12:33pm PT by Emma Dibdin
Ricky Gervais Talks Joking About Dark Subjects at 'After Life' Launch
The premise of Ricky Gervais’s new Netflix series After Life — in which he plays a recently widowed man so hollowed-out by grief that he drops his social filter and says precisely what’s on his mind with no regard for the consequences — draws inevitable comparisons to Gervais’s real-life reputation.
Ever since his provocative stints as Golden Globes host, Gervais has become best known to Hollywood as a divisive, boundary-pushing comic who speaks his mind, a parallel which he acknowledged at After Life’s For Your Consideration screening in New York last night.
“People are still surprised when they say, 'Oh, this one's got heart,' because they still think at the Golden Globes I was a bit nasty,” Gervais said during a post-screening panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media. “[My work] has always had heart, but you can still have heart and annoy other actors. That doesn't make you a bad person, to annoy Hollywood!”
The comedy in the show, he noted, comes out of his character Tony’s inability to be truly monstrous. “He tries to turn himself into a psychopath so he doesn't feel any more, and he decides to punish the world, so we’re laughing at his anger and frustration trying to be this badass, because he’s not. He’s just wounded.”
But in the early episodes, Gervais acknowledged, there’s also a vicarious thrill in watching Tony let loose. “We love it when he says what's on his mind, because we stifle it, and we’re going, ‘I wish I could do that sometimes.'” Gervais, himself, included: “I can't even send my soup back if there's a rat in it these days, because I'm worried that a waiter's got me on YouTube.”
The show, which incorporates a frank discussion of suicidal ideation and hard drug use alongside gentle small-town comedy, is Gervais’ self-described darkest work to date. “It’s a man who’s lost everything and doesn’t want to live any more, and that’s ground zero. I know what the funniest things in the world are, and they're the darkest things in the world," he said. "That's what humor's for, it gets us over bad stuff, and taboos are there to be crunched. No harm can come from discussing taboos, I do it all the time because I want to take the audience to a place it hasn't been before."
He continued, "People go 'Oh, you shouldn't joke about that.' Why not? It shouldn't be on telly in case somebody you don't know doesn't like it? That's madness.”
Later in the conversation, Gervais said that witnessing the rise of “cancel culture” has had an impact on his work. “All I want to do is be more honest. The more I see freedom of speech eroded and the more I see people not telling the truth and the more I see people scared, the more I see people closed down and canceled because they said something that someone didn't like, the more I want to fight it.”
While he emphasized that he feels a “morality and a responsibility” with everything he writes, Gervais doesn’t believe anything is off-limits. “I don’t think there's anything you shouldn't joke about, or write about, or explore, because it's only throwing up questions.... Usually someone is offended when they mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target.”
Asked about the future of After Life, Gervais confirmed that his hope is to continue the show. “I want people to watch it and like it enough for Netflix to say, ‘Let’s do it again,’” he said, adding that he has already started writing the second season.
“I think we’ve created a lovely world, the actors are great, and I need to work with the dog again!” He was also enthusiastic about his long-standing relationship with Netflix: “It’s the best of all worlds. It’s gonna be watched by more people, they don't interfere at all, and as a business model it makes sense because the subscription means that they can pay better than anyone else, if we're being honest.”