Ricky Gervais on 'Punishing People with Laughter' (INTERVIEW)

Whether slinging comic barbs as host of the Golden Globes or making us guffaw at his comic genius on TV and film, Ricky Gervais is a man with a plan to keep us laughing.
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Ricky Gervais returned to host the 2016 Golden Globe Awards last night.  (Photo: Courtesy NBC)

Comedy isn’t pretty, according to wild and crazy guy Steve Martin, and Ricky Gervais knows it well. The 54-year old British jester, creator of BBC’s The Office, HBO’s Extras, and Netflix’s woefully underappreciated Derek, is, in real life, an Everyman of the first order – the anti-Hugh Jackman, if you will. Nothing about Gervais is perfect. Yet, as a comic craftsman, Gervais achieves the sublime over and over again by shining an empathetic – not to mention unflinchingly hilarious – light on the imperfections of human beings like The Office’s David Brent and Extras’ Andy Millman. These are contemporary Scrooges – egocentric blowhards who harm the ones they love the most, sometimes inadvertently but always hilariously and are also, even against their will, on bumpy, banana peel-laden paths to modest redemptions. Just like you and me.

“Humor is to get us over terrible things,” Gervais says, by way of illuminating his choices in protagonists. For those of us who have shaved years from our lives and measurable units of joy too by watching any of the dozens of bloated, interminable, televised awards shows would be forgiven for believing Gervais is referencing, say, the Golden Globe Awards, which he returned to last night to host for the fourth time.

If there’s anything at all shocking about Gervais’ Tinseltown barbs – he rejects the “shock comic” moniker, though he figures those offended by his zingers must, simply, be less happy than he is – it's that he was invited back at all, quiver, arrows, and bemused visage. Somehow, the global population figured an English comic throwing shade at Mel Gibson, Angelina Jolie, Robert Downey, Jr., and Scientology might be unwelcome in any zip code beginning with 9021_. Too, Gervais himself made it abundantly clear that he would never host the show again.

Unless politely asked, that is. Ricky Gervais did, indeed, help us – through slapstick and one-liners and id unhinged – through the terrible thing that are televised, onanistic, brow-lifted, collagen-injected awards shows. Thank Vast, Empty Abyss in the Sky (Gervais is a devout atheist) for that. 

Meanwhile, Gervais is quietly forging a career as one of the 21st century’s more interesting filmmakers, marching to the beat of his own drummer – mounting a global stand-up comedy tour when he feels like it, knocking out perennially underrated, often ahead of the curve boob tube comedies and feature films, recording an album under the guise of his Office foot-in-mouther David Brent. We need more of that, some might say. It’s all part of a work ethic and joie de vivre gifted him by loving parents in a – gasp! – happy childhood. That, and Gervais refuses to bow to fear, pressure, or thoughts of failure.

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Gervais as David Brent in "The Office."

“If you spend your days doing what you love, it is impossible to fail,” he says. “So I go about my days trying to bring something into the world that wasn’t in the world before. And then everyone gets furious about it. And then I sit back and say, “I did that!’”

In conversation, Gervais – a provocateur, even if he’s not a shock comic – is thoughtful and reflective one moment, rambunctious the next, blunt like a skillet to the back of the head for a minute, then Jerry Lewis goofy for a second. Talking with Gervais is like enjoying the best day ever – with all the boring parts cut out. Comedy may not be pretty, but with Ricky Gervais, it sure can be beautiful.  

The age-old wisdom is that comedies are miserable, misanthropic bastards. Yet, for whatever spunk and vitriol you spew onstage, you seem quite the opposite of all that. 

Are you saying I’m happy? Bug off, mate! (Laughs)

And you had a happy childhood, too! What’s wrong with this picture?

I believe in punishing people with laughter. And forgiveness. Or something like that, you know. (Laughs)

Where did that sensibility come from?

When I was little, I used to drink milk from the bottle in the fridge. My mom said, “You should never do that, okay?” But one day, I was doing it and the bottle slipped and spilled milk everywhere, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to get in trouble. I made an enormous mess doing something I know I’m not supposed to do.” So I quickly rubbed milk all over the cat, as if my mom would believe any of it. She said to me later, “Oh dear, it must have been the cat that spilled that milk.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, bloody cat.” And she said, “I can’t believe how good he’s gotten at opening the fridge.” (Laughs) It was a very bad lie. I was about 5 or 6. If only cats could open fridge doors, I’d have been overjoyed and scot-free.

And there was the kernel of your older film, The Invention of Lying!

Indeed! Though I hadn’t really thought of that! (Laughs) But now I only tell the truth – outside of white lies occasionally. The only time I lie now is for the peace of mind of myself and others. I lie two or three times a week, and this is the only lie I’ve told for, probably, the last 25 years: “Can you come to my party Saturday?” “No, I can’t. I’m busy.” That is the lie I tell, and often, and almost exclusively. It’s so much easier – and nicer – than saying, “Don’t know you enough, don’t like you enough, would rather sit at home in my underpants watching television than be anywhere near your party.” That’s when the truth is worse than a lie.   

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Gervais is the writer, director and star of the Netflix series "Derek." He says of his work: "The most important thing about comedy and drama for me is empathy. Without empathy, you’ve got nothing. I can’t laugh at someone I don’t like." (Photo: Courtesy Netflix)

Your work is not overtly referential, but you are quite the cinephile. What are some of your favorite films through the decades?

People might be surprised by this, but some of my favorite films are big, accessible Hollywood stories. I love The Godfather and Casablanca – great stories, acted well, made well. When I go to work, I don’t want to make depressing, gritty, urban stories that are depressing to watch. I want to give people something to enjoy. When people think I’m a control freak and an ogre – which I am – it’s only because I want my work to be accessible and Everyman, in a way.

Hope is something that really resonates in your work. For all of the awkwardness and hilarity and gustiness of your characters, your stories are, basically, hopeful.

That’s a very nice thing to say! See, initially, you do your creative work intuitively. I’ve never approached creativity academically. I just did what I liked and did my best. I’ve done a lot of things right without really knowing it, if you know what I mean. One thing that’s always resonated with me, that I’ve understood more as I’ve worked more, is redemption. And I think forgiveness is, possibly, the most wonderful virtue you can give yourself or another. Growing up, I thought integrity was most important, but it is sometimes a luxury. Everyone can forgive. So we watch films and we feel good when someone has changed for the better and, possibly, through a random act of kindness. We live through both sides of that – the person who has granted forgiveness and the person who has received it. The most important thing about comedy and drama for me is empathy. Without empathy, you’ve got nothing. I can’t laugh at someone I don’t like. I can’t care about someone I don’t like. You have to find the human being behind the horror and the soul behind the funny business, and then you’re already winning as a storyteller. Maybe hope comes from that.

So what’s your aim then in making films and television shows?

Me? I’m always going for Comedy-Plus. What’s that? What’s Comedy-Plus? (Laughs) See, its one thing to make people laugh, but it’s something else to make that laughter resonate for them. If you can make people laugh and feel something, and do it without schmaltz and formula, then I think you’ve aimed higher. It’s Comedy-Plus. 

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Gervais sticks to his comedic guns when choosing his projects. "That means you have to do things that you believe in and do them to the best of your ability," he says. " Anything else, at that point, is luck. What’s worse is second-guessing, selling out, trying to please people, being compromised, and there’s still no guarantee of success." (Photo: Courtesy NBC)

Which may be why you rarely take jobs other people are writing and directing, yes?

I do work for other people – other than the audience, I mean – but only if I feel there’s something really excellent there. There’s nothing worse than selling out – and failing. Because you cannot be in control of success, you can only control the quality of the work. That means you have to do things that you believe in and do them to the best of your ability. Anything else, at that point, is luck. What’s worse is second-guessing, selling out, trying to please people, being compromised, and there’s still no guarantee of success. I’d just like to be happy with the work and take whatever level of success happens to come. 

These are fairly radical ideas for Hollywood in this day and age. How can you get away with it?

Well, I’m bulletproof, mate! I have always believed I would walk away from the business. When I first started out as an actor, when I first got into television, when I first got into film, when I first started hosting awards show, I will walk away. It’s never been a bluff. You rarely come across people who really mean it. It makes me pretty bulletproof. I feel like a suicide bomber. There’s nothing you can hold over me. 

You’re enjoying a tremendous amount of success the past several years, and I’m sure Hollywood is stumbling back to consciousness after your Golden Globes gig. What is the biggest change you’ve experienced in becoming successful?

Well, I went from being the laziest person you could ever imagine to being a total workaholic. I just can’t get enough of work. I take on things and I don’t know how I’ll ever get them all done. And I’ve still got the lazy gene; it’s just that I’m in charge now so I can work around that laziness. I can get things filmed near my house, for example. (Laughs) They’ll offer me 10 days of work, and I’ll insist we can do it in two. (Laughs) I used to have scenes where “Ricky is sitting on the couch when someone rings his doorbell. He gets up from the couch to answer the door.” Now that I’m directing a bit, I’ll just keep Ricky on the couch, and he says, “Come in.” (Laughs) Saves me a lot of up and down. (Laughs) I also cut my own lines. Six less words to memorize means a little less exertion. (Laughs) But seriously, unless something’s really amazing, I don’t need to do it.