Ricky Gervais truly does not care if he’s offended you. “That’s on you,” he’ll say with his trademark cackle. Same goes for critics. Since the breakout success of The Office and its fatuous, boss-from-hell hero David Brent, Gervais‘ work has been all over the critical map — adored, despised, put on a pedestal and torn to shreds. Jokes in his stand-up routine about the disabled have drawn harsh rebukes; so have the barbs he’s thrown at Jennifer Lawrence and Caitlyn Jenner during his four turns as host of the Golden Globes. (Asked if he’d return for a fifth time, he says, “If not next year, then one day, sure.”)
But the actor, writer, producer, director and comedian is fine with all that. “I’m not the person who thinks, ‘Now I’m famous. I shouldn’t say anything,’ ” says Gervais, 54. He is more than happy, he insists, to rile up social media in exchange for the freedom to do as he pleases.
Which is exactly what he gets from Netflix, the home of Gervais‘ latest film, Special Correspondents, which dropped April 29. His relationship with the streaming service began several years ago, when Gervais emailed Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “Hi,” the note read, “I believe Netflix is the future. I want to do my next show for you.”
Sarandos‘ response: “We’ll take it.”
In the half-decade or so since, Netflix has taken several, including Correspondents. Written and directed in Gervais‘ famously satirical style, the story is about a radio correspondent (Eric Bana) and an audio engineer (Gervais) who fake an Ecuadorean war from an apartment in New York. Many of the early reviews have not been kind, but Gervais has nothing if not the courage of his convictions. Here, he opens fire on the political and media landscape that his film lampoons, including how he helped pave the way for Donald Trump and what can be done about people who refuse to get the joke.
Ricky Gervais was photographed March 10 at Sunbeam Studios in London.
I’ll admit it, I like Donald Trump’s speeches. I’ve made my fortune out of playing delusional, middle-aged men who say stupid things, and people love them. But he’s beaten me. Trump is better than David Brent.
It’s funny, comedians tell a joke and they get in trouble; Donald Trump says a terrible thing and means it, and he gets elected. I get it, though, Trump hit a vein. He hit the peak of political correctness, and he’s an antidote to all that. People are tired of being told they can’t say things, so he’s suddenly this poster boy for saying what’s on your mind, however terrible it is. And it’s going to go the other way. Trump’s going to get in, and suddenly there’s going to be 32 Jon Stewarts. It’s cyclical; people build their different armies.
It was only recently that I realized that Trump actually could become president. I should have realized sooner. Think about it: We live a world where there are warnings on bottles of bleach — we have to tell people not to drink bleach. In that world, Trump can be president. And in a sense, you get what you deserve. That’s democracy, baby! It’s just a really odd thing to have this man who’s meant to be the most powerful man in the world act like a Twitter troll.
I say this as a guy whose tweets make headlines because I’m this famous person who people think should know better. But I’m not the person who says, “Now I’m famous, I shouldn’t say anything.” I’m the person who says, “Now I’m famous, I’ll say what I always did, and more people will hear me.” And I really believe you can and should tell jokes about anything. No harm comes from exposing taboos. You can tell jokes about race, about disability, about sex, without them being racist, disablist or sexist. Some people don’t get that. “Ooh, you can’t joke about that.” That’s ridiculous. It’s almost like joking about a terrible thing is worse than seriously believing a terrible thing.
The problem with offense, particularly in comedy, is that it usually comes from people who mistake the target of the joke with the subject of the joke, and they’re rarely the same. Personally, I don’t want to make jokes about things people can’t help — the color of their skin, their sex, when they were born — but everything else is pretty much up for grabs. And when I do stand-up, I often tell anecdotes, and the joke comes at the end. Usually with a joke, you know it’s a joke, and you’re waiting for the surprise. With my material, often you don’t know it’s a joke until the surprise. I used to do this Nelson Mandela joke. “What a guy,” I’d say, “incarcerated for 25 years, and he’s been out now for 10 years, and he hasn’t re-offended.” And then I drop it: “which shows you prison does work.” They think I’m going one way, it gets a round of applause, and then I’m actually an idiot. Or I say: “Stephen Hawking, they say he’s a genius. He’s not, though. He’s born in Kent, and he talks with an American accent.” So I’m an idiot because I think that voice box is pretentious. Most people know what I’m doing, but there’s a small percentage of people who don’t who complain.
Gervais stars with Bana in Netflix’s ‘Special Correspondents.’
Now, when I come out at the Golden Globes with no tie and a beer, it’s because I want people to think that I’m going to say terrible things. But every single joke I’ve done is considered, and I can justify it. I’m not one of these comedians who think comedy’s your conscience taking a day off. I did a joke at the Globes a few years ago where I said, “The Golden Globe for special effects should go to the team that airbrushed the Sex and the City 2 poster.” And then I say, “Girls, we know how old you are. We saw one of you in an episode of Bonanza.” Kim Cattrall said it was a terrible joke because it was ageist. It wasn’t ageist. It was the opposite of ageist. I was saying, “Why are you pandering to Hollywood? There’s nothing wrong with being a 50-year-old woman. Why are you making it worse for everyone? Why do you have to be 20? You don’t have to be 20.”
Then there was the uproar about my Bruce Jenner joke at this year’s Globes, which was ridiculous. It wasn’t transphobic at all. At no point did I make fun of her transition. I had to call her Bruce because the joke was, “I’ve changed, not as much as Bruce Jenner.” Bruce Jenner is the person who changed. Even if you acknowledge the fact that transgender people say they’re always that gender, the joke is about change. I respect that Caitlyn Jenner is a she, which is why I then said, “What a year she’s had. Became a role model for trans people everywhere, bravely breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. Didn’t do a lot for women drivers.” I’m very proud of that joke because it’s about stereotypes; and I used the stereotype of women drivers with a transgender person, so I am acknowledging that she is a woman. That joke is not transphobic at all, just like the Sex and the City joke wasn’t ageist. You can’t just stick an “ist” on the end of a subject and assume whenever that word is mentioned it is an “ist.”
But look, I refuse to stop what I’m doing. I get more flak now, so I just ignore more people. And really, most people are professional complainers. Ten years ago, you had to write a letter, so most people sat down furious, all, “I’m gonna write a letter,” and then they went, “I can’t be bothered.” Now, they can tweet. And they do that while they’re still angry, so it starts a war. I didn’t see the Oscars this year, but I read Chris Rock’s transcript. I thought it was brilliant. He’s more clever than people think he is because he’s got this swagger and this shouting, but the twists and turns and imagery he uses are genius. That one about when your grandmother’s hanging from a tree you don’t care about who won best cinematographer was an amazingly brave joke. And the fact that he could say it, and it’s true, oh, it’s beautiful.
“Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right,” says Gervais.
That people were offended by some of the stuff he said means nothing to me. They’re just fulfilling their predictable role. There’s probably a stat or a pie chart for any joke you do — it’s probably the same percentage of “funny,” “furious,” “hated it,” “didn’t watch it.” If it gets more publicity, the percentages don’t change, the pie just gets bigger. And social media gives arguments more credence than they often deserve because now what you get is, “Chris Rock enraged the internet with his joke about so and so.” Poxygirl415 said, “Disgusting.” Nastydrink613 said, “He should be thrown off the telly.” They show two tweets and it has “enraged the internet.” No, it hasn’t. There are 7 billion people on this planet. Some of them are in a war zone. Some are dying. Some just saw someone get run over. They’re not enraged about a comedian making a joke about a celebrity. They’re not. They f—ing tweeted.
For someone like Chris or like me, it’s crazy to shy away from taboo because some people don’t get it. Someone not getting my joke isn’t my problem; it’s theirs. Now sometimes it’s just not worth the hassle. Some comics won’t tour on college campuses because they think, “I don’t need it.” And that’s a shame. Me? I quite like playing to an uptight crowd. I don’t want to always preach to the converted. What I won’t play to is a big group of people who don’t get the irony. You don’t want people to always be laughing for the wrong reasons. That’s the problem, like when Archie Bunker was loved by actual racists.
What else do I want to do? I’ve been offered a few late-night shows, sure, but that’s the most thankless task. I came into this job so that I wouldn’t have to put on a suit and sit behind a desk five days a week. I want to be the one being interviewed by that guy who can stand doing it five days a week for my new film or my new show. I want to be on this side of the fence. But never say never. One day, when I can’t get around with my knees, a desk job will probably suit me. I’ll be wheeled out, and I’ll sit behind a desk for an hour and then I’ll be wheeled home. It’ll be perfect. It’ll be me in a chair with a built-in toilet, and I’ll go, “Thank you, tonight on Ricky Gervais Live, we’ve got [makes defecating noise] Tom Cruise [defecating noise].” And I just go, “Cut. Empty it! OK, stop there. And we’re back.”
This story first appeared in the May 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.