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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Ricky Gervais should be on a world tour, in support of his latest stand-up set, SuperNature; instead, the comedian is at home in London — with at least a six-month supply of wine — crafting the third season of After Life, his Netflix series about humanity in which he writes, produces, directs and stars. He took a break to talk about the path back for stand-up, how COVID-19 will factor into his work, and, yes, the pitfalls of cutting his own hair.
Let’s start easy, how are you doing?
I’m doing absolutely fine. You won’t hear me complain when there are nurses doing 14-hour shifts and frontline workers risking their own life. I’ve never been a fan of celebrity whining. [Laughs] I’m in a nice house with a garden and I live in an area where there’s a lovely big heath that my girlfriend and I walk on every day and where now I say hello to dogs from a distance. The only big change for me, really, is I’ve had to postpone my world tour. It’s not the time or place to be getting 10,000 people in close proximity just so I can get paid. We’ll do it later. Honestly, I feel lucky.
So, what does your day look like now?
The big difference is I have an office down the road where I used to write and have meetings in and now I’m writing After Life season three from home. That’s much worse for my girlfriend than me because she’s a novelist and she usually has the house to herself for a few hours. But now it’s like she’s got a toddler at home who wants to keep making her play badminton and table tennis. And I keep hearing this, “OK, shush, let me just finish this sentence, I’ll play with you in a minute.” [Laughs.] Honestly, it’s like I’ve retired but I’m still producing as much work. You realize how little work you do when you’re still doing as much in the lockdown. I’ve probably done twice as many interviews for After Life than I usually do because they’re on Zoom and I don’t have to get dressed or go to a studio. I’m lucky that I delivered After Life about a week before lockdown.
You were finishing up After Life when the pandemic hit?
Yes. Even though I delivered it the end of February/early March, it still took Netflix, like, six to eight weeks to translate it into 160 languages. I didn’t even know there were 160 languages!
What’s been the easiest adjustment in this period? And the hardest?
The only thing that’s been hard is that you worry about people and friends, particularly older members of your family and older friends. That’s always at the forefront. Luckily, I was already a recluse. I’m like Howard Hughes, people just come and drop off packages and then leave. [Laughs.]
What was the most challenging decision that you’ve had to make since this whole thing started?
Cancelling the tour. But the first thing you think is that you’re letting down the people who bought that ticket. I miss going to lovely cities for the weekend. We had to cancel Copenhagen, I should have played Chicago and New York’s Madison Square Garden by now. But in the greater scheme of things, it’s only mildly annoying; I can’t compare it when I see nurses who are taking their masks off and they’ve got bruises and welts and then they go to the supermarket and they can’t get bread because people have panic-bought stuff.
How and when do you see stand-up comedy tours returning?
We don’t know whether it will ever be back to normal. We don’t know whether it will be a reoccurring seasonal flu or when there will be a vaccine. It will always be safety first. I don’t know if my gigs will be the last things to come back. Maybe they introduce the 100-seat [tour] first, then 1,000 seaters, then 2,000. I was supposed to play a 13,000-seat arena in Copenhagen. That might not be something that happens for at least the next year.
As you write After Life season three, how are you approaching social distancing and coronavirus safety precautions?
Maybe someone will say we’re filming it but you can only have two people in each scene and they’ve got to sit six feet apart. I will write scenes with two people sitting six feet apart. I’ll adapt and do everything I can within the realm of safety, possibility, whatever makes sense. And if someone says, “Well, we can never film anything again,” I’ll go make stupid videos on YouTube by myself.
How are you thinking about updating your stand-up show to either address or ignore COVID?
Don’t know yet whether that is mentioning or not mentioning it, but I’ll do whatever makes those people feel good for that 90 minutes that they’re watching me. My instinct is that they would want to joke about it and hear my thoughts about it, either honest or stupid. You do have to confront the elephant in the room. I’ll go through my existing show and I’ll have to adapt it and bring it up to speed with what’s happening in the world, certainly.
How do you find humor in something that’s the opposite of funny?
To find something funny in something that’s not funny? That’s exactly what I do. I make jokes about AIDS, cancer, famine and the Holocaust. It depends on the joke. It’s not the subject, it’s the target that counts. The problem is when you do narrative comedy [like After Life], do you make those characters aware of what’s happening in the world? If you make it too real, all those characters will be talking about coronavirus, which I don’t think people will want to watch. It’s a balancing act. You can’t second guess if we will be talking about coronavirus in two years’ time; it would be odd. If this all dies down and that was the end of it and then in two years’ time someone popped up on a show talking about coronavirus, people will be asking, “Why are they talking about that now? That’s been and done.” Likewise, if it’s still going and something comes out, to not mention it might be odd. If there is a reference to it, it will be fleeting to make people relax to know that it has happened and then you get on with your life. Because, in reality, we are still getting on with other things. People are still doing the things they love. I’m hoping if someone watches season three of After Life in 10 years’ time, some people won’t get a coronavirus reference. What I hope in my stand-up show is it would be a clear reference to 2020.
What have you learned about yourself during this time?
I’ve never been impressed with material things or status symbols. I have always wanted to just sit and chat and laugh and watch TV. So, if you’re safe and you’re happy, what else is there except other people’s safety?
What’s the best advice you’ve given — or received — about staying sane right now?
My mum used to say, “You only need three things: you’ve got to be healthy, wealthy and wise.” I thought “wealthy” was an odd thing to say because if you’re healthy and wise, what more can wealthy do? I think she wanted me to do well. Or perhaps be wealthy in love. I think it meant that you’ve got everything you need. It didn’t mean money.
What are you watching, reading or listening to as a reprieve?
I watched Tiger King, Don’t Fuck With Cats and I’m halfway through The Last Dance, which is fantastic.
What have been your go-to news sources during this period?
I have watched Boris Johnson’s addresses when you think that he might tell you something important. But I really haven’t watched much. I don’t usually watch the news and I don’t think I’ve watched it more, other than if I think there’s going to be some instruction as to what we’re allowed to do. So, probably the BBC once a week. Honestly, I watch about 10 minutes of news a week. I probably get more news from Twitter than I do from news sources. You follow it and you try and work out what the truth is.
Dusted off any old hobbies or found new ones?
We’ve played badminton every day for a month. I never realized there was so much bending over with badminton to pick the shuttlecock up. The first thing I did in the lockdown was go down to the wine cellar and we were fine for six months. I saw all these people panic-buying toilet rolls?! I’d hand over my last toilet roll for a bottle of wine. I’d use books, honestly! I can’t believe people were going with toilet rolls. Get the beer, mate, get the wine stocked! [Laughs.]
Staying on course, what have been your go-to comfort foods during all this?
Pasta with vegan meatballs. We have tofu stir fry with noodles. Vegan lasagna. Basically everything that was fattening but with meat substitute. I’ve been snacking less because I’m worried about not doing as much exercise. As it turns out, I’m probably doing slightly more exercise because I’m panicked about not doing enough exercise so I’m doing more exercise. I’m eating better, I’m drinking slightly less because I’m going to bed earlier and I’m getting up early. If anything, this improves my lifestyle.
How would you describe your corona-era wardrobe?
I always went to work in sweatpants, so it’s literally made no difference to me. What’s interesting is I haven’t been in the car for four weeks. That is definitely the biggest change in my life. I haven’t done anything different except get my hair cut and I did that myself in the mirror. I’ve done that twice so far. The back must be awful but I can’t see that, so I don’t care.
My wife just cut mine and the back … is not straight.
Well, you won’t have this problem, but I’ve got a thing where when you have that nice haircut it gets rid of all that fluff on your neck. My problem is if I don’t get rid of that fluff soon it joins my back hair. I’m just like a little gorilla. [Laughs.]
Is there a cause that’s become particularly important to you during these times?
I’m glad people are realizing that the National Health Service are heroes and it’s lovely to support them. And I’m doing the same animal charities that I always did and probably even a little bit more because people are giving up their pets because they’re worried about themselves.
What’s on top of your to-do list once this is all over?
It’s things that I didn’t think I cared about: I want to pop around the shops. I’ve never done that but I want to. I want to sit outside cafes, which I didn’t do. Maybe I’ll have a soiree again. We usually have one a year and maybe I’ll have an extra one this year just to meet up with our closest friends.
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