The most remarkable thing about Ricky Gervais is how remarkably similar he looks off screen to how he looks on it. Television doesn't alter him, and doesn't seem to add 10 pounds like it's supposed to. He appears untouched by wealth, fame and, most markedly, fashion: here is a man styled by JD Sports, wearing a black T-shirt, Adidas tracksuit bottoms and white running shoes. Ring the bell to his small second floor office, off Tottenham Court Road in London and it's him that answers and buzzes you in. There is no secretary, security or PR It's both unusual and oddly impressive.
This, though, is how he likes it. His office, aside from a British Comedy Award perched discreetly on a shelf next to a box file, holds few clues to the incredibly successful entertainer who inhabits it. Aside from an iMac and a desk there's barely anything in the room. On one wall there's a Comic Relief calendar of The Office stuck on July with a picture of Keith glumly looking out. One suspects he hasn't turned over to August not through laziness, but because it displays a picture of himself. As he says "I get no joy whatsoever seeing my fat face on telly". He sees his work, alone and with writing partner Stephen Merchant, as a cottage industry - they do stuff, the BBC, HBO or whoever have little choice but to accept it the way he presents it to them. Total control.
"The analogy I use is it's like getting an Airfix kit and getting someone else to do it for you. Where's the fun in that?"
This philosophy to his work extends to the podcasts he records here with Merchant and their friend Karl Pilkington - former producer of their Xfm radio shows turned Mancunian pub philosopher, internet icon and living example of what the world would be like if the only reading matter available was the Fortean Times.
The podcasts - 30 minute broadcasts the internet-savvy can download to their iPods - were launched by the Guardian in December 2005 and begin a third series via iTunes next week. They've been enormously successful with over half a million downloads an episode.
"It's one of the most exciting things I do." he says. "It's mainly down to Karl."
When they first met at Xfm Karl was just the man who pressed the buttons and cued the records - Ricky and Stephen were far too important to do that.
"He just piped up one day and that was it, we discovered him and we got lazy. First of all we'd write stuff, we'd riff, we'd work quite hard, play records we loved and then after a year we were just 'Karl, what do you think of this?'... and he just never ran out."
Even the mention of Karl's name starts Ricky Gervais giggling. At one point he breaks from the interview to consult his favourite website, Pilkipedia - an online encyclopaedia dedicated to his friend - and begins reading out, between fits of high pitched laughter, facts and quotes about his mate such as "He learned at school that Jaffa Cakes go some way to curing cancer." And "Jellyfish are 97% water. We should give them another 3% and make them water. It angers me."
Of late, claims Ricky, Karl has become completely obsessed with insects and has taken to following ants and ladybirds, which he has discovered are right-handed.
In the podcasts it is merely Ricky and Steve's job to prod and guide Karl into revealing his thoughts and opinions, as well as reading spectacularly mundane entries from Pilkington's diary - a book that differs little from those written by 12-year-olds in that it invariably mentions what he ate for tea.
"He's amazing," says Ricky. "The things he says about his childhood that he thinks are normal. Like there were two kids with big heads and webbed feet at his school and I went 'Were they related?' And he said 'No'. I went, 'did they knock around together?' And he said 'no - that'd be too obvious'. And his philosophies... "
Gervais describes Karl's thoughts as a bottomless pit of comedy jewels but he's wary of exploiting him - "I don't want to over-fish".
"He's a mate first of all, though. I should probably stop talking about him as if he's a discovery I've thawed out of ice and shaved and took to college like some bad American teen movie. My main worry is that hell bump his head one day and become clever."
Ricky calls him at least twice a day. Recently their conversation was cut short because Karl had to deal with a giant wasp. Later it emerged that he had witnessed a bumblebee having a heart attack.
"I said, 'How do you know?' He said 'Well, it was overweight'."
The podcasts aside it's a busy time for Gervais Industries. There's an episode of the American version of The Office to write while Canada have just started their own version of the hit show renaming the lead character David Gervais ("it's a French-Canadian name"). Meanwhile he and Merchant are toying with making a drama series although if it's not as good as The West Wing they see no point doing it. He's also just finished filming the second series of Extras, which returns to BBC2 next month and again features an array of A-list stars including Daniel Radcliffe, David Bowie and Orlando Bloom signing up to mock themselves. This time the show follows Ricky's character, Andy Millman, enjoying success in a storyline that sees him taking the almost exact opposite career trajectory to Gervais. In the show Millman's sitcom is made but he waters it down so it becomes lowest common denominator TV. He becomes famous, goes on chat shows, does a bad play and hangs out in private clubs attempting to ingratiate himself in the showbiz industry. Ricky could have easily have chosen a similar path, he resisted overtures to air The Office on BBCI and consistently turns down silly money offers for action movies better suited to Bruce Willis and satirical quiz shows better suited to Dave Gorman.
"Secretly I think I'd be quite good on QI," he admits. "But you have to discipline yourself and you have to ration yourself. I can get sick of someone I like within the space of a weekend if I see them on two quiz shows and then in the Sunday paper. I've never regretted saying no or turning anything down."
What he hasn't turned down is a run of three cameo film roles, one in Spinal Tap creator Christopher Guest's Hollywood spoof For Your Consideration, in Ben Stiller's new film ("he emailed me and wrote 'Would you like to return the favour? No pressure'.") and just a couple of weeks ago acting opposite Robert De Niro in Stardust as, he says, "a sort of Never Never Land Arthur Daley". Of the latter he describes being cool and casual initially before crumbling after eight hours into a fan boy at De Niro's feet and telling him "you're the greatest actor in the world. I love you".
"It's like winning a competition," he says "It's like would you like to play with Spinal Tap for a day? Yes. Would you like to play with The Godfather for a day? Yes."
Does he ever feel like he's getting away with it somehow?
"No. I've certainly got away without a backlash for a long time. I don't know why that hasn't happened."
Like an idiot I suggest that perhaps it's because everything he's done has been good.
"That's all you need to do. It's as simple as that," he chuckles, blurring into David Brent for a second. "Advice, yeah. All you have to do is do nothing wrong."
The third series of The Ricky Gervais Show podcasts starts on Monday 21 available on iTunes. Extras begins September 14 on BBC2
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