Telly people talk of the three phases of the on-screen career. Have you heard of...? Did you see last night's...? 'Whatever happened to...? Insert "Chris Evans" and you will see how it works. You can almost feel them hovering around Ricky Gervais, waiting for him to slip up. You don't get to create a character as powerful as David Brent, they hope, without suffering a fall in the end.
Take the American version of The Office. Rumours have been circulating that the pilot was canned by NBC - indeed, one men's magazine ran a lengthy article with stills from "the version of The Office you will never see". But it's not true. NBC has bought six episodes, they've been made and it's going out in mid-February. The surprising story, given the history of US versions of British shows such as Fawlty Towers or Steptoe and Son, is that, as far as Gervais is concerned, they're actually pretty good.
"I've seen it, and they haven't compromised," he nods proudly. "It's slightly different, a smidgen broader, but not much. The danger is that on NBC, it won't get the viewers they need; but rounds of applause for being true to it." He looks cautious. "They're good, but the stakes are so much higher. If it doesn't get a 10% on the first night, they'll panic. The reason the rumour that it was cancelled went round is that it got the lowest ever score on the NBC focus group. That's a coincidence. It got the lowest ever on BBC2 as well - joint bottom with women's bowls." And he cracks up laughing.
For a man supposedly on the verge of his difficult third stage, Gervais seems in high spirits. The DVD of his second sellout stand-up show, Politics, comes out tomorrow, and he has nearly finished the first draft of his and Stephen Merchant's new sitcom, Extras - with the likes of Jude Law queueing up to appear in it. Both shows have a sharp but subtle satirical edge.
"Yes, I suppose it is satire," he says. "The Office is a satirical programme, but, I hope, a well-disguised one. The focus is different. I don't take on dictators or politicians. I take on the targets in our corner of the world, like Finch as a real office bully. But I disguise it, because I balk at being thought of as someone who's trying to change the world."
Occasionally, however, the teenager who wanted to change the world still peeks through, as when our talk of satire veers into discussing The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis's BBC2 three-parter on the war against terror. "It's the people who stonewall your arguments that frighten me," says Gervais thoughtfully. "Like the USA. If they promise you utopia and it doesn't arrive, they were lying. If they promise to stop someone killing you and you're still alive tomorrow - that's 100% success. It's why you can't prove a God-fearing man wrong. I don't believe in an afterlife, but if I'm right, I won't be around to gloat." The thrust of Extras is equally pointed. It is set in green rooms and on movie sets, and its stars are struggling actors. "We touch on my favourite sins - desperation and ego," says Gervais, grinning. "I get more material from the egos of actors than anything else. It has always fascinated us, the way actors talk about themselves. Actors are usually, on the whole, thick, desperate, untalented and always thinking, "What about me? What about me?'"
Although Extras deals in the same tight emotions as The Office, it also lightly satirises the media and the UK's obsession with celebrity. "Most people go into acting because it's easy, and most of them aren't very good," Gervais snorts. "We could name the top actors like we could name the top scientists, although the scientists don't go on gameshows. So, which is more important for society? Imagine you had the bloke who had just found the cure for Aids and someone from Hollyoaks on the same show. People would be going, 'Who's that bloke?' 'He's just found the cure for Aids.' 'Never seen him before. He looks a bit pasty.' 'Well, he's been in a laboratory.'"
In Politics, Gervais's teenage enthusiasm for activism kicks off a series of digs at liberal sacred cows - from accusing the disabled of being lazy to mocking anti-war songs and sloganeering T-shirts. Could it ruffle feathers? "I think that most people know it's a persona," he says. "I don't really think the disabled are lazy, but I like walking that line. I could give the character a name - like Billy Bigot - but that's not interesting.
"I have political views. I oppose foxhunting, but I couldn't go on stage and say, 'Fox-hunting is wrong: it's the torture of animals for fun.' If you had these thick, inbred people chasing a robot, they wouldn't enjoy it. People would go, 'Um, okay, are you going to make a joke, or what?'"
Looking at Gervais's work in this light, it becomes clear that pricking pompous egos is the common thread connecting his early career on The 11 O'Clock Show, his brief spoof chat show, The Office and his stand-up output. As his star has risen, though, he has found that comedians provide a special source of amusement. 'There are so many comedians - even those on TV or doing sellout tours - who aren't comedians, they're Redcoats," he says, scornfully. "They could be at the front of the Butlins coach asking people if they remember the 1970s. But they're not as bad as the comedian who desperately wants to be thought of as a wit: 'Just two more weeks on Countdown and my novel's coming out. It's about a future that might have happened. I'll put my MA on the back.' Everyone else is going, 'Do a joke. Do ajoke.' There's nothing quite so funny as seeing a successful rich person who is still slightly more desperate than someone who works in McDonald's."
Like Ben Elton, I venture. "I never deal in specifics," he says, and laughs uproariously. "Look, I'm rude about people with glib solutions, but you do need those people. I am, to a certain extent, cynical, but I'm glad there are people who get involved. And I'm not talking about rock stars and politicians, I'm talking about people who stand outside Safeway every day of their life, collecting for cancer - not dressed as nutty professors, pushing a bed along Oxford Street once a year for rag week. I'm glad there are people who work in rape crisis centres, I'm glad there are people who go and cuddle the dying - they'll be my favourite people when I need them. I can believe that, but not let it out on stage - because that's so true, it's obvious. Satire is not just standing up and saying the truth."
Then Merchant arrives to work on Extras, so I start packing up. People will be watching your new show carefully, I warn. "Good," he says. "If you say something's finished, you're saying this is the best you can do. There's no reward if people don't watch it. We think we're ready for a summer release, but if we're not, it won't go out. I don't sit at home wishing I was on the telly. I sit at home wishing a paper hadn't used my picture when they're talking about desks. As Stephen says, nobody wants to see my fat face unless it's absolutely necessary. But the DVD is coming out tomorrow. If you like my fat face, buy it. I won't be on telly for a year, so freeze-frame it if you like."
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