YOU WON'T WIN A PULITZER FOR FILTH
The Stop Smiling Interview with Ricky Gervais
BY JAMES HUGHES
Ricky Gervais, whose incisor-spiked smile and madcap laugh changed the face (and volume level) of British humor more than any other comedian of his generation, has hung up the necktie he wore while portraying his greatest creation, David Brent. As scores of devotees know, Brent is the paper merchant meddler who anchored "The Office," Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant's piss-take of the reality television shows that saturated their native Britain in the late '90s.
The tie, which Brent would obsessively smooth while being tortured by the backfire of a smoldering joke or reprimanded for an offensive remark (or, most often, a combination of both), became one of the great comedic mannerisms of modern times, in the same class as the twirling of the Little Tramp's cane or the knowing glances to the camera of Stan Laurel (a technique Gervais incorporated into Brent's repertoire, updating it to a comment on the absurdity of reality stars jockeying for the camera's attention during incessant taping).
Free from a wardrobe of constrictive office attire, he has slipped back into his leisurely Adidas tracksuits - a common Gervais getup, whether he's traveling between the American coasts for business or hammering out new ideas in his London flat. Fans of Gervais's television series "Extras" (the 2005 co-production of the BBC and HBO) may recall his character, Andy Millman - an aspiring film actor trapped in a holding pattern of endless background work - portraying a Bosnian refugee whose wardrobe consisted solely of an aqua-colored tracksuit. The tracksuit may have been a more familiar fit for Gervais, but it was part of a dreadful pattern for Andy, who's grown accustomed to killing time on set in full Elizabethan garb or noshing at the craft services table in a Nazi uniform.
Whereas Brent craved a laugh, Andy craves a line - anything to bump his call-sheet status from screen-filler to day-player. For Gervais, his output as a writer, director and actor with six BAFTAs and two Golden Globes under his belt is infinitely more rewarding. And the attention is often squarely on Gervais - "obviously," as he's prone to say. Recently, "Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife," the episode of "The Simpsons" that Gervais wrote and guest-starred in last spring, was by far the show's highest-rated episode ever on Sky One, the most popular subscription television service in the U.K.
And he's shattered another record of late in an entirely new medium. 'The Ricky Gervais Show,' a free podcast originally funded by the Guardian newspaper in 2005 (it expanded to a paid service in its second season) became the world's most downloaded podcast, and will be included in the 2007 edition of the Guinness World Records' book, barring any usurpers, which seems unlikely at this point. Despite his top billing, the podcast, which is co-hosted by Merchant, is a rare opportunity for Gervais to take the backseat. The real focus of the show is Karl Pilkington, a 33-year-old Mancunian who Gervais has dubbed 'the funniest man alive in Britain today.' The two became acquainted at Xfm, a commercial radio station in the U.K., where Pilkington was a producer for Gervais and Merchant's short-lived, pre-'Office' radio show, one that closely mirrors the loose, conversational format of the podcast. Employing a sort of sadistic Socratic method, Gervais and Merchant pepper Pilkington with questions, often of a scientific or philosophical nature (i.e., 'Karl, what do you think of igloos, poisonous frogs or Freud?'). Pilkington's droll responses, which evade the central point and branch out into spectacularly bizarre nonsequitors, suggest the strip-mined terrain of observational comedy still has the potential for growth. For the listener, the results are a headphone minefield, leaving one to wonder which line from Karl will prompt Gervais to unleash a hysterical, piercing laugh.
Gervais routinely fields questions about the authenticity of Pilkington. (It's been suggested, in the British press especially, that Pilkington may in fact be a hybrid of himself and a fictional, scripted character, comparable to Gervais's embodiment of Brent.) Gervais is at a loss for how to dispute the Pilkington issue any further, only to reiterate that his co-host is no different behind the microphone than he is at the pub. As STOP SMILING found out in April, Gervais, like his new counterpart, is an open book. Whether that book has been revised a bit is beside the point. It's too good of a story to put down.
Stop Smiling: Growing up in Reading, you studied philosophy. You had a bit on your podcast about philosophy students, the types who attend their first lecture and attempt to impress girls with throwaway theories like, 'The table's not there.' Were you exposed to that type of misguided show-off?
Ricky Gervais: It wasn't so much about philosophy, it's more about when people think they know everything. You know when someone's done karate for three weeks because they think they can get into a fight. Until you've done it for seven years, you don't realize how absurd that was. Likewise, until you've done philosophy for three years at university, you don't know how absurd it is to come up with a statement like, 'That table isn't really there.' I suppose it comes from the saying that the definition of an idiot is someone who didn't know something you didn't know yesterday. I love the idea that knowledge empowers you, but suddenly you're against people who don't know something you once didn't know.
Pretension is a problem because it can be mistaken for knowing a lot about something. Someone who genuinely knows about something can come across as a rather pedantic know-it-all. He can't help knowing things, either. I see the other side of the coin. If you're on the bus and an old woman says, 'I hate spiders. I hate all insects.' You don't say, 'You're an idiot. It's an arachnid.' Likewise, there are points where you do have to say, 'Actually, that's not strictly true.' It's that fine line of knowing when to show you know something and when not to. I'm not saying I suffer from it, but they do it on 'The Simpsons' a lot, where Lisa Simpson is burdened by intellect in a world where it's not really looked up to. I like both sides of that coin. I like a snob being brought down to earth, and I also can laugh at people who are totally ignorant and revel in it.
It's rather like running with the fox and hunting with the hounds. I have a quest for knowledge and think I'm a bright bloke, but I know it would be a ridiculously nerdy thing to do, to bore people in a pub about Kierkegaard. There's intellect for the sake of discussion, then there's coming across as a complete prat. It's quite a blokey thing as well - that mild autism that men have where you fight to be a normal, sociable person. And when it comes out, it comes out in men like they're boys. A man can't lose at Trivial Pursuit. We're all guilty of this. If you get a question wrong about the wavelength of light and then someone gets, 'Who's Mickey Mouse's girlfriend?' you go, 'Oh, that's ridiculous!' You can't just take the fact that it's a fun game. It's like your whole self has been threatened. It's that sort of thing that interests me.
SS: How was your decision to study philosophy perceived by friends and family back home?
RG: I'm from a working-class background. My father was a laborer, my mother was a housewife. I lived on a council estate. You had to get a grant to go to university, so you had to pass a test and get qualifications. I was one of the few people in my school who went to university. When you do that in a world where it's important to get a job, you do vocational subjects. I went to do biology. Then I thought I wanted to do something I would enjoy, so I did philosophy. I suppose it was a luxury of learning a subject for a few years that I knew was absolutely worthless vocationally. But that didn't stop me and I didn't apologize for it. I've always felt it's better to learn and enjoy life and understand things a little bit more, then thinking that life is just about a nine-to-five.
I people-watched to a certain extent, as a comedian and an actor. The funniest things that happen are always in real life. People flicking ash or drinking a pint in a certain way - you're constantly aware of that, of life's tapestry. It's not a damning thing, it's a celebration. You do an impression of your friends and family and tease each other, and growing up, it was about having a laugh. It was also about whether you could take it - you had to be able to take it as well as give it out - and if you failed and turned around and said, 'Oh, stop it,' then you lost. You'd have to come back, and your friends would say, 'Get on, yeah?' Growing up, the most important thing, apart from doing right for the family and getting a decent job, was having a laugh. If you did those things, you were allowed to have a laugh. That's where that got instilled.
SS: In 'The Office Christmas Special,' when Brent does appearances on the club circuit, you had some sharp observations about the seedy side of pub entertainment. Was this from personal experience?
RG: Brent's tour as a D-list celebrity was more of a TV observation. 'The Office,' apart from it being an observation on real experience working in an office, was influenced by TV docu-soaps, where normal people were given their 15 minutes of fame. The funniest thing for me was not just a total affirmation of them thinking, 'Oh, someone's talking to me. I'm funny. I'm popular.' It was the fact that they assumed it would be a lot more than 15 minutes. They thought, 'Well, Tom Cruise has been around for 20 years, I better get an agent.' They were famous for being on the telly, and that fascinated me.
SS: You've spoken at length about the influence of Spinal Tap in your work. Where were you when you first saw it?
RG: I saw it in 1984, and I was in a band. I thought, No one else is going to get this film. I'd seen people like that. I've spoken to bass players who talk like that. The brilliance of the film is that it's for everyone. It's universal, it just happens to be guitars. It was the biggest influence on 'The Office.' The actual vehicle and the rendering was Spinal Tap all the way.
SS: Did the film force you to put music aside, because the humor cut too close?
RG: No. The funny thing is, just like the characters in Spinal Tap and the characters in 'The Office,' they have a blind spot. That's what's funny about them. You laugh at them because, as a viewer, you see the difference between how they are and how they see themselves. It's the gap that's funny. By definition, people in bands like Spinal Tap will watch that and laugh. They'll say, 'Glad we're not like that.' Just like people like Brent will say, 'He's a twat, isn't he? I'm glad I'm not like that.' It changes nothing, because that's the way of the world. No one is saying, 'I better not do that heavy rock song about a motorbike because people will laugh at me.' Just like no office manager says, 'I'm a bit like David Brent, I better tone that down.'
SS: Who tops your list of British comedians?
RG: Obviously I'd like to claim Stan Laurel. Laurel and Hardy were my first comedy love. They nailed it - they got it right 100 years ago. To add total friendship and the fact that they're precarious and at any point can be hit by a truck - and against the backdrop of the Depression - is the funniest, warmest, most intricate piece of on-screen comedy I can imagine. That's Anglo-American. Double-up there.
SS: Were you a fan of Derek and Clive?
RG: Derek and Clive is my favorite comedy album of all time. There isn't even a second it's so good. All three were recorded at the same time, but they were released in chronological order. The first album has a little bit of satire and structure and a little swearing. By the third album, Ad Nauseum, they're so out of it, they're completely out of their heads. It's as if they're wondering what's the most offensive thing they can say.
SS: For one, there's the bit about getting trapped inside Joan Crawford's cunt.
RG: [Laughs] It's unbelievable. It's so punk and so naughty. You've got to realize that it's funny because it's the wrong thing to say, but it's funny because Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were establishment, BBC, Oxbridge footlight comedians and intellectuals with a lot to lose. They just got drunk and said awful things. Joan Crawford doesn't deserve that. She doesn't deserve to be talked about like that.
SS: Were there any repercussions for Cook and Moore?
RG: No. It was probably dismissed as coarse and crass and basically no one bought it. I think it might have had the first advisory label. They didn't call themselves Pete and Dud, they called themselves Derek and Clive. So if you have a go at them, you gotta have a go at characters like Archie Bunker, for example. Another reason is that it didn't get into the common consciousness. Not enough people knew about it. I remember bootlegging it. It was a way to find likeminded people. I think people who heard it might be shocked and worry about my recommendation. I think you've got to be a particular type of person to understand and enjoy it. It's 30 years ago, but I've still never heard anything as shocking.
SS: There was a wave of British comedians in the mid-'90s, like Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse and the players on 'The Fast Show.' Did they have an impact on you, and is that group still active?
RG: They're still about. Harry Enfield is one of the underrated British comedians. He sort of came and went. He was fantastic. He was both retro and ahead of his time. Retro in that his characters were broad, comic book characters like 'The Slobs,' but ahead of his time in that he picked quite out-there issues. He had the character Homophobic Dad who would never say that his son was gay and kept committing faux pas because everything his son said he took wrong because he had 'gay' on his mind. There was Tim Nice But Dim. Harry Enfield was a Trojan Horse for quite a bit of social satire.
Paul Whitehouse did a series recently called 'Help' that was well-received. 'The Fast Show' ran for five or six seasons - it was very successful. They killed it off because it got so massive. That would be an example of a very good, mainstream populist comedy. I love mainstream comedy, but that was never an influence on me, really. I love Morecambe and Wise, which was as big as you can get in Britain in the '70s. It's not what I wanted to do. They come to the table with a big set of different tools. I came armed with the tools that people like John Cleese had fashioned. Even though I watched broad comedies growing up, once I started making choices, my choices were more, I suppose, cult or cutting edge. This is why I confuse broadcasters, because 'The Office' shouldn't have been as big as it was. It's an acquired taste. I think I'm more famous than the comedy should be, in a way. I won awards and went on chat shows and became a bigger celebrity than someone in a cult comedy would. Likewise, the first year everyone got a DVD player was when 'The Office' was the hit comedy, so it went berserk with sales. Suddenly, this strange, acquired-taste comedy aimed at the very few with no laugh track, no stars, no jokes and quite depressing scenes was the biggest comedy around. Now when people say, 'Are you going to do a film or go on BBC One?' I say that's not what I do. Likewise with 'Extras' - it's a comedy that contains jokes about cerebral palsy, the Holocaust, pedophile priests - and that's just one episode. This doesn't happen on mainstream television. I think I'm a cult comedian who got more famous than he should have.
SS: If 'The Office' had remained more of a cult favorite, would you have done it longer, or had you already predetermined when it would end?
RG: It wouldn't have made a difference. In fact, we went longer than I had planned. I thought only two series and that was it. Then we had a bit of an extra story to tell. We thought we could gain a trick by the special being a revisit, where we see the influence of these people going out on television. The series was self-contained and the characters weren't aware of their impact on telly. The special sounds a lot more postmodern than it is. So that gave us a new injection in the arm, because we could explore the 15 minutes of fame, as I said, which was the point of the show, and we thought it would be a shame to not show a bit of the aftermath. But we were offered ridiculous deals. We could've signed as many as we wanted, another 10 specials. We could go back now and do it, but we won't. We never will.
SS: Where are you with 'Extras'?
RG: We're on the first drafts and we're filming in June. There will be another six episodes. An American producer doesn't even break a sweat with six episodes. I can't believe American producers say, 'We're going to do 22 episodes. Then another 22. Sorry, you were gonna go on holiday. Get the writers back in. Twenty-two more.' From my experience being a producer on the NBC version of 'The Office,' it's incredible. It's a factory. I'm proud of it, because it got picked up for another season by not watering it down. It's a classy piece of work. I can say that, because I have no involvement.
SS: Will you have the same level of distance with the new French version of the show, 'Le Bureau'?
RG: I'll have no involvement in that. I wouldn't have an idea. They showed me the set and said they were going to do it.
SS: It seems like the contrast of that production with French youth rioting in the streets over labor laws would be interesting.
RG: That's a point, isn't it? God. There aren't many things to talk about in France at the moment, are there? It also depends on when they're filming. The problem with filming is that you're writing material people will see in a year. You can't do topical commentary, you can only do general social commentary. Even talking about celebrities can be dangerous. You can't talk about the winner of 'Big Brother,' for example.
SS: Admirers of your work in America might not have a handle on your radio work. What sort of programming were you doing before you moved into television?
RG: I started writing 'The Office' with Stephen Merchant before I'd done more than 10 minutes of radio. 'The Office' was my first thing really. It's a different discipline. Everyone sits around and thinks they've got a novel in them, but sooner or later you have to sit down and type it out. I left it until I met Steve Merchant to sit down and do the typing.
SS: Even before you were doing the podcast - when you were on the radio - your humor was physical and relied on specific body movements. Are you surprised that you are getting more verbal with your material?
RG: Yeah, but that wasn't the point of radio. The point of radio, which I've never really quite achieved anywhere else, was to be normal and interesting. That was all I had to do. I just had to keep people listening. I didn't have to go for a belly-laugh, I didn't expect people to be rolling in the aisles. It was making subtle points. That's all I wanted, that's all I thought radio had to be, because I was always annoyed when I thought someone was jumping up and down like a monkey saying 'Love me' all the time. Or, 'We've got a wacky skit.' So what we tried to do was talk on the radio like you would talk to people you might have met for the first time: Be normal and nice and interesting. Talk normally. That was the most important thing. You almost have to deconstruct it and go the other way to talk normal on radio, because the first couple times I was on the mic [affects silky radio voice] I'd start saying, 'And that was Rrradiohead.' I wondered what the fuck I was doing. It's difficult, because you pick up symptoms.
I enjoy the freedom of radio. Particularly now, I love being in the room with Karl Pilkington. The podcast is my favorite thing I do at the moment.
SS: What does Karl do in the interim?
RG: We're compiling a book at the moment, and he's illustrating it. We're giving him the chance to explain some of the conversations we've had with him. It's his right to reply, because the podcast is basically me and Steve Merchant shouting, 'You're an idiot.' I'm doing this thing where I present Karl Pilkington to the world. Podcasting is in its infancy. Less than one percent of people who buy comedy have even got an iPod. [Laughs] I've made this statistic up. Maybe you can look into it for me?
SS: How does Karl's girlfriend react to you and Merchant constantly needling him?
RG: Well, for one she knows it's done affectionately. And two, she knows we're right. No. That's a joke. We're mates. I call Karl at least twice a day to find out what he's doing. We meet up a couple times a week and work together. He's a proper friend. He's the same in the pub as he is in the studio, which is the beauty of it. That's why the podcast is basically me laughing.
SS: Did you explore other ideas for the show, or did you always know Karl would be the focal point?
RG: It's not a show. It begins with some semblance of broadcasting for the first minute, then becomes 29 minutes of Karl saying what he's thinking and me laughing. That's pretty much it.
SS: What do you do when Karl stumbles into a bit of logic? For instance, when he points out the absurdity of photographing mimes.
RG: What is the point of that? It's such a lovely observation. But that is a proper comedy observation. Those are observations that comedians would die for. They come up with one or two a week and then put it in their act. Everything Karl says is a comedy observation. When we brought up Kafka's Metamorphosis, he said, 'Why aren't there other beetles, because they knock about in gangs, not like the slug.'
SS: Are you concerned about people intruding on Karl's life?
RG: Yes, I am. I'm worried this is going to be a fable and he's going to be carted off to a circus and ruined. He's scared about it. I think he's rightfully scared. What can you do? It's such a fragile entity, isn't it?
He knows he's famous on the Internet, but it's not like going on 'Big Brother' for a week. A lot of people have heard of him, but he hasn't intensified his fame to the point where he can't walk down the street. The few million people that have heard of him through the Internet are spread out over the planet.
SS: In terms of the authenticity of Karl, you told the New York Times that this isn't 'an Andy Kaufmanesque stunt.'
RG: No, of course not. He doesn't have to contrive it. It would ruin it. To him, this is totally normal. He doesn't know what the fuss is about, he doesn't think he has a particularly strange head. He says, 'Heads are round.' I always come back to his hair. He says, 'What would we talk about if I wasn't bald?' He doesn't find anything strange about his upbringing or his theories. He throws them in as if they're the most normal thing in the world. The things he finds strange are what we take for granted. He thinks art is strange. Everything you hear on the show is true. Sometimes I might say, 'Karl remember that thing we were talking about?' Because I know, sometimes in the pub I think, Oh, that's a waste, I wish I hadn't asked him now. This is so funny. I can't wait to go in and get the microphone on. It's like an experiment.
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