"It was like catching up with an old friend," comedy legend Ricky Gervais says of making the TV movie David Brent: Life on the Road, in which he revisits the eponymous pathetic middle-manager that he last played on The Office 15 years ago, as we sit down at New York's Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "It never really went away," the 55-year-old Brit continues. "There wasn't a day when I wasn't 'managing the estate' of David Brent, whether it was giving permission to show a clip of it on a chat show or a quiz machine in a pub or making the American remake [starring Steve Carell] about a year after, and then seven local remakes around the world — I was exec producer on every single one of them."
The stand-up comedian, actor, writer, director, producer, singer, musician and awards-show host extraordinaire — with 23 Emmy noms, two of which resulted in wins — was offered but declined the chance to play Brent in the American remake. He did so because he didn't want to commit another seven years to the character and, he adds with his famous cackle, he preferred "someone else [Carell] doing all the work and me getting the royalties." But after dusting off the cobwebs and reinhabiting Brent in a sketch for 2013's Comic Relief telethon, Gervais realized that the character was more relevant than ever. Indeed, Brent was obsessed with fame long before everyone else, and now that the rest of the population has caught up, Gervais reasoned, it might be fun to see how Brent would handle himself out of the office and on the road.
Gervais is the youngest of four children born to working-class parents in Reading, England, and raised in a home that prized a good sense of humor — but in which a career in comedy seemed unthinkable. A strong student, he secured a scholarship to University of London Union and initially focused on the sciences before shifting to philosophy; for a short time, though, that all seemed irrelevant, since he also was musically gifted and landed a record deal by the time he graduated. But his pop-star dreams soon were squelched — "over within a year," he says, although it took him several more years of band-hopping to accept that — and, he continues, "At 28, I was working in an office."
Gervais later contributed to a radio show (his assistant was Stephen Merchant, with whom he would later co-create The Office and Extras), which led to a call from Channel 4 to do an alternative news show, which led to a spoof chat show. Ultimately, he decided to draw upon his fascination with documentaries and "those quaint docu-soaps of the '90s where ordinary guys got famous," as well as his fascination with fame itself, and pitch the BBC a mockumentary-style sitcom inspired by his own office experiences. They bit, and the show almost instantly became a cultural phenomenon, turning Gervais into an A-list star and running on BBC2 for two seasons followed by a Christmas special, spanning 2001 through 2003.
In the years since The Office, Gervais hasn't stopped working. He reteamed with Merchant to co-create and co-write another British sitcom, Extras, on which he played ambitious actor Andy Millman; it ran on BBC2 for two seasons followed by a Christmas special, spanning 2005 and 2007. More recently, he unforgettably hosted the Golden Globe Awards four times (2009-2011 and 2015), toured as a stand-up (his "Humanity" tour is ongoing) and teamed repeatedly with Netflix — creating, writing and starring as the title character on the comedy series Derek, which ran from 2012-2014, and two TV movies, 2016’s Special Correspondents and 2017’s David Brent: Life on the Road.
What all of these endeavors share in common is they are hilarious; they were inspired, to some extent, by his own experiences; and they were made under his complete creative control. "It's the creative process that gives me the buzz," Gervais says of his work. "Obviously I want it to be seen — I don't write poetry and hide it in a drawer — but I just think it's more fun to do something your way than to do it someone else's way and it be more successful." To that end, he confirms that, if given complete creative freedom, he would return to host the Golden Globes again — and/or host the Oscars for the first time. "They'll never do that," Gervais postulates. "If they did do that, I would do it and I'd go for it, and I'd alienate half the population. That's fine by me, though. I'd still rather do that than not do it my way. I sound like Sinatra!"
Above all else, Gervais feels grateful for the success that he has attained over the years since he first played David Brent — "I didn't get a job until 28, I didn't start doing TV until I was 38, I didn't start getting fit until I was 48 — it's never too late," he says — and a bit horrified at how the world has changed in the interim. "Donald Trump's got more in common with David Brent than he has with JFK," he says gravely. "He's a man who's always wanted to be loved and famous and who isn't quite as clever as he thinks and has got this delusion that everything he says is good and right — and he convinced himself and enough other people of that. And that's like David Brent. David Brent walks into a room and says, 'I am the funniest guy you'll ever meet.' And he says, 'You'll never walk with a boss like me.' He's his own cheerleader."
Didn't revisiting — and possibly tarnishing the legacy of — the character, who people remember so fondly from The Office, feel a tad risky? Gervais doesn't see it that way: "What am I really 'risking'? I'm risking some people not liking it. Well, you risk that every day. You risk that just being alive." He adds, cracking himself up, "People fear not having the same experience as they did last time. Well, have a new experience! I don't get it, I just don't get it. You might as well never do anything again — as soon as you do something that's good, never do anything again in case it's not as good as that thing you did!"