He's won two Golden Globes, six BAFTAs, written for 'The Simpsons' and been crowned the world's 17th Most Stylish Man - Ricky Gervais has already made it. And now he's Time Out's funniest Londoner. He talks exclusively and relentlessly to Graham Wray about Live 8, masturbating pigs and rediscovering Les Dennis for his new sitcom. Photography Murdo Macleod
You hear Ricky Gervais a full 40 seconds before you see him. That familiar demented high-pitch cackle transcends a corridor, a staircase and a couple of fire doors before its owner finally shuffles into view. At which point it becomes apparent that he resembles not so much the most genuinely gifted comedian of our time, as an aspiring lower league football manager.
Stocky, mildly stressed and sporting a T-shirt, trainers, loose jogging bottoms and a handshake as limp as an early evening ITV sitcom, Gervais swiftly guides me through the maze of editing suites where he is putting the final touches to his longawaited new comedy series, 'Extras'.
I'm here to crown him London's Funniest Man (as chosen by Time Out's panel of experts), a title that over the next hour and a half, Gervais will effortlessly live up to by creating a routine for Live 8 in front of me. Should he turn up on the Hyde Park stage on July 2, you will indeed have, quite literally, read it here first. But before the interview morphed into an impromptu comedy workshop, Gervais repeatedly lurched from funereal sobriety to hysterical convulsions, from earnest bank manager to hyperactive, moon-faced four-year-old - often in milliseconds.
But the one subject he's always deadly serious about is comedy...
'A routine about injuring Phil Collins? Don't put him on a jet to Philadelphia, let's stick him in a catapult.'
GW: You are now officially the funniest person in London. Honoured?
RG: It is very flattering, but I think you have to take these things with a pinch of salt. I mean, I was recently voted Seventeenth Most Stylish Man in the World. And Johnny fucking Vegas beat me. It's like those polls to find Britain's favourite sketch. It's always whatever's currently on the telly followed by 'Fawlty Towers'. Best album ever? Coldplay with Beatles at number two. Despite that, it is genuinely flattering. Thanks.
GW: You're welcome. So who gets your vote as the funniest Londoner?
RG: My Xfm partner Karl Pilkington. No doubt about it. He is genuinely the funniest man in the world. He's forever coming out with the most amazing things that always make just a little bit of sense. Yesterday he said to me, 'Have you ever used a Y-front correctly? That's a contraption that I've never used properly. Everyone always pulls it out from underneath so why do they bother with the Y bit?' Incredible.
Then he went on about the space race, saying in all seriousness, 'When Louis Armstrong flew to the moon. ..' - Louis Armstrong! - 'There was another bloke with him and Buzz who didn't even get out to stretch his legs when they got there. So how good can it be?' Amazing. That man is my Homer Simpson.
GW: Who else makes you laugh?
RG: I've got five good mates I've known for 20 years and I use stuff from them all the time because it's real. As for TV, I watch mostly American comedy. The lastthing I got genuinely excited about on British TV was 'Peep Show', which I thought was the best sitcom since 'Father Ted'. I love some of Catherine Tate's carefully observed characters. My other favourite shows are 'Arrested Development' and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'. And, of course, the American 'Office' is great - I can say that because I'm not involved. That was a joy to watch when that came through the post. After episode one, they're all original and they've done an amazing job.
GW: Do you laugh when someone trips over in the street?
RG: Every time. Because they didn't know it was going to happen, they didn't want it to happen and now they've got to deal with it. I used a man tripping over as an analogy to the pathos in 'The Office'. A man tripping over is funny, but a man who's just been made redundant and whose wife has just left him tripping over - ooh, now that's something else. You see I love excruciating social faux pas. I'm fascinated by body language, by ego, vanity, men as boys - all these great rich themes that you can get your hands dirty with.
GW: What comedy do you despise?
RG: I'm not a comedy snob but I hate people who'd rather be thought of as intelligent than funny. I hate people who'd rather have a round of applause for their wit and wisdom as opposed to making people laugh. I don't like puns and catchphrase comedy. I want to do it on a richer level. I also don't like heavy satire. You can have all the clever lines in the world, but I'm sorry, Eric Morecambe stood at a window is funnier.
GW: So do you prefer laughing to making people laugh?
RG: Oh, I'd much rather be the one laughing. I want everyone to be like Eric Morecambe. I want people to have funny bones. And I want to think they enjoy making people laugh rather than just enjoying the attention or the money.
GW: Do you find mainstream comedy funny?
RG: I don't watch many comedies on BBC1 and ITV because I know they're not aimed at my comic sensibilities. But I grew up watching fantastic mainstream comedies like 'Porridge' and 'Rising Damp'. There are some mainstream things I love. For instance, I honestly believe Ant and Dec are the new Morecambe and Wise. They're warm, funny and there's a genuine chemistry there. Relationships are really important to me. I've always felt that comedy's contextual and that you've got to connect on an emotional level.
'A man tripping over is funny. But a man who's just been made redundant and whose wife has just left him... that's something else. '
GW: It sounds like you prefer the drama in comedy to the actual comedy.
RG: Yeah, I suppose I do. For instance, in 'The Office' I was probably more excited about tying up the ends with Tim and Dawn than Brent buffooning around.
GW: Do you genuinely think that 'Extras' can top 'The Office'?
RG: What's topping it? Getting more ratings? Not really. Because all the things I love get audiences of 2 million and all the things I hate get 20 million. Topping it with money? Well, I probably turn down more money than I make because it bores me. Awards? Yeah, I'd love 'Extras' to win awards but it ain't going to win two Golden Globes and six BAFTAs. For me, topping it is doing something totally different from 'The Office' as well as I possibly can. And I've done that.
GW: Has it made you laugh as much as 'The Office' did at the same stage?
RG: It's different in that we didn't make such an investment in emotion and pathos as we did with 'The Office'. I've purposely taken a straighter, more reactive role. I'm not a David Brent, a Gareth or a Keith. I'm more of a Tim, more of an Ollie to Brent's Stan.
GW: You've got some big-name cameos in it. Who surprised you with their comic talents?
RG: Les Dennis. Believe me, on and off screen, Les Dennis is a very funny man. He's also an amazing sport.
GW: Have you had a pop at his public marriage break-up then?
RG: All I'll say is that like all the other celebrities in it, he plays himself and all that comes with that. He was amazing and I can't wait for the public reaction.
GW: How does the writing process work between you and Stephen Merchant?
'After the Globes I was offered a remake of "Magnum, PI" with George Clooney as Magnum and me as his butler, Higgins.'
RG: Usually it's me who walks round the room eating biscuits and Steve who has to transcribe it. We have a framework and talk about what we might fill it with for ages. It's usually from observations. You never know what you're going to come up with, so from llam-3pm we just sit there. It might be an hour of telling stories about when you were a kid or what we saw on the tube coming in and then bang...
GW: Does it have to make you both laugh?
RG: We've got one rule. Nothing goes in that we both don't like. Anything that's left over I'll put in my live show, so nothing's wasted. We only need do two minutes of TV a day - that's about two or three pages. We never let anyone give us deadlines. If we want to take two years doing two hours a day or one year doing four hours a day, that's what we'll do.
GW: So how quickly was the David Brent dance routine written?
RG: I nearly didn't put the dance in. I think I was probably annoying Steve one day, doing the dance while he wanted to work. I annoy people for a living, but you see it's never wasted. So we said a fat 40-year-old trying to dance cool is funny, but not funny enough, so how do we justify it? It took five seconds to write 'Ricky does a funny dance', but it was all the stuff working back from it that took the time. Why has he done that dance? Because he was jealous of Neil. Why's he jealous? 'Cos Neil's done a choreographed and rehearsed dance because it's his party piece every Red Nose Day. But this is Brent's favourite day of the year. So suddenly it resonates, it feels organic and natural and you don't see the join.
GW: Does material occur to you at any given hour of the day?
RG: Yeah, but because I don't carry a Dictaphone or ever write anything down, it gets forgotten. I would estimate that over the last 20 years I've lost two sitcoms and four stand-up shows.
GW: For Christ's sake man, buy a pad and pencil. Do you spend a lot of time on rewrites?
RG: Yeah, rewriting is a vitally important part of the process. Most things I see on TV would be twice as good if they had just given it another rewrite. Maybe it's arrogance, ego, lack of judgement or lack of involvement. There are probably great writers out there who'll you'll never get to hear about because they handed their script over to a bad director or producer. As a writer, you've got to be involved throughout. Woody Allen was so right when he said the best an idea gets is when it's in your head. From then on, it's just a matter of how much you ruin it. But if you're constantly around, it gets ruined less.
GW: Now you've done 'The Simpsons', you can surely retire?
RG: It's funny you should say that, but when I came into comedy my one ambition was to get a joke into 'The Simpsons' and now I've written a whole script and starred in it, I may as well retire. I went over there for the readthrough and I've got Homer and Marge Simpson either side of me. I was thinking: This isn't a career, it's like winning a competition.
GW: What's the theme of that episode?
RG: It's basically a homage to Brent. Almost an uber-Brent. Anyone who knows 'The Office' will get it, but to anyone else he's just a pretentious loser. I haven't seen the visuals but you can be sure it'll be a short, fat bloke with a goatee. And I wrote a song for that episode. I've written a song for 'The Simpsons'! Incredible.
GW: You seem likea mild-mannered chap. What annoys you about modern life?
'I watch reality shows to hate the people in them. Desperate wannabes. What will you do for fame? Anything. I'll show my fanny and wank off a pig. Well done.'
RG: Incompetence, people slurping in restaurants, people whistling too loud, people talking too loud, people talking inanely too loud, bad service. I've managed to put them all in 'Extras' so the show's like my own Room 101. The other thing is the desire to be famous. Famous for anything. These people put more credence into someone who once appeared in 'Hollyoaks' than a scientist who's found a cure for AIDS:
'Who's the bloke in the white coat?'
'Oh, he discovered a vaccine for AIDS'.
'What's he been in?'
'Well apart from a fucking laboratory, nothing.'
'Not got much of a tan has he?'
'Well he's been in a fucking laboratory for the last six years.'
Oh fuck me, it's depressing.
GW: So presumably you also despise reality shows?
RG: I watch them but only to hate the people in them. Although I only managed ten seconds of 'Celebrity Love Island' and saw three of the world's most brain-dead dirty slappers and a coupIe of male equivalents. Desperate wannabes. What will you do for fame? Anything. I'll show my fanny and wank off a pig. Well done. Your mum must be very proud. Funnily enough, 'Big Brother' is a guilty pleasure of mine. But they've got more boring as the housemates have got more media savvy. I see this year they've once again wheeled in ten of the most self-obsessed, fat-titted, rice pudding-arsed people they could find. There's a couple you'd let live, but you'd want most of them maimed wouldn't you? You'd want to shoot low. Although some you'd just have to put out of their fucking misery.
GW: Anything else that gets your goat?
RG: Yeah. There are shows on at the moment and I'm not going to name names - and I just think: Why has he done that? I can think of three comedians who have gone out of favour in the last month just through doing too much shit. They're going to be kicking themselves in five years time. I just don't understand it. I've never regretted saying no. I don't sit at home going, 'Fucking hell, why aren't I on telly tonight? Fucking hell, I'm not even on UK Gold. Quick, get me on a panel show or something.'
GW: How does Hollywood compare to London?
RG: Oh, it was mad. At the Golden Globes, after we won the second, I was going round going, 'Yeah, thanks for your hardware, losers. What do you mean, you've only won one?' It's funny, but the two people I couldn't take my eyes off all night were Jack Nicholson and Ice Cube. Jack was wandering aimlessly around like a granddad at a barbecue and Ice Cube was the most immaculate looking man I've ever seen. Like a painting he was. The other weird encounter was with Danny De Vito. He was saying well done and I was telling him how I was a big fan of 'Taxi' when suddenly Ash (Atalla, wheelchair-bound 'Office' producer) wheels up and goes 'Oi, me and you are about the same height.' DeVito just mumbles 'cheers' and walks off. 'We're about the same fucking height?' Why would anyone say that?
GW: Were you offered a host of Hollywood roles after that?
RG: Oh, it was mental. The day after the Globes I had meetings and was offered ridiculous things. One was a remake of 'Magnum, PI' with George Clooney as Magnum and me as his butler, Higgins. I mean, words failed me. These are Hollywood films that never got made because the fat-faced bloke from Reading said no. Here's another: Me and Will Smith. It gets better... they actually wanted me to play his brother. Sometimes it's just better not to ask.
'Extras 'starts on BBC2 on July 21.
The Time Out tapes witness Gervais create comedy gold before your eyes
Would you be prepared to do a turn at Live 8?
If I was asked, I'd love to do it. You can't say no to that.
But could you do jokes about people dying of hunger?
Well, I'd have to do my own brand of comedy. I'd go out and say, 'It's good to do a concert for the poor. And by the look of you lot, most of you are homeless as well.'
Hang on, what aboutthis for an opener? [Stares atthe ceiling.] Hold on, this isgood. This is workshop... [Stares down at his shoes.] Right, got it. 'Yeah, we're still trying to break records on the twentieth anniversary of Live Aid. I've just heard Bob Geldof has put Phil Collins on ajet to Philadelphia. There's nothing going on there, we just don't wantthe cunt around this year' [dissolves into hysterics].
Hangon though, it's daytime. I'd never get away with cunt.
No, it'll have to be bald twat.
Yeah, bald twat's okay.
Right, that's a co-write.
And what about this [sits bolt upright on edge of sofa]? 'No I'm joking, of course we didn't put him on a jet. We stuck him in a catapult. To be fair, he didn't get very far. Although it worked in rehearsals when we used it on Chris De Burgh.' I could do a whole routine about injuring Phil fucking Collins.
You'd have to have a pop at BobGeldofas well.
Yeah, that's true... Here's another... [Stands up, then immediately sits down.] What about this? 'It's fantastic that today is all free. But then usually when Bob Geldof and Richard Curtis get together they make millions and give it all away. In fact, the Africans haven't paid us back for the last lot!' [Lies horizontal on the sofa, giggling manically.] Right, that's the first two minutes. Fucking hell, make sure you transcribe this. What else?
Well they've got the greatest rock and pop acts on the planet lined up. And Annie Lennox. How does that work?
I know why that is. It's because she actually does live next door to Sting and George Michael. Honestly, I've been to George's and she does. Bob only asked her so they could all share a cab home. That's another. Then I do the dance and that's it. 'Bye bye London, thank you and goodnight.'
Can you transcribe that? Brilliant!
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