), a dramedy about a middle-aged nursing home employee who, in many ways, is rather like Charlie Chaplin's tramp: sweet, simple, awkward but in possession of a heart of gold.

This week, I spoke with Gervais via telephone — he rang me from London — about his colorful life and incomparable career, with a particular focus on Derek, a passion project of his that has taken many by surprise. (Who knew that he has a soft side — or numerous relatives who work in the health care profession, providing endless fodder for such a show?) Through the portal of Netflix, Derek has found not only a cult-following, but also the support of the TV Academy, which nominated Gervais for the Emmy for best actor in a comedy series for his work as the title character during second season. (Season one was ineligible for Emmy consideration due to its late release date.) He has now received a remarkable 21 Emmy noms: three for acting, 11 for producing, two for directing and five for writing — but he has won only twice, once, in 2006, as an EP on the American version of The Office, and once, in 2007, for his acting on Extras.

Here, Gervais reflects on when he first realized he was funny, what he likes about making people laugh, the sorts of comedy he likes and dislikes, his fascination with fame, the roots of his ideas, his gravitation toward taboo subject matter, the autobiographical elements of many of his characters, efforts to categorize him or his work and his plans for the future with regard to Derek and TV in general. (Lest you confuse him with Derek, he also jokes about Nelson Mandela, Kim Kardashian and AIDS.)

Do you happen to remember when you first realized that you were funny? Were you a kid who told a lot of jokes? Do you believe that a person is born funny or can become funny?

Before I realized I was funny, I realized that humor was the most important thing, you know? I was surrounded by funny people growing up. I mean, the worst thing you could be growing up in my my family was to be boring. You could be a murderer, but if you were able to get a laugh people would rather have a drink with you. (Laughs.) You know, when people had a child, they would say, "I hope he doesn't turn out to be boring." When I was a kid, I sort of subconsciously did it to be accepted and get on and socialize, but I don't think at that point I was thinking, "I can use this to my advantage," so to speak, which is how it is used very often, you know? I think humor does give you an advantage socially. And then, obviously — it's a cliché, but — if you can't fight, tell a joke. You know, I think all those things are based in truth and reality. I mean, there's no class or race or demographic or profession or type of person or sex or anything I feel uncomfortable around except someone without a sense of humor. It's just too much hard work.

What do you like most about making people laugh?

For me, laughing is easily as important as, if not more important, than making someone laugh. I don't care whether I'm the one making people laugh or someone is making me laugh. You know, growing up, everyone was laughing at everyone else. Everyone was teasing everyone else. The worst thing you could do — the worst — was to tell a slightly worse joke on top of another person's joke. That was a faux pas. That would be, "OK, you can leave now." You know, if you have a go, you've got to be able to top it. But yeah, I was always with funny people. And there was a certain aestheticism attributed to it. I think, evolutionary speaking, you know, humor gets us through stuff and comedy is just a tool to inflame, aggravate, excite our sense of humor. My mom was just very honest, but without knowing it, and that was funny. I liked that. When I was almost 13, I said to my mom, "Why are my brothers and sisters so much older than me?" And she went, "Because you were a mistake." I just laughed — I got why it was funny, that it was honest, and I knew she had old people rights to say those things. My dad was very quiet and sarcastic; he would roll his eyes and leave the room and everyone would laugh. My brother was just funny; he would walk into the room and be the life and soul, and he would say things that I did not know how he got away with, but end up with that person liking him. You know, I saw that you can get away with anything. He had no filter, but it came from a good place. I mean, the test was, if you laugh or answer back, you're in the gang; if you get offended, forget it, you're out, there's no way around it, sorry I offended you, but let's never speak again. (Laughs.)

When did it first occur to you that you could apply this skill set that you had acquired as a child to make a living as an adult?

I'd never thought about it. I never thought that it was a living because, you know, all of the funniest people I knew were not professional comedians. You use a professional comedian like you watch football; you're having a kick around the park and it's lovely, but you don't think, "Well, I'm going to be a professional sportsman." You think, "Well, no, there's professional sportsmen, I enjoy watching them, but I just love playing," and it's the same with comedy. Everyone I knew was funny, but not one of them thought, "I'm going to be a comedian." They thought, "I'm going to be a builder" or "I'm going to work with my dad" or "I'm going to be a teacher" or "I've got to get a job." It was never, ever thought of. We all thought, "We are comedians. We just don't do it as a living." And it's true. The funniest person you know isn't a comedian — it's your granddad or your brother or your mate, and a real comedian hasn't really got a chance because of the weight of the weight of knowledge behind every look, every gesture you have with someone really close to you. Do you know what I mean? Comedy is about empathy, and if you understand every nuance and get every part of it, the reward is so much greater. And so no, it was never thought of as a profession. And it's also a mistake. There's loads of funny people that think they're funny, but then they get up onstage and it's just not right because the format's all wrong. How many great stand-ups have thought, "Well, I can write a sitcom," and they write the sitcom, and it's them doing jokes and you think, "Well, no on acts like that," you know? You've got to change everything to make it work for the context. So I don't think it's enough just to be funny and it's not just enough to work hard at it and get the right format. I like a bit of empathy, you know? I've met comedians and I've been confused as to why they went into comedy. Do you know what I mean? It's just so arbitrary that they chose this. And I think, "Well, right, OK." And it's not even they're not successful; it's just that you meet them socially and think, "Well, that's just an act. You might as well be a vicar, like, reading someone else's —" Do you know what I mean? I like funny bones and I don't want someone who's just worked it like a science and then they go out and they tell these one liners that work and you get exhausted after 15. They'd work just as well if they just handed them out on a piece of paper to you. I want a comedian that you couldn't do yourself. If you can rip off someone's material, then that comedian should consider changing their material because, I think, you've got to do something that, even if people tried to rip it off, they couldn't do it as well as you. And that, to me, means to make everything honest and personal and use everything you've got about yourself, your input, your gestures, your physicality, your history, your perception — you know, I want a comedian that shambles out and I know he's telling the truth when he says, "This is what I'm doing today." Do you know what I mean? It's about honesty, it's about truth for me.

I want to ask you about your work ethic because, since The Office, it's amazing how many projects — not just projects, but good projects — you've managed to put out. In another interview you said, "I was the laziest man in the world before I made The Office, but now I'm addicted to that sort of success." And so, I just wonder if you can expand upon that statement and how you've handled fame, which is a theme that pops up in The Office, Extras and a lot of your work.

Well, I suppose because I didn't care for it — in fact, I feared it and, yet, I was fascinated with it. I have done quite a study, and I think that, for many reasons, I didn't really need fame, you know? I was never impressed by fame, per se. I was never impressed with people who were just famous; I was impressed with what people have done, and fame was not a part of what they did, you know? I was impressed with sportsmen because of the great sacrifices they made and achievements they made. I was impressed with scientists because of their brilliance, you know? And nowadays, where we've got people famous for being famous and who live their life like an open wound and get rewarded for it, I don't get it. You know, the worst role models in the world are being called good role models? I don't get it. I don't know why it's exponential. Andy Warhol could never have thought how prophetic his phrase was, but it's gotten worse and worse and I can't see an end to it. I mean, soon, everyone's going to be famous and we're not going to have any doctors. It's like everyone wants to win X Factor and Pop Idol and soon, half the nation are going to be singing and people are going to be dying on the streets because no one will be able to treat them. (Laughs.) I mean, I don't know what this thing is, "I want to be famous so let me" and we will go, "OK." I mean, what can you do? I mean, there was a survey amongst 10-year-olds, a university survey a few years ago, and they asked them what they wanted to be, and they said, "Famous." Not even a pop star, just famous. And I'm always fascinated with that. I've feared fame in the sense that I didn't want to be lumped in with those people, you know, because people are stupid. People see someone from a reality game show who got their bits out sitting them next to a great auteur on a chat show and they don't really see the difference; in fact, they're a little bit bored with the auteur because they don't know who he is. "I don't know who he is. He's never been on Pop Idol." You know? If there was a slight gray little scientist that came up into the sunlight and cured the world of AIDS, and then Kim Kardashian was behind him, most of the population would go, "Get out of the way, mate, there's Kim Kardashian!" (Laughs.) "I don't even know your face, mate." "I've just cured the world of —" "Yeah, yeah, yeah — Kim, what are you wearing?! You haven't even put out a perfume, mate!" (Laughs.)

I recently saw a documentary about Woody Allen in which they show that when an idea comes to him he scribbles it down on a piece of paper, throws it in a drawer, and then, once a year, picks one of those pieces of paper out and writes a script about it. Where do your ideas come from?

Yeah, I mean, that is sort of true for me too. I've usually got seven or eight write notebooks on the go that I have to find and collate wherever I am in the world or whatever drawer they're in, and, eventually, I think I find most ideas I ever came up with. It's more for standup where I have to collect them over five years. For TV or movies, I use them as a genesis and a start point and a finish point that I work on. I usually work on two or three ideas at a time. At the moment, I'm writing three screenplays in varying degrees of completion, and I like it that way because I work a few minutes on one, and then I have an idea about something else where I'll just stop — because I have a very short attention span, but it's very intense. I work the same way. You know, I bounce in on set at eight in the morning, do everything, and it's all over by three o'clock. Do you know what I mean? And my ideas come from, you know, everywhere. Real life is by far, the biggest influence, and it should be; I mean, everything you sort of do is semi-autobiographical. An example: The Office came from working in an office for 10 years, being that sort of people-watcher, doing impressions of people like David Brent long before The Office. I worked in an office, so I thought it was a perfect format for it, and also I liked to use all the documentaries I'd been watching — you know, docu-things — where people became famous for 15 minutes. And that's what started it all. So David Brent was a sort of show about fame, really. It was a show about ordinary people working an ordinary job, middle-management, middle-aged, middle-England, middle everything, unremarkable, and thought fame could sort everything out for him. And that was the beginning of it. I was always fascinated with that. Then, Extras came from me being in the business for a while, when I sort of did a "There but for the grace of God, go I" type of thing, but still a study of fame, really. Then I did a stand-up called Fame. I did the Golden Globes. And so, you know, the real world and the fake world of entertainment, or the documentary world — a lot of my ideas come from documentary. And I'd say that was real life, even though it's not firsthand, it's real life as well, if you know what I mean. So, I'm very influenced by that.

How much of you, Ricky Gervais, do we see in the characters that you write and/or play?

You know, Derek comes from inside me, my family and the surrounding world, just like David Brent is a part of me — I'm a little bit David Brent, I'm a little bit Andy Millman and I'm a little bit Derek. Derek is me at eight before the world made me worry about what I say or peer pressure or what it's like to be cool — just a pure feel where I used to run around, I loved everything, I loved nature, I took a clock apart, I loved friends, I loved everything, I loved life. And I thought, "That's a nice starting point." And then, all my family were care workers growing up — my mom, my sister, my sister-in-law, her kids now — so I've got 35, 40 years of anecdotes about care. So I thought, "OK. Well, that's a real world." And then, just like with The Office, documentary, because if the '90s were sort of like docu-soaps and the beginning of reality, then I think the last 10 years has been those, but trying to give them some credibility — we've had sort of reality shows and documentaries, but about quite important things. They might be housed in triviality — like, there's a thing called Secret Millionaire, I don't know if you've got it in America? The secret millionaire goes to a rundown place, a society somewhere in a rundown area, and he finds the people that are working for charity. The thing that I always noted is the people that are most selfless and spend most of the time working for underprivileged people with problems are underprivileged with problems themselves — and they don't see it. It's like, it's always a surprise. They say to them, "But you need the money." They go, "Oh no, I'm fine." And you think, "Wow." And then you see celebrities that won't do a charity unless they film it, you know? (Laughs.) And then these people are doing it every moment of life because that's how they are. And I've used all that — I've used my knowledge of all that — to prepare this childlike, beautiful, sweet, heroic creature, and it all came together, and there we have it: a show about kindness, a man without pretension or a filter, and the backdrop to the reality of charity, about ordinary people struggling to make ends meet. And then I housed that in— It's sort of like this almost fairytale. It's still got the gritty realism like a fake documentary, and it's not literally magical, but I use phrases like, "Kindness is magic" and "The outside world is the nemesis." They come in and they're infected with kindness and care. So those are all the ingredients that sort of went in to making Derek.

There are some people out there who seem to have a hard time reconciling that a show about kindness comes from the same guy who has famously zinged people at the Golden Globes and in his stand-up.

Yeah, well, I think people need to categorize it — "You can't be a bit of everything!" People need to know where to put you, just like they want to know, "Is Derek a comedy or a drama?" It's a bit of both. "No, it can't be. What is it? A comedy or a drama?" What's your real life? It's a bit of both. "No, I'm going to call it a comedy. It's not really funny." "I'm going to call it a drama. It's not very—" (Laughs.) I think, for their own piece of mind, they need to categorize you. And, of course, they see this brash comedian and think, "Well, that's a real person," whereas you're always playing an alter-ego as a comedian. You know, very often, I play this self-confessed, professorial know-it-all who actually gets things wrong, and that's what we're laughing at; we're laughing at sometimes I've got this arrogance, but I come down on the wrong side. Like, I say, "Nelson Mandela, what a man. Incarcerated for 25 years — he got out in 1990 — and he never reoffended, which shows you prison does work." So I take them down a road, they think I'm being right on, and I get it all wrong. So, you know, I think most people get that irony. But some people don't, and I think that most people who take offense are offended because they confuse the target of the joke with the subject of a joke. If you deal in taboo subjects — which I do, for a very good reason — just to bring up any subject that makes them feel comfortable and they straightaway assume it is "wrong." Well, it's not wrong. "You haven't listened to the joke," you know? People say to me, "Is there anything you shouldn't joke about?" The answer is, "No, it depends on what the joke is." They wouldn't ask you, "Is there anything you wouldn't write about?" You'd go, "No, I could write about anything. It's what you say that counts." Exactly. And the same with a comedian. You can joke about anything. It depends what the joke is and what side you come down on, where you land, you know?

As somebody who deals in taboo subject matter, has it surprised even you that you have been able to make — I believe — all of your shows since The Office without a pilot and with final cut? That's highly unusual.

Well, because they've gotta just trust me. There's a very Darwinian framework: I'm going to do exactly what I want and I'm either going to survive or I'm not. If the first thing I'd done after The Office was a complete failure, flop, terrible, awful, I wouldn't have got a third chance. So I'm going to keep doing it my way until someone says, "You can't do it anymore," and I think that's the only way to do it. I've always preferred an auteur approach and not a committee approach. Nothing wrong with it — nothing wrong with a committee — but it doesn't interest me. I like to have the ideas. Nothing excites me as much as an idea popping in my head. It's the only thing left that gives me an adrenaline rush. This is my extreme sport, you know? And the reason I deal in taboo subjects is because it's more exciting, and because I also think that a comedian's job isn't just to make people laugh, it's to make them think. And I think that if you take them through territory they haven't been before, they're quite nervous, but when they come out the other end, "Wow," you know, they had the best rollercoaster ride ever because it was a bit scary and they didn't die. And that's the lovely thing, you know? (Laughs.) That's better than a gentle ride that you knew you weren't going to die on, but it wasn't that good either. Do you know what I mean? (Laughs.)

Maybe I'm crazy, but as somebody who really loves and studies sort of the old movies, I looked at Derek and I thought, "This guy's almost a descendant of Charlie Chaplin's tramp." You know, a well-meaning guy whom a lot of people would dismiss as a simpleton, but he's happy on his own level.

Yes, I've always been excited by comedy-plus. I've always been excited by sneaking in some pathos. I've always wanted tragedy in my comedy because I really think they're the same, they're different branches of the same tree, you know? It's evoking emotions. That's all it is. It's as good for you to cry as it is to laugh, you know? It's great. You should laugh every day, you should cry every day, you should be scared every day, you should relax and look back on the day every day and then look forward to the next day. I don't care what emotions you go through, but I want you to have one. And the bigger the emotion, the better it is, for me. I really don't care whether you laugh or cry, as long as it's a big laugh or a big cry, and as long as it was interesting and as long as you haven't seen it before. I don't care whether you're confused about that or what, but it needs to do something to you. I've often found that I've been more moved by things with a little bit of depth or pathos or romance than just a decapitated laugh, I think. You know, as I say, word play is good, but it's not as exciting as something more visceral, something more about the person, you know? You know, anthropologists think that probably the first piece of humor, comedy, laugh was one caveman watching another caveman hit his head. Now, that is probably true because, again, it's about empathy. That caveman watching that caveman hit his head knew he didn't mean to hit his head, but he laughed that he was surprised and how he went, "Ooh!" That's funny, you know? It's that visceral comedy. And so someone falling over on a banana skin is funny, right? But someone falling over on a banana skin when he's just been told by his wife that she's leaving him because he's a putz is 10 times as funny because it's tragic as well. Do you know what I'm saying? That's a bad example because it sounds like the cruelest example ever, but I will say that we're talking about fiction here, and I think that any creator, any writer or any artist— I think that we create our heroes and villains for role play of the soul, you know? We can laugh at people and with them, and we can cry, because no one really gets hurt. So in fiction, we can laugh at a man falling over on a banana skin when his wife's just told him that she's leaving because we know really, deep down, it's an actor falling on a banana skin. So it's role play; it's not happening in real life. It wouldn't be as funny because you'd worry he was hurt at first. If my mate hits their head or slips, I go, "Are you all right?" They go, "Yeah." I go, "Can I laugh now? Or, am I gonna get—" (Laughs.)

Derek may not have as large a following as some of the other shows that you've done, but it's got a very enthusiastic following, and I think people are curious about what the future of it is going to be. You tend to not go much beyond two seasons with any show. Why is that? And will that apply with Derek?

Because — I don't know — I do it all myself, so you don't want to run out of ideas or repeat yourself too much. I could farm it out, but where's the fun in that,  you know? I could license mugs with my face on them and take a royalty, but I'd rather make one mug and sell that because I made it. I made that. I try and make it very rich and intense so it's got a lot of filling. You know, there were many reasons why I didn't revisit The Office — again because you want to put everything into it, you know, that intense feeling of it, and also beg credibility, you know? Who works in an office, the same office for 25 years, you know? And with Derek, again, characters come and go — you know, I'm killing off the cast like nobody's business. (Laughs.) There won't be anyone left. But really, I think it's because I get excited about a project, I give it my all, I study it and then I want to do something else. I think really, when it comes down to it, I say that I'm considering the audience and I'm doing what's best for them, but I'm doing what's best for me — and usually, they're the same thing, really. You know, if you do something passionately for yourself, it's probably better for everyone else, as well, in terms of art — not not sharing your food, obviously, that's not good for everyone. (Laughs.) But if you're creating something for yourself, the finished product is probably better for everyone else.

You've now worked within the Netflix model, which is still kind of a cutting-edge thing to do. Going forward, do you want to continue to work in TV in that way?

It depends, you know? We don't know what's going to happen in five years. You know, this Netflix, it's changed very fast over the past few years, you know? At the moment, it's the sort of best thing for me. As I said before, as an artist, you want as many people to see your work as possible with no compromise. And, usually, to get that no compromise, I've gone to fringe channels who won't interfere, you know? HBO, premium cable channels, BBC 2 in England; I don't want to go on BBC 1 and ITV and have it watered down, and follow a soap opera, and have all the edges filed down and have someone interfere, you know? But then Netflix comes along and it's the best of both worlds: it's no interference and the sky's the limit. It's always there. You know, they haven't changed the model, they haven't changed the genre, they haven't changed the art form; they've literally just pandered to the way people want to watch tele, and that's great for me. They're still delivering the exact thing that I made, and that's so important to me, you know, that's, I said, the ideal of the most beautiful and purest thing. And it's how little it can be ruined from your brain to the observer. And that's the way you do everything yourself, really, because, you know, I've probably only produced and directed to protect my writing, the idea, you know? So as long as I can get exactly what's in my head with minimum compromise, I don't care where it's going. I don't care if, in five years' time, they've discovered telepathy, that I can just have ideas and blink and people get them all around the world. You know, we don't know what the medium's going to be, so I'll have whatever delivers the purest idea that I have to the most people. At the moment, that's Netflix.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg