Five top actors sound off on seeking laughter, relevance and killer abs: "I really bump up against this idea that comedy can change things."
Tone can be a tricky thing to navigate when having an expansive discussion against the backdrop of both a global pandemic and widespread civil unrest. In recent weeks, The Hollywood Reporter's now-virtual Roundtable conversations have yo-yoed from serious and charged to crass and hilarious — often within a span of seconds. But when After Life's Ricky Gervais decided he would field the first question as part of this year's Comedy Actor gathering, there was only one way the discussion could go.
"I want it to go on forever — not the unrest, the lockdown," he cracked when asked what he had learned about himself during the recent period. "It suits me. I'm glad I'm not there in person. I like this, who's next?"
What followed was a wide-ranging and often hilarious back and forth with five of the funniest men on television: Ramy's Ramy Youssef, Saturday Night Live's Kenan Thompson, Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani, Schitt's Creek's Dan Levy and, yes, Gervais. For roughly an hour in mid-June, the actors spoke candidly about the politics of a punchline, the role of comedy in this moment and why a "thirsty shirtless" isn't all it's cracked up to be.
We've got a lot of comedians here. What would you do with a stand-up gig right now? Can you find humor in this moment?
RICKY GERVAIS Yeah, of course. I was halfway through my tour, so the annoying thing about this pandemic is that I've got to change a few lines here and there. I mean, that's what I think the world will take away. It was brilliant, my show. (Laughter.)
KUMAIL NANJIANI So many victims!
GERVAIS So many. But the good thing about the internet is this will allow those nurses who are doing 14-hour shifts, some of them dying, to see us talk about our shows that might get nominated for an Emmy. (Laughter.)
KENAN THOMPSON There's that.
GERVAIS Yeah, yeah, yeah, so it's swings and roundabouts. (Laughter.)
How about you, Ramy? You had been working on new material. Could you be funny right now?
RAMY YOUSSEF Yeah, you could, but I think there is value in there not being a ton of distractions right now as we're going to figure out what's going on in our country. And look at the positives that are coming out of it. So you could, but it's not really what's on my mind right now.
Kenan, have you thought, "Thank God Saturday Night Live is dark for the summer," or is it, "It's too bad we're dark because we could really lift people up right now"?
THOMPSON A lot of the responsibility of doing comedy is to make people try to feel good through bad times, but it's definitely very tip-toe-ish at the moment, so it might be a little harder. I don't know if it would be worth it if it's not going to be funny, because everybody is so sensitive about everything right now. At the same time, with 9/11, [SNL's season opener premiered as planned, 18 days later]. So, it's kind of our duty a bit.
GERVAIS That's the best time. When everyone's on edge and sensitive, that's the best time to be insensitive. My show was packed with jokes about AIDS, cancer, famine, the Holocaust. So, this is just going to top it off.
YOUSSEF I'm glad this helps Ricky's brand. (Laughter.)
THOMPSON Exactly. This is Ricky's prime time right now.
Do you ever get nervous, Ricky?
GERVAIS I don't know, I have anxiety dreams.
NANJIANI What are your anxiety dreams, Ricky?
GERVAIS Well, I'm on a train and I'm going in and out of a tunnel and my dad spills milk all over my face. (Laughter.)
THOMPSON Are you sure that's milk?
YOUSSEF Ricky, what if God is real?
GERVAIS It's not true, it's not true. I just made it up! (Laughs.)
DAN LEVY I'm anxious right now, if I'm being honest. (Laughter.)
All right, Ramy, I want to go back to Golden Globes night. You had a look of genuine shock on your face as you took the podium, but you've since said you knew, as Jennifer Aniston was opening that envelope, that you had won. Why?
YOUSSEF Yeah, I could see she was like, "What is this name?" (Laughter.) She very much had no idea how to pronounce what was happening. She had that substitute teacher look where she was like, "I don't … What is this?" So, that was very exciting. And actually Ricky [who emceed] was a big part of it for me, too, because he said, "Get up and thank your God," and I was like, actually, I will. So, I feel like that was our first time working together, man, that was very fun. (Laughter.)
GERVAIS Oh, that's great.
You've said that you hoped that the show would start conversations, Ramy. What conversations has it started for you and your family?
YOUSSEF Yeah, so much of what we've looked at in the show is a conversation of a millennial who has faith, which just feels like a thing that's super contradictory. I think, in general, religion is basically just a punchline in comedy. And for us [it's about finding] what's funny within it while it still being a genuine thing, as it is to a lot of people — and how do I hold on to what I believe in and also react to what I'm feeling and seeing in the moment? One of the things we looked at in season two is, we got Mahershala Ali to play my sheik, and it was an exciting thing for the show because you have this Arab Muslim family and then suddenly, as a show, we get to look at anti-Blackness within the Arab community. We get to look at what is a type of racism that we don't really talk about, which is that there's this umbrella of people of color but underneath it there is still a lot of anti-Blackness.
I make my show for people [for whom it] resonates. Sometimes people think, like, "Oh man, you put a Muslim family on TV and now the South is going to understand Muslims." And I'm like, "The South isn't watching Hulu. This isn't about that. This isn't about swing voters, it's not about bringing people over, this is about people who are invested in these themes [needing] to be challenged on what they think they know." And so that's what is interesting to me. It's not about bringing in other people; it's really about, "We're all in the same room, but we can't just be echoing the same conversations, we need to dig into them in a more meaningful way."
NANJIANI It's a good point. Sometimes I feel like there are these two buckets: There's white people, and everyone else is "people of color," and there's this idea that there's a monolithic thought in there. But as Ramy was saying about the anti-Black sentiment among some of the other people of color, it's something that's not talked about that much, and it's fantastic that his show does.
THOMPSON And what exactly is this anti-Black sentiment?
YOUSSEF We solved it, Kenan, on my show. (Laughter.)
THOMPSON Oh, y'all fixed it? OK, cool. As long as it's fixed. (Laughs.)
YOUSSEF Yeah, I wanted to make sure it was fixed before we met because I was like, "We're about to be on a Zoom and I just want to make sure we can take care of it before." (Youssef and Thompson virtually fist bump.)
LEVY I had a question for Ramy.
LEVY Was there anything in the early stages of putting your show together that you had to push back against because of what I'd imagine a studio or [network] would see as its marketability?
YOUSSEF Yeah, you're constantly fighting for specificity, for the ability to not over-explain. And my whole argument was always, "Look, this is a show called Ramy, half the people don't know how to pronounce my name, 99 percent of them don't know who I am. We are talking about Arab Muslims on Hulu. This isn't the middle America pull, per se. It'll only be that if the show is really good, and the only way for it to be really good is to be really specific."
YOUSSEF But I really bump against this idea that comedy is changing things. I think it can emotionally put people in a place where they can be a little more open. But we're seeing the real change in the way people are out there doing things, that's amazing. You see the people who hit the streets, you see Black Lives Matter, you see these infrastructures that have been put in place. Black Lives Matter started seven, eight years ago, it's just now becoming a thing, right? These are real things of change.
I think thinking that comedy changes stuff is just delusional with the media landscape, because people curate their own experience. People can watch whatever videos they want that convince them coronavirus isn't even real. Like, it's not The Cosby Show. There's not five, six channels and you have to learn and meet the Cosbys. No, you pick whatever you want and you believe that. So, it's my job to look at my show and be like, "OK, who is going to naturally be inclined to watch this and how do I challenge that person's thought?" Because there is still a lack of diversity of thought regardless of what side you're on.
GERVAIS Yeah, I think we all aspire to being like Bill Cosby. (Laughs.) But that's a very good point that it doesn't really change anything. What really annoys me is that people think that a joke is the window to the comedian's true soul. And it's just not true. A big part of my comedy is saying things I do not mean. I say the wrong thing because I know the audience knows the right thing and that's why they laugh. I'll change the joke halfway through, I'll pretend to be right wing, left wing, no wing, if it makes the joke funnier. People who think I'm going to change the world with a gag are really delusional.
NANJIANI Ricky, can I ask you something? You said sometimes you say jokes that obviously are not what you mean. How do you feel about audiences that might watch and think, "Oh that is how Ricky feels"?
GERVAIS It's an occupational hazard, because there's only so much you can wink and let the audience know that you don't mean it [before] you ruin the satire and the irony. That's what satire and irony is. And to a certain extent, you've got to aim at people who get it. The fact is if I play to 15,000 people, there are going to be rapists, pedophiles, murderers …
NANJIANI Who is coming to see your show, Ricky? What is your demo? (Laughter.)
GERVAIS There comes a point where you go, "Listen, the joke is there, the joke is gettable, most people get it, if there is one person that doesn't get it, I can live with that." That someone might take you at face value doing an ironic joke or a satirical joke, well, yeah, some people try to inject themselves with bleach. There are stupid people in the world.
NANJIANI But if you're making some sort of joke where obviously you don't believe it, but the point of view of the joke is that it's good that these people are marginalized, I do think that can normalize ideas that would otherwise societally be considered harmful.
Dan, back to you, one of the choices that you made on Schitt's Creek was to show a widespread acceptance. There's not a whiff of homophobia. Why was that so important to you?
LEVY To what Kumail was saying, in terms of, what if someone takes something and runs with it, my solution for that on our particular show was to just never give power to that perspective. So, for us, it was making sure that the town of Schitt's Creek — and traditionally speaking, small towns in comedies have always been the butt of the joke — be the epicenter for growth for our family. It's ultimately a satire on wealth and indulgence and what love means, so having the ability to say, "I'm not going to have bigotry or homophobia ever discussed in this town," it's a way of protecting a world that I felt was gentler and more accepting.
My feeling was if I were to include homophobia or bigotry of any kind in the show, it would be giving power to those people who see themselves on TV. And what I've realized in the process of doing that is that there's so much power in that kind of projection of something nice, particularly for gay characters. We've come to expect any time we fall in love on camera [for it] to end in death or in something terrible or tragic or to never be given happiness completely. I don't ever consider our show to be very political, but I suppose that decision to just say, "We're never going to show the dark side," is the quiet politics of our show.
For the rest of you, what have been the unexpected responses to your shows?
GERVAIS Mine was the emotional response. I was surprised that people would come up to me and they'd tell me their story of grief. Nearly everyone that came up to me said, "Oh, I lost my sister three weeks before I watched the show," or, "I lost my wife last year," and it was amazing that they would say that to a stranger because they used the show as an in and they said, "Oh, I was Tony [Gervais' character], that was me for a year." So that was quite a shock because you don't expect it and you don't want the responsibility.
How did you respond?
GERVAIS I said, "Oh, I'm really sorry to hear that." And it affects you. It made me want to treat that responsibly in [season] two. So, I didn't make him get better because you don't, you don't snap out of depression.
Ramy, by calling your show Ramy, you've said you "get the brunt of everything: the praise, the death threats, the condemnations to hell." What's been the reaction you least expected?
YOUSSEF Just people who don't fit the exact specifications of the family feeling really connected to it. Like, I got an email from a guy who was like, "I'm an evangelical Christian father of three and I am Ramy." You get something like that and I was like, "Yeah, I didn't know that you were." But it's really cool to see it connecting with different people.
LEVY I think any time you tell stories that are not part of the mainstream narrative, you're going to affect people. In my case, I really [made] an active choice to tell a gay love story that felt authentic to my own experience in a way that I hadn't seen depicted on TV before — as a viewer, you [often] end up watching yourself distilled into a version of what people want you to be or what network executives consider to be a palatable version of who you are. I was given an opportunity and the freedom by our networks in Canada and the U.S. to tell whatever stories I wanted to tell. As a result, it was a conscious effort on my part to make sure that all the intricacies of the relationship that I was writing felt real and that when I walked into the store that I owned with my boyfriend that we kissed as straight couples would kiss. And you realize in those moments that that isn't represented a lot on TV. You don't see casual intimacy between two men on TV.
At first you wonder how people are going to take this, how middle America is going to perceive this. And I'm not scouring the internet for negativity, but I do feel like the positive outcome of this is that I could probably count on two hands the negative things that have been written. But the volume of letters and notes from people, be it kids who have seen themselves reflected in our story, or kids who have come out of the closet by using certain dialogue from our show, or parents who accepted their children in ways because they had been able to learn through the show is [incredible]. TV is an incredibly powerful medium, and I think in comedy, in particular, people don't expect to necessarily be caught off guard by sentimentality or love.
THOMPSON Damn, that was very well said, Dan.
Kenan, how often do you hear from the people who you have impersonated on SNL?
THOMPSON It depends on the person and how often I've done it. Like, I've heard from Steve Harvey and Big Papi (David Ortiz). It's usually pretty positive. I mean, Steve wasn't overly excited about it in the beginning, but he grew to love it. I don't do it out of any malice.
How did you know Steve Harvey didn't like it initially?
THOMPSON He told me in different ways or he'd say it on his radio show and then people would call me and be like, "Hey, Steve Harvey's talking about you this morning on the radio," and I'd be like, "All right, well, I'm sure he'll settle down once he realizes that I'm not attacking him." But I remember we were kind of attacking Star Jones a little bit back in the day and she was not feeling that shit. … (Laughter.)
What do you do in those scenarios?
THOMPSON I lay low, man. I don't feel like I'll run into Star Jones anywhere, so I just lay low for stuff like that. But people like Steve, I'm probably going to run into him somewhere, so I had to smooth that out. I went to Chicago and did his talk show and stuff. So, we're good. (Laughter.)
As the longest-tenured castmember on Saturday Night Live, when did you finally get comfortable with the idea that you would decide when you're ready to move on versus Lorne Michaels deciding for you?
THOMPSON After a couple of seasons, because you have to let that go and just do the job. If you're so focused on getting fired every single show, you can't focus on entertaining people. It just doesn't work like that.
GERVAIS No, you've got to try to get fired, that's my advice.
NANJIANI Ricky, that's terrible advice. You can do that if you're Ricky Gervais, but somebody else gets their first job, they take your advice and try to get fired and guess what?
THOMPSON They get fuckin' fired.
GERVAIS They'll thank me later. (Laughter.)
LEVY I just have to say, Kenan, you are so good on SNL. You're just effortless and the character work that you do is so joyful to watch.
THOMPSON Thank you, man. I don't take praise well, but I really appreciate that. I just try to stay focused and try to figure out the formula of comedy. I was telling Ricky earlier that I loved his [stand-up] special because he spent so much time talking about the fact that anything can be talked about if you do it smartly. That's how I approach sketches or trying to push forward how "Black comedy" is perceived or progressing and trying to move away from playing traditional roles — always being very serious about the approach. And one way to keep me calm in that is to make it joyful, so that's why my energy is always big or I do big eyes. I like a lot of big energy to make it obvious that we're supposed to be having fun.
Kumail, I think it's fair to say that over the course of Silicon Valley's run, your career has exploded.
THOMPSON Just like those arms, look at those arms exploding. (Laughter.)
We'll get to those arms, but first I want to ask about the pressures that come with the choices that you make now, as you look to prolong what it is that you have in this moment?
NANJIANI I'm very, very aware of the window where you have your shot. And that goes away for a lot of people, so the best you can do is just go with your gut and do stuff that you can be proud of. I've made some good decisions; I've made some decisions that I'm not so happy with now. If you look at someone like Ricky, who has had such a long career, what I think he's done a great job of is having a point of view with everything he does. Everything he does feels like it comes from Ricky Gervais. So, you try to do that, figure out what your voice is and do stuff that excites you and plays to your strengths.
One of those things, for you, was being a superhero — the first Pakistani superhero in an upcoming Marvel movie, The Eternals. What's the significance and the weight of that for you?
NANJIANI It was very significant because it was something that I really, really wanted to do. Now on top of that, there's this other pressure in that I'm the first. But that stuff is a little harder to negotiate because I can only represent myself. So, I do feel the pressure, but the only way to relieve it is just to have more people have these opportunities. I, one person, cannot represent a whole group of people because all of our experiences and backgrounds are completely different. That said, when I got that part, I was like, "I want to look like someone who could take on the traditional Hollywood-looking superhero — someone who could take on Thor or Captain America." To me, that was an important part of getting to play the superhero, and for me it was important because I was the first one.
YOUSSEF So you had to get jacked for your culture. Like, you did it for Islam and for Pakistan.
NANJIANI Yeah, I did it for all my people. I'm ripped for Pakistan.
YOUSSEF That's the newest ice bucket challenge. Ripped for Pakistan. (Laughter.)
How did your own experiences inform the character?
NANJIANI I approached him really as the opposite of the opportunities that I had gotten and the opportunities that a lot of other brown men traditionally get in Hollywood. I feel like we're this group where we can be the model minority, so the smart nerds, or the exact opposite, terrorists, depending on what the project is. Those are the two ends of the spectrum that we occupy and very little in between. I've gotten to play a nerd, so I wanted this guy to be cool. I've played weaklings, so I wanted this guy to be strong. Brown men have had to play terrorists, so I wanted this guy to be full of joy. So, really, this character for me was defined by what I didn't want him to be.
You played that stereotypical nerd on Silicon Valley. Did you have any concerns about the potential typecasting when you took the role all those years ago?
NANJIANI Not really for that specific show, because even though I'm a nerd, everybody is a nerd. That's a show about nerds. If I was the only brown guy on the show and I was the only nerd, that would be one thing.
OK, let's touch quickly on the "thirsty shirtless" photo that nearly broke the internet. What surprised you most about the response to it?
NANJIANI My aunts saying that they were really proud of me. I did not expect that. (Laughs.) Listen, it got so much bigger than I thought it was going to get. If I had known it was going to be like that, I probably wouldn't have done it because, I'll tell you, I have come to hate that picture.
Why do you say that?
NANJIANI Um, I don't want to get into it, but you get a weird body dysmorphia when the whole world is concentrating on how you look. And listen, I am very, very grateful and I put those pictures out for a reason, right? I did that because I wanted that reaction, obviously. But then when you get that reaction, it's a little weird. You're like, "People are really judging little bits of your physical being." And I know a lot of people have it a lot worse than me, but it makes you feel naked and I became shallow. I got obsessed with how I look and then all I would see are what I perceive as flaws.
GERVAIS That happened to me. People judge me because of my body a lot and I'm trying to turn that around by being more cerebral. I just want people to love me for my mind. (Laughter.)
NANJIANI You got in shape, didn't you, Ricky? You did.
GERVAIS Did I? I had a lot of liposuction, but only in my testicles, because it's where I put all my fat. So, I just had enormous balls and I've had them leaked.
YOUSSEF Now that picture would break the internet. (Laughter.)
This is not where I anticipated this going …
YOUSSEF I did.
NANJIANI Yeah, I was like, when is Ricky going to talk about his fat balls again? (Laughter.)
What role would the rest of you be willing to make that kind of sacrifice for?
GERVAIS An astronaut. Just lying down, floating around, you can't see it's me so I could have a double there most of the time. And you urinate in your suit.
NANJIANI So, for you, urinating in your clothes is one of the positives of being an astronaut?
NANJIANI Ricky, you don't have to go to space to pee your pants.
GERVAIS But I'd be getting paid for it, wouldn't I? Why do you think I do this? (Laughter.)
YOUSSEF And it's the only outfit that can carry his balls. (Laughter.)
What about you, Ramy?
YOUSSEF It's funny, I joked about being James Bond and then, like, I can't really say anything, but it's weird, it's kind of become a thing. I can't say much, but yeah.
Wait, what does that mean?
YOUSSEF I just … no, no, my agent would get really frustrated but, like … yeah. (Laughter.)
LEVY I think I need to say more things about things that I want.
NANJIANI Yeah, put it out there, man, put it in the universe.
LEVY I remember first getting to Los Angeles and going and doing a general [meeting] at The CW. And, you know, you're walking down the halls and it's just six-packs and models and six-packs and models and you finally get to the end, and I was like fresh from Toronto, had no experience, walked into the room and I think the meeting was about two and a half minutes long. She just was like, "OK, thanks for coming in, great to meet you, buh-bye." Never got a CW audition after that. I just don't think that's my niche. (Laughter.)
OK, we're going to end with a lighter question for everyone. What is your favorite comedic performance of all time?
GERVAIS Ohhh God, that's so hard.
THOMPSON I'm going with Jim Carrey in Cable Guy.
NANJIANI I'll go either Bill Murray in Groundhog Day or Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters because there are all these stakes: It's really scary but he's really funny in it without puncturing the stakes. And to me, that is the ultimate challenge of all action comedy is, how do you be funny without making it feel like you're making fun of what's happening? — and he really treads that line so well.
YOUSSEF I'm going to go with Ricky Gervais on this Zoom chat. There were times where he was serious and he really brought it into the heart, but then there were times where he's just funny, he's just riffing and he's loose and just to switch from [one to the other]. And then the lighting was changing [Gervais was in London, where the sun was setting]. And it was just, like, his level of nuance … (Laughter.)
THOMPSON Oh, we've got to switch it up. That's three for the whites. Come on, Dan. Come on, Ricky.
GERVAIS Ohhh God, I can't think. (Laughter.)
LEVY To me, it's scenes. Like, Lucille Ball with the chocolates or Eddie Murphy crossing a highway. And then Catherine O'Hara in For Your Consideration, which was one of the most underrated comedic performances I've seen in a very long time. And Ricky.
NANJIANI My favorite of Ricky's was when he was joking and we didn't know if he was joking. One of the highlights was his dad spilling milk on his face when he's going in and out of the train tunnel.
YOUSSEF Yeah, a little bit surreal. Like, "Whoa, he can get surreal."
NANJIANI Such a roller coaster. I was like, "Oh wow, what a stress dream." And then that was a lie, so he was lying about a dream, so he was already lying about something that we knew wasn't real. So, I'd say, for me that really brought it home.
THOMPSON Layers, man, layers. (Laughter.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the July 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.