Making Ricky Gervais laugh: A reporter's triumph while talking up his new HBO show
I made Ricky Gervais laugh.
Not some weird guy in Ybor City who happens to have the same name. But the cheeky British comic who invented the original version of The Office. HBO's sidesplitting series Extras and the joke lampooning Mel Gibson's drinking problems in front of an international audience.
I won't detail my joke, though you'll see an edited version of it in the following transcript. Suffice to say that it involves Gervais' attempt to get dual citizenship in Canada, a possible World War and Russian food.
Our real reason for speaking was his new HBO show, The Ricky Gervais Show, which presents animated cartoons accompanying the audio of podcasts the comic has recorded with friends for five years.
The podcasts unfold like you're hanging in Gervais' production office, kicking back with the comic, his longtime partner Stephen Merchant and producer Karl Pilkington. In particular, Gervais and Merchant enjoy poking fun at Pilkington, an eccentric everyguy whose oddball observations never fail to infuriate Gervais.
Over the course of a half hour, we talked about his controversial stint hosting the Golden Globes, why he thinks American television is so much better than British stuff, and how Pilkington resembles a real life Homer Simpson.
Here's the fruits of that conversation, heavily edited for space and comprehension.
ME: Where did this idea come from?
“Over the last few years, fans have been doing them and putting them on YouTube. It lent itself so brilliantly to animation. Karl is like a character. Karl’s not a real person – he sees the world differently. He comes up with ridiculous flights of fancy that you would never put in a cartoon, because you’d think it was too far fetched. As long as people know these are real, uncontrived, unscripted, conversation between two sort of pseudo intellectual media types bullying a little gimp – I think people will love it. Once people know this was just for our own amusement – It’s nearly been done behind our back. Also what I like about these, is it’s frozen in time. We’ve got 50 hours to animate. Fame can’t change Karl – he’s said it already. If he suddenly got a knock on the head and became an intellectual, it’s okay, it doesn’t ruin anything. We’ve got it in the bank.”
It's amazing how much pleasure you get out of needling Karl.
“I don’t get any more joy comedically than sitting across from Karl Pilkington talking to him about anything. He’s the first phone call I make in a day. It’s like he’s my the reaction shot to real life. If I’m watching something on the telly and it's about a little two headed kid in China, I phone him up and he answers with ‘weird innit?’ It’s not enough for me to live in the word now, I need to know what Karl thinks of it. This can run and run. I love the fact that we can have another Simpsons and this time Homer Simpson is real. I can’t wait for Karl to be famous because he’ll hate it. I never forget why I’m doing these things. These are all for my own amusement. I didn’t get into this business for other people’s amusement. I got into it for my own.”
“Karl is like crack. You can’t listen to just one.”
But he's a producer who has written books. Is he really that dense?
“It’s totally real. Have you read his books? The last book he did was a travel book. There’s one chapter called Australia and the starts off ‘I’ve never been.’ He went somewhere with his girlfriend’s parents. He puts ‘Dad liked the biscuits in the cupboard.’ But those biscuits aren’t going to be there. How is that useful information? Ohhh..God. He lives in his own little world. Like all true visionaries and -- dare I say it -- geniuses, he sees the world differently than the rest of us. Me and steve, we sometimes get frustrated with his single-mindedness or stupidity or whatever you want to call it. Then, he says something and we go that’s rubbish and there’s a certain amount of truth to it. There really was an octopus who sneaking laboratories and getting into jars and eating crabs. And I’ll say how did he know that? And why was he the first one to know it?
“There was an article in The Guardian that said clearly chimps even go through adolescence. They’re pushing the boundaries of parental control. There was one chimpanzee that had a spat with the alpha male and ran away from home. Karl went ‘What was the argument about?’ Really! That’s your question? Karl will be the people’s champion. They’ll tune in because they’ve maybe heard of me and Steve. But they’ll stay watching for Karl.”
You're one of the few British comics with a strong track record of importing your work to America and having it work. Why?
“I think there’s many reasons. I like to think its because we put so much work in The Office and its very good. But, there’s loads of things that are very good. I like to think it’s because we were involved with the remake – but, again, loads of people get involved, so it can’t just be that. I really like to think it was because, particularly with the original, we didn’t compromise at all. It was a single vision. We didn’t do anything by committee – we didn’t aim at a demographic, we didn’t water it down.
"The real reason, one – I think the themes are universal. It looks English – but the things in The Office and Extras are very global, universal. They’re all quite existential. Am I wasting it, or am I living a good life? There are things we sneak into the comedy. Extras looked like a really glamorous indictment of fame – but actually, it was about a group of friends ambling through life.
Finally, secretly and cheekily, I think its because all my influences are American. Al I’ve done is put it through a filter. The U.S. in my Mecca. Laurel and Hardy, they taught me empathy, they taught me relationship. It’s not enough to be funny, there has to be a witness to that stupidity. We’ve got nothing that compares with the audacity and sheer bloody-minded ambition of things like The Sopranos and The Wire, Dexter and Damages. And so, its almost like I took all this in. I’m in awe of it. If I can do something a tenth as good or as ambitious. I’m still overwhelmed that I’m making a living in America. It’s a real privilege for me…Do I get to be a citizen after that speech?
I actually tried, I thought I could get dual citizenship because my dad’s Canadian. They stopped it in 1970 or something. I thought that’s the best place to be if there’s a war. You don’t want to invade Canada – you get to Toronto and go, I’m not going any further – the cold.”
Canada is like Russia but with better food.
“(laughs heartily) I love Canadians. They're just like Brits. They drink and moan.”
Some people would be surprised to hear you say Americans do comedy better than the Brits.
“Brits to do comedy well, but there seems to be a lack of pushing it with artistic ambition. There’s an attitude that says if you make a program, that’s good enough, you’ve made a program. There are terrible people making terrible programs, who are getting promoted, because they’ve made a program. Most things are terrible in art by definition. That’s why it’s so exciting when you see something that’s excellent. I don’t know why more people don’t do that. People can fob people off with the same old stuff, they do. It’s like food. There’s a reason people are eating bad food – because its cheap and tasty and that’s all they’ve ever had. The more your force feed people terrible anodyne non-nutritional white bread, the more they’ll want it. Luckily, some people say I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do it just because I want to be on telly. I’m just doing this for me. All the best things is the world that have ever been achieved in art have been done for the artist. They’ve been done by the artist for the artist. There’s a reason why artists shut themselves out. They don’t want to be influenced by people who aren’t them.
"It’s personal taste. I’m certainly not saying Americans can do comedy better than Brits. That would be turning the gun on myself. It just so happens that over the past 40 years, if I listed my top 20 comedies and top 20 dramas, I think I’d put one or two British shows in there. There’s no prejudice; it just so happens that’s the way it is.”
You seem to have leveraged your art over a lot of different platforms; online, TV, movies, books -- is that deliberate?
“Mediums change, sensibilities change, budgets change. but what doesn’t change is why I do any of this. It’s all to amuse me. I’ve done it for the same reasons ever since I started – I do it to amuse me, I do it because its in me, it's my idea I have that I want to download. I only do it if I can get my own way. I’m a complete fascist when it comes to art. I do it because I have to. If its not right, I’ll walk away.
You must never get caught up in it. You must never be an Andy Millman. Andy Millman was a decent man, but he got body snatched by fame and competition and jealousy. You gotta be able to walk away. If you only care about what you think – you’re bulletproof. It doesn’t matter what the audience figures out or what the critics say or whether you win an award or not. What I couldn’t live with, was doing something that I knew wasn’t very good. That’s what I couldn’t live with.”
I thought it was interesting that critics clamored for you to host the Golden Globes until you actually hosted them. Then they went after you.
“People are saying – he’s due for a backlash -- I think I started with a backlash. If you’re famous and if you’re doing something that isn’t completely safe and watered down, you’ve got to assume as many people hate you as like you. And you’ve got to embrace that, because that means you’re doing something right. People say mixed reviews, well, what reviews aren’t mixed? I know people that don’t like The Godfather. Some people hate The Office, they don’t know why its comedy. it makes them angry. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
So why did you host the Golden Globes?
“For a laugh – absolutely. I did it for a laugh. I loved the buzz that some people said it could be the end of my career. I’d do it again. And it’s strange, some people said it was awful, how dare he say those things – I can’t believe he went out with a beer. How dare he talk about alcoholism? One journalist said ‘the prolonged masturbation sketch’ – I don’t remember that. And then, some people were going he was tame, why didn’t he go for it? He talked about Mel Gibson’s alcoholism but didn’t talk about his anti Semitism. Oh, that would have been nice little show, wouldn’t it? That would have been a lovely little platform for that. Here’s some pictures of the Holocaust – and now best actress. You can’t win. Someone said oh, I thought you’ be more outrageous. This was 5 p.m. (PST) on American network television – what did you want me to do? ‘Before we do best light entertainment comedy or musical – I’m going to bite the head off a bat. And this is for all the people suffering all over the world.' (cackles heartily)”
Have you run into Mel Gibson since then?
“He should be fine with it – I never wanted to be nasty to people. It was all gentle ribbing I wanted to go out there and be like Bob Hope and the Rat Pack. They all took it really well. Colin Farrel comes out and said 'I fooking knew, (you'd say that).' They’re all cool about it; They’re A-listers. It’s the B-listers you’ve got to worry about. You can’t moan about the critics,. It’s like a fisherman complaining about waves – it’s the world I’ve entered into. You can ignore them, or you can ride the wave. Don’t stay on the beach and don’t splutter and drown. A critic can’t change your life. I embrace a good and a bad review as long as it’s intelligent and honest. The only people who ask other people’s opinions are executives.”