At home in London with the bomb-throwing emcee as he lets loose on why he's returning, those controversial tweets, his 'Office' money and the jokes he can't tell in 2020: "Nowadays, you've got to make sure they're bulletproof."
It's two days before Christmas, and Ricky Gervais is preparing to spend a quiet holiday with his girlfriend and cat. In less than two weeks, he'll be 5,400 miles away in Beverly Hills, taking the stage for the fifth time to host the Golden Globe Awards. This means, of course, that the Gervais household Christmas plans have been derailed.
"As soon as NBC called and said, 'Do you want to do it?' I thought, 'Well, that's Christmas ruined because I've got to work,' " Gervais says. "People think that I'd go out there and I'd get drunk and say off-the-cuff [things]. I don't. I write jokes."
And that's just what the 58-year-old British comedian will be doing for the next few days, holed up inside this elegant red-brick house on a quiet residential street in West London, where he lives with longtime girlfriend Jane Fallon (who often features as a character in his jokes) and his cat, Ollie, (who commands 59,000 Twitter followers). A stocking for Ollie hangs near the entrance of his home office, the room to the right of the big Christmas tree twinkling in the wood-paneled hallway.
The man behind The Office, it turns out, has a pretty small one. "This is full of free stuff because it's all awards and things people have sent me," Gervais says. Both sides of the room have floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves stacked with an assortment of books and accolades — the BAFTAs and Emmys sit on his right, the Globes to his left. A sturdy wood desk stands in the middle of the room, a laptop sitting next to a pile of papers with jokes scrawled across them. Gervais is dressed comfortably in black sweatpants, T-shirt and a zipper hoodie with holes in the left elbow. He brings in some water, pushing over a coaster from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to place the glass on.
Gervais' stints as Globes host have done reasonably well in the ratings — the 2016 show pulled in 18.5 million viewers, about the same as last year's with Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg hosting. Still, when NBC, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Dick Clark Productions announced that Gervais would return in 2020, some eyebrows were raised. Would his particular brand of outrageous putdown comedy — in 2016, there were gasps in the audience when he joked about a Caitlyn Jenner car accident that had left a woman dead, and his roasting of a certain controversial Australian star ("I like to drink as much as the next man, unless the next man is Mel Gibson") has been a feature of his hosting since 2010 — prove too much for these more sensitive times? After the Globes broke new ground last year with Oh becoming the first Asian American to host, would Gervais feel like a step backward for Hollywood inclusion? And, the biggest question of all, why, after taking so much flak over his past four turns at the podium, would Gervais want to return for a fifth?
So, why do the Globes again?
It's complicated. I did it the first time because I couldn't believe I was asked. They had never had a presenter. I thought, "Oh, this is great." I didn't know what it was like. I had no expectations. I'd won a couple of Golden Globes, so I had been and it was a nice party. I realize it's much better to be at than perform at because you've got no pressure. Everyone's drinking, everyone's getting drunk, they don't want to hear what you want [to say], they want to know if they've won an award. And as the night goes on, there are more losers. They're like, "Well, we didn't even win." So it's a bad gig for a comedian. If that was a comedy club, you'd go, "I'm not playing that club."
So, again, why do it?
Because it's fun, it's fun! That first time I did it, [I thought], "Do I pander to the 200 privileged egos in the room, or do I try and entertain a global audience of 200 million people sitting at home who aren't winning awards?" Well, no contest. I try and make it a spectator sport. I try and play the outsider. It would be nauseating for me to come out and go, "Hey, George, how you doing, thanks for letting me use your villa. Hey, Brad, see you tonight, yeah?" It's horrible. I've got to be the bloke sitting at home who shouldn't have been invited. That's who I've got to be.
Do you write your own material? And when do you start?
Yes, I do. I start writing immediately. Before I decide to do it, I have to go, "Have I got anything? What's happened?" … I write jokes and they're considered and I make sure they're bulletproof. Nowadays, you've got to make sure they're bulletproof in 10 years' time, with people going through saying, "He said this once, 10 years [ago]." Kevin Hart [lost] his job [as Oscars host] for 10-year-old tweets that he said he was sorry about and deleted at the time. So there's more pressure on making [the jokes bulletproof]. It's the world [watching]. This isn't me in a comedy club.
The past couple of days, you've experienced some Twitter backlash yourself for comments that you made in response to a parody persona posting a story joking about being transgender. Would you like to clarify that situation?
Jarvis Dupont is a spoof Twitter account, and the joke is that he's so woke that he's actually gone full circle and does terrible things. And his latest [bit] is, "I'm trans now." And he gets all that wrong. And I responded by playing along with him, saying, "Oh, you're so much better than biological women because they've had a lifetime to get used to it." Now, people saw my tweet and they thought he's a real trans person, but I'm taking the piss out of Jarvis Dupont, who is actually a woman in real life. And this is the problem. You can say, "Listen, I was joking. It's a joke." But that's not always enough for people. They go, "Well, why were you joking?" Also, add to that the nature of Twitter — it's so curt, there's no nuance, it's there forever out of context.
So why engage in that?
That's a good point. No. Yeah. Better not to. For an easy life, it's better not to. Why do I use Twitter? Oh, loads of reasons. Mainly a marketing tool. There is a certain amount that it's a platform to explain, to put out your side of the argument. You know, if a paper says something that's untrue, I can go, "Not true."
Todd Phillips, who directed Joker and the Hangover movies, has complained that woke culture is ruining comedy because comedians feel they can't push boundaries. Is he correct?
People like the idea of freedom of speech until they hear something they don't like. So there's still a pressure, but that doesn't mean I'm going to water it down or back down and not say what I want. It's just another form of what we've been through many, many times — it used to be called P.C. I think those things start off with very good intention and then they're mugged. It's a good thing to not be racist and sexist and homophobic. But it's not a good thing to not be allowed to make jokes about those things, because you can tell a joke about race without being racist. I'm happy to play by the rules. It's just that the 200 million people watching have different rules. That's the plight. When people say, "He crossed the line," I say, "I didn't draw a line, you did." It's relative. It's subjective.
You don't feel your brand of comedy is being phased out in any way?
I don't think I do a brand of comedy. I think what you mean is the marketing of [my comedy]. My marketing is, "He doesn't care. He doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. He says the unsayable," which just isn't true. I don't say the unsayable or they wouldn't all be laughing. They would be leaving.
You have said that you don't want to make jokes about things people can't help — the color of their skin, their sex or where they were born.
They mustn't be the targets. You mustn't make those things the target to be ridiculed. You shouldn't laugh at something they can't help. Yeah, I think that's a pretty good rule. Again, it's not a rule of comedy. It's my personal rule. Deep down, I want people to know I'm not a racist or a homophobe or a sexist.
Going by that rule, do you feel that your jokes about Caitlyn Jenner's car accident in 2016 …
Were misunderstood? I was very careful that the joke was about her being a bad driver. The joke was about stereotypes. I started off being correctly inclusive saying she's brave, breaking down barriers. And then I [said] she didn't do a lot for women drivers.
When it was announced that you were going to host again for the fifth time, people brought up that Caitlyn Jenner joke, which you elaborate further into another joke in your stand-up [2018's Netflix special Humanity]. How do you respond when people keep bringing up comments that you've made and implying that you are transphobic?
I just say I'm not. And there's nothing else you can say, you know? Yeah, I'm not. I can justify the jokes, but I get it. Some people, when you deal with contentious issues or taboo subjects, the very mention of them is the sacrilege. That's why they stay taboo. People straight away, particularly with a comedian, if you're joking about a subject, they think you're anti it as opposed to pro it. I've tried to explain this in Humanity. It's an occupational hazard of being outspoken. I think offense is the collateral damage of free speech, and it's no reason not to have free speech. That's what I'd say — it's the lesser of two evils. Having free speech and some people getting upset by it is the lesser of two evils because not having free speech is horrendous.
Who is in your firing line this year?
Well, I don't think this time [any] individuals are. I think I'll go after the general community. I'd go after cinema and I'd go after television and I'd go after actors and I'll go after pretension and hypocrisy. You know what I mean? I'd go after those big, nebulous things where they can all feel I'm not picking on any one person. I'm never going to point to someone and say, "You had a bad year, mate," you know?
Well, you've done that before …
I did with Mel Gibson, yeah. (Laughs.)
Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Ben Affleck …
I know, yeah, that's true. I might do the odd one, but again, only if it's bad behavior. But I'm all for forgiveness as well, so if someone gets drunk and says something awful, I can tease them, but I don't want them imprisoned. Bad behavior's not always a terrible, criminal, punishable offense. Sometimes it's like, "You've embarrassed yourself, mate." There are a thousand people in that room and they've probably all done something worthy of a bit of ridicule. But we're not hunting Nazis. We're going after people who were a bit rude or got drunk and insulted a waiter.
Is that anything that you haven't done before that you want to tackle or may want to tackle going forward?
I don't want to be out there being the warrior of the people cutting through hypocrisy and destroying sacred cows. I’m doing 10-minute standup, you know? Just laugh. Just laugh, don’t worry about it. I've got no power. I still have to try and keep my low status. So I have to go after people bigger than them even, I have to go after studios, I've got to go for the top. And if I tease one of them, it hopefully should be affectionate, you know? You don't tease anyone like you tease your mates and your girlfriend — doesn't mean you hate them, it means you like them.
Have you ever regretted anything you've said about anyone?
Yeah, Tim Allen. Because I think he took it wrong. The joke was him and Tom Hanks. So I came out and said, "Our next two presenters, the first has won five Oscars, combined box office of five billion dollars. And the other, Tim Allen." Right? It's a fine joke. I'm teasing Tim Allen. But anyone standing next to Tom Hanks, unless it's Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford or Robert De Niro, that could be me. But it happened to be Tim Allen. And I have nothing against Tim Allen. He's a good actor. He's probably a nice bloke. So even though there's no malice and I can justify it comedically and everyone laughed, I didn't want Tim Allen to think, "Oh, that was written for me. Why me?" Well, because you were standing next to Tom Hanks.
Word is Kim Cattrall wasn't too happy, either.
I did a joke — again, this is my big point, this is the offense caused by them confusing the subject of the joke with the target of the joke — on that second Globes. I said the [award] for special effects should go to the team who airbrushed the Sex and the City poster. It was ludicrous. And I said, "We know how old you are, girls. I saw one of you on an episode of Bonanza." And [Cattrall] said that was ageist. But my point was, no, it was the opposite. I was saying, what's wrong with being 50? Who's watching that film going, "She's 49. I'm not watching that shit." Why do we have to make them look 22? It's creepy. So my target was the opposite of what she thought it was.
One of the major changes since you last hosted is the rise of the #MeToo movement. There are a few movies up for Globes that deal with it, like Bombshell, about Roger Ailes at Fox News …
I haven't seen it. I haven't seen anything.
And there's The Morning Show …
I've heard of that but haven't seen it. That's Steve Carell, isn't it?
Yes, he plays a character accused of sexual misconduct.
I'm not going to sit down and write a joke about, what was his name, Roger Ailes? I'm not going to do that. If something comes up and I think of something funny, I'll find a way. But I feel like I'm too late for it to feel zeitgeisty. I'd worry I'd make a joke that someone made on Kimmel two years ago. I try to keep it simple. I won't shy away from a subject, but when it's something that sensitive, it's got to be really, really good and worth it.
Just curious, but do they pay a lot of money for hosting the Globes?
Yeah, of course, but that's not why I do it. I've got enough fucking money. I said to my agent, "I won't do for money anything I wouldn't do for free." He went, "Please don't say that ever again."
Have you ever thought about living in L.A.? Or do you prefer just visiting for awards shows?
I've got nothing against Hollywood. The weather's great. I've got friends there. But it doesn't appeal to me. Because in Hollywood, I'm not in charge. It doesn't excite me doing other people's films and projects. But I come out to Hollywood because it's fun. I did The Simpsons and it was amazing. And the Globes — to me, doing the Globes is like playing golf. It's not work. But no, I've never thought of moving to L.A. I like my life too much. I like what I do.
You emailed Ted Sarandos at Netflix back in 2012, 2013 —
I think I might have heard that their first project was a remake of House of Cards. I got his email and I said "Hi, I think Netflix is the future. I want to do my next project with you." He sent back, "We'll take it." That's amazing, isn't it? You're basically talking to the head of a studio and he goes, "We’ll take it."
So you have this incredible deal of $40 million for two comedy specials, which is a pretty significant deal for two specials.
Well, obviously, I'm not going to react to it, but go on. (Laughs.)
But obviously, you believe in this platform.
I'm embarrassed by money.
Because I am. It ruins it.
Ruins the art?
Yeah. I did The Office when I was 39, and it’s the first thing I tried my hardest at. I remember we won two BAFTAs, and I came home from the BAFTAs, I’m 40 now maybe, and I put them both on the table, and I’m a fat little bloke in black tie, and I went to Jane, "Why didn't I do this before?" And she went, "Because you wouldn't have been any good." And then when the first cheque came in, I wanted to say "That’s not why I did it." Do you know what I mean? Is that weird? I got over it. (Laughs.)
It's really interesting because money starts to sum up the value of the industry, the value of work.
Well, strangely, it's the only thing that's objective. It's like, everything I've ever done got one star, two star, three star, four star, five star reviews, everything I've ever done. People loved it. People hated it. People didn't care for it. Everything I take, people always go, "Oh, he’s perfect for the job," and I always think, "Why have they chosen me?" There's no objectivity. But being paid is. This house is real. Your Rotten Tomatoes score isn’t. But nothing compares with doing what you like every day and being proud of it.
You don't have to go work, technically.
No, of course I don’t. But everyone does, really. Because you want to improve, and you like making people laugh and you like getting a restaurant when you want, and you like traveling nicely, and you like being safe and providing, you like all those things. Those are all real things that come from doing something you love. So joking aside, I do feel really lucky and privileged and all those things.
You’ve got there yourself. Why is that any different to someone working in a corporation and moving up the ladder?
It's not, it’s not. No, it's not. But that's important to me as well. I want people to know that I had no money growing up, I had no money till I was 40. I want them to know that. I could say because I wanted to be inspirational, but that's not true. I want them to know for my own peace of mind and ego. That's why, really. I don’t go on about it. And also, it's funny. It's funny for them to see someone like me on a chat show talking about weeing in the sink. Or, I try to make it, when I know I needed a suit and I tried to make one out of curtains. So it's this fucking tragedy. They're laughing at this, it’s like a Cinderella story.
I think I’m trying to understand why you’re not owning it more?
Because some people aren't as lucky as me. They haven’t made it out from weeing in the sink and making clothes out of curtains. I don’t think anyone was that stupid.
There must have been many outlets that were probably interested in having more content from you — you've worked with HBO, BBC and NBC, so why Netflix?
Oh, it's perfect. It’s perfect because the most important thing for me is the work turning out like I wanted. And to get final edit, it does come with some compromise, and that compromise is going to a place with less interference because they're not as big often, so BBC 2, not BBC One, left me alone. Channel 4, not ITV, left me alone. HBO, not NBC, left me alone. Netflix comes along and goes, "We can leave you alone, too, and we've got 150 million subscribers." The business side of it is taken care of because they’ve got deeper pockets because they have more subscribers; they’re Disney in 10 years. And whatever any one artist says, they want to be left alone, but they want to be watched by the most people possible. So it ticks all three boxes: good business; left alone; more people watch it. It's a no-brainer to me.
Have you ever been approached to host a late night show in America?
Yeah, a couple of times. But I don't know how serious. I think that is one of those things that always crops up because they're looking around and I always politely decline.
Yeah, because I do this job so I don't have to put on a suit and sit behind the desk five days a week. I might do it one day. I might do it. Five days a week is too much. But again, it doesn’t tick any boxes for me. I couldn't say what I wanted, there’s 20 writers involved, it's not your stuff. You're the second most interesting person in the room. It doesn't pay that much pro-rata — 250 shows? It’s terribly paid compared to — that sounds really bad now. I'd rather be a funny guest saying what I want.
Any late night hosts whom you particularly like watching?
I do, yeah. I don't see them because they're not on over here. But I think that Jimmy Kimmel is great, I think he's amazing and he's brave. I like the fact that he gets personal, and I think he's great. I think Conan is a genius, he’s a writer — again, a really nice guy. I love Jon Stewart. I thought he should be president, that's how much I love Jon Stewart. I think he's great. I think Seth [Meyers] is really smart and uncompromised and doing it at 12.30 at night, and he's doing a great job. Colbert is great, every time I go on there, we talk theology, which is amazing on a late night chat show when you’re meant to play a game of underwater ping pong. I love Jimmy Fallon, he’s just pure joy, it's fun being on. I was around in the big Leno-Letterman [time]. I loved doing Letterman because I think it was the most iconic, so I couldn't believe my luck. I did that 25 times. I remember the first time I did it, I thought, "Oh, I've broken America." No you haven’t! (Laughs.)
The U.S. version of The Office is still so prevalent in today's culture.
It’s the most watched show on Netflix. That’s mad, isn’t it? Bigger than Friends. That’s mad.
Why do you think it’s resonating so much still? I was rewatching the earliest seasons and just thinking how everything Michael Scott says, he would probably be fired in today's world.
Well, that's interesting because when I was talking to [U.S. Office creator] Greg Daniels, we thought that [Michael Scott] had to be slightly better at his job because I said, "You can survive till you’re 65 doing a shoddy job in England and no one cares, like Brent. But Americans want a bit more hard work and excellence." And so I thought we made him — I say we, I mean them — I thought they made him slightly better at his job than David Brent.
For you, was there a cathartic element in playing David Brent?
Only in retrospect that you think that. No, I don't think I was ever quite the Brent character. But it's sort of luck, it’s how you’re dealt. Some people are confident and they go, "I don’t want to lose anymore." That was the other thing that The Office was about as well. It was about stifled ambitions. I never thought there was anything wrong about working in an office. I wasn’t having a go at the 9-to-5, and I still don’t. I've never been a snob in that way. But I did want to say, "Don't sit around all day thinking you should write a novel or do a painting and then get to 70 and go, it’s too late now." Just do it.
Do you ever consider doing a spinoff of The Office?
No, it’s sort of done. I've got too many ideas to be bogged down with one.
How do you find, with the changing landscape of television, syndication changing?
It's not the same as it was. I don't think there'll be another thing like that. The Office went from a little project, did about 6 million [viewers] eventually over here and both DVDs sold a million, which was incredible, and went to one on BBC America. It was the highest-rated show for a year with 1 million. That was the highest-rated show on BBC America in 2002 or whatever it was. Then it got a remake in America and some others, and then that got 300 episodes and then that got syndicated, and now there’s a new wave of syndication where NBC have bought it back off in one chunk. So it’s mad.
Is that paid out in one lump sum, or still goes —
No, it’s still — I don’t know where it’ll end.
Isn’t that quite nice though, to know you’ll always have that?
Well, yeah, I guess. It's just financial for me. There's no excitement there for me; there’s no artistic pride. I think they did a great job, and I do treat it like I’m a sperm donor. It's not my kid. I'm not the father.
Yes, but your "kid" went to Hollywood and made it big.
Yes, exactly. It’s like I gave you the blueprint or the DNA, and you brought up a lovely — I can't take any credit for it. You know what I mean?
Your new Netflix show Afterlife feels like an interesting dissection of mortality and how to contend with mortality, but it also feels like an evolution of you as a comedian?
Well, it’s not just about mortality because my character is not thinking about his own mortality. It's almost the opposite. He's not worried. Usually when someone says, "Oh, so-and-so died" and you go, "I’m that age!" and they worry about their own mortality, whereas he’s not worried about himself. I think it's more about loss and grief. And I think we explore that more because it's taking this person through. Usually everything I’ve ever done has started with a character, usually my character. I had [David] Brent years before The Office, I had Derek before Derek. This was slightly different. This came rather like a movie, like The Invention of Lying, this came with the concept first and my concept — which may have been due to all the pressure of political correctness and wokeness and "you can’t say this anymore" and getting older, and everything I’ve ever done is existential — but what came first was: Imagine if you lost everything? You could say what you wanted, you could do what you wanted. And I didn't want to make it a real vigilante thing; I didn’t want [him] to have guns and go around righting wrongs, so I made him a verbal vigilante. And then the grief developed because I had to find a way to say, "Well, why can this bloke say what he wants? Won’t we hate him?" Not if he’s in pain. What’s losing everything? The love of your life. And there it was. And the comedy comes from two places I think: one, people living vicariously through this man who can say what he wants, because we all bite our tongue and think, "I wish I could have fucking said this"; the other place it comes from is with all comedy, an ordinary person trying to do something they're not equipped to do. This guy, he wants to become a psychopath so he doesn't hurt anymore, and he can't do it because he's got a conscience. He's nice to the dog. He's nice to his nephew. He’s nice to the new girl. He's nice to the nice old lady.
So soon, this bravado — oh! I see your point. That is what I’ve been saying about me onstage. I suppose there is this duality. Onstage, I’m this brash person who doesn't care. Behind the scenes, I’ve thought about every joke, "Don't hurt anyone's feelings." Yeah, interesting.
The Golden Globe Awards is produced by Dick Clark Productions, which shares a parent company, Valence Media, with The Hollywood Reporter.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.