As if to prove just how many ways one can overcome the mound of expectations created by success, comedian Ricky Gervais has tackled a podcast (The Ricky Gervais Show), a series of children's books (Flanimals), two British stand-up specials, and his new series, Extras (whose second season begins airing Jan. 14 on HBO), since he broke through with The Office's original British incarnation. Each of his projects has been more unexpectedly successful than the last. With Extras, Gervais has abandoned The Office's wildly obnoxious David Brent for the merely flawed actor Andy Millman, leaving much of the onscreen goofing to writing partner and co-star Stephen Merchant, plus a rotating array of guest stars. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Gervais during a lull after what looks to be yet another short-running series.
The A.V. Club: You've had a pretty varied career so far. Did you always intend not to focus on one thing?
Ricky Gervais: I didn't even intend to do what I'm doing now. I think doing something creative is the most important thing to me, and I think it's probably just good for the soul for anyone, whatever it is. You don't have to be a film director—you can do gardening or something—but I think everyone needs to create something. I've always dabbled. I've always nearly written a book, I've always tried painting, I've always tried to make something out of ideas, really. It was never a plan. I never thought, "Right. First I'll get famous, and then I'll do a book. Then I'll do a podcast." I hadn't heard of the word "podcast" a year ago. What I do next is never strategic. It's never, "If I did this, then I'll get that demographic, and then they'll like me for this, and then I can do that." I go, "I want to do this next. This is the thing that interests me most." I've got the attention span of a 5-year-old, so that's why I don't hang around doing one thing for very long. I have to be excited, I have to have an adrenaline rush about doing something, or it bores me, I feel trapped. I've never regretted saying no to anything, or finishing something. When I'm in the middle of doing something I love, I can have a better idea, and I'll go, "Oh God, I can't finish this." Maybe I've got some sort of disorder.
AVC: You initially talked about Extras as the tough or disappointing follow-up to The Office. Do you still think of it that way?
RG: I tried to get it in before the press. I never did think of it as a follow-up, or anything either disappointing or surprisingly good. I'd never compare it to The Office. We never let pressure get to us. We purposely made it not like The Office. I purposely took the straight role instead of the comedy role. We didn't want to go too much for the emotional heart like we did in The Office. We didn't want it to be so steeped in realism, but we fell into old ways straightaway. We still can't stand the surreal or the convoluted plot. I'm very fond of it.
In fact, the second season—I shouldn't say this, because it'll come back to haunt me—but I think it's the funniest thing I've done. Out-and-out laughs per minute, it's probably got a better hit-rate than The Office. But what it hasn't got, probably, is that mood of The Office. It's more traditional than The Office, it's less situations. They're very much observational situations with results. There's an observation, we meander through it and take it to its logical conclusion. The Office wasn't like that. The Office was sort of cobbled together. We tried to make it as close as possible to what you'd get if you'd done a documentary, whereas Extras, we can cut to the chase a lot easier. The only way you can avoid the difficult-second-album syndrome is not make your first album very good, and if people think I did it the wrong way round, that's not my problem. Also, what's slightly unfair is, why is Extras compared to The Office, but not to other comedy programs? I want to be compared to other things that are out there now. If you asked me what I liked about The Office and Extras, I'd say everything, because I did it, nothing goes in that I don't like. Why would I put something in there that I'm not quite sure about or didn't like? I couldn't be more pleased with either of them, really.
AVC: How do you establish that kind of creative control?
RG: I just demand it. I just simply wouldn't do anything that I wasn't terribly in charge of. I don't let anything go. I worry about the font on the back of the DVD, and I'll do this as long as that continues. Even if it does continue, I could still get bored with that, but I certainly wouldn't compromise anything. I think we got away with it initially [on The Office] because we were low-risk. We'd done our own demo so they could see what it looked like, so they let us do a pilot. It didn't cost much, it went out during summer, so what's the worst that could happen? But then when it picked up and went off, luckily they remembered history correctly and they said, "Well, they did it all themselves with no interference. Why would we interfere now?" And they never have since. Nor have HBO. HBO get the same cut we hand in to the BBC. As long as I'm working with people like BBC2 and Channel 4 and HBO and they're taking exactly what they're handed, I've got nothing to complain about. I don't know why other people don't get that sort of luxury. Maybe some do, I don't know. I wouldn't have it any other way. That's really one of the themes in Extras, is that Andy didn't get that freedom, and he took the compromise, and now he's got to live with it, because he learns that success without respect is nothing.
AVC: What made you want to tell that story?
RG: Lots of things, really. The Office was basically me getting things off my chest. That's what you do as an artist, really, even if it's such a lowly art as TV, you've got to get stuff off your chest, because that's what makes something different and original, your particular take on stuff. There's no point in having a committee meeting. One of my favorite phrases is, "A camel is a horse designed by committee." All the same ingredients go into a TV show. It's just the proportions that are different, and that's what makes something different from something that's gone before it. There's loads of things, really, that we want to say. It's a dig at easy comedy, it's a dig at compromise, it's a dig at fame, it's a dig at the press—it's a dig. [Laughs.] It's a big dig.
But I think it's funny as well. I hope it doesn't come across as me whingeing, because I haven't had that life that Andy's got. I suppose it's a bit of "There but for the grace of God go I"—what would have happened if the BBC said, "No, you're not directing it, my mate is. No, you're not gonna be in it, we've got someone from EastEnders to be in it"? Would I have said, "Forget it"? I think I would have, but who knows? If I had walked away, where would I be now? These things go through your head when you're at a crossroads, and I didn't have to make that decision, and Andy did. That's it, really.
AVC: When you're working on something, do you ever have to struggle to tell the difference between comedy that can succeed commercially and what you think is good?
RG: Never. It doesn't come into it. We only do what we think is good and what we're happy with. I do that in stand-up, I even do it with my children's books. I don't do market research, I don't have focus groups, I don't care. I don't care if it fails, honestly. I'd rather have something that's completely mine fail than something succeed that I'm not proud of.
AVC: Do you think people sometimes laugh at things for the wrong reasons?
RG: I just don't think there's any pleasure in getting an easy laugh. There can be no reward. You stand at the back of a chain comedy club, and those guys come out and they're going, "Ha! What's going on with Scooby-Doo? A talking dog!" And I want to shout, "It's a kids' program!" What vein of comedy gold have they really hit upon there? Then some other guy goes, "Ugh, the '70s, haircuts were different, weren't they?" I want to go, "Well, yeah, but I don't know what you've done there." I don't get observational comedy. It's observational, but they've just left out the comedy bit. And these people are cracking up! They couldn't laugh any more. So you think, "Why would I try and make those people laugh? I don't need to make them laugh. They're happy enough. I'd probably just spoil it for them." I'm aiming at someone else. I'm not uptight about it. I don't want to close those comedy clubs down, I just don't want to play them.
AVC: Is Andy's disastrous sitcom, When The Whistle Blows, your nightmare show?
RG: I just wouldn't do it, and I know that I wouldn't be happy doing it, because it's too easy. There's nothing wrong with it. Those shows still exist in England, they have for 30 years, there's no change there, but you know what? On one side, there's people wearing wigs and doing smutty innuendo and shouting a catchphrase, and on the other side, there's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development and Larry Sanders and Christopher Guest. I don't sit through shows and go, "Damn them, why do they put that on?" I just don't watch them. It's not a crusade. It's a source of comedy for me. That those shows exist is better for me, I think. That's great. Long live them!
Unfortunately, I'm compared with The Office. I can't win. That's what's unfair. I want Extras to be compared to When The Whistle Blows. For every wacky postcard, there's a million people waiting to buy it, and for every $10 million of those things, there's one Rembrandt. Purposely, I think I want to aim at doing something that a lot of people won't like. You want a door policy on your club. It's as simple as that. I'm just worried that it looks like I've compared my work with Rembrandt. "Gervais says he's better than Rembrandt!"
AVC: Don't worry, this isn't the British press.
RG: Oh, fuckin' tell me about it. There's not a day goes by when I don't go, "You fuckers!" And I've had a really good ride with them. And The Office is better than Shakespeare as well, by the way.
AVC: Do you like that in Extras, your character isn't the biggest jerk on the show?
RG: Andy's not really a jerk at all. I'm surrounded by jerks, the putzes, the comedy characters, [Andy's friend] Maggie, and the agent. And they're not bad people. I don't think you can truly have bad people in anything, because you've sort of gotta like something about everyone, really. Andy's much more normal, much more us, but he's got his foibles. We couldn't make him so cool that he didn't care about anything, because then we wouldn't care about him, so he's got his own demons. His demons, in the first series, were ambition, and in the second season, he goes back and trades respect for fame? It's harder to play Andy than it is to play Brent. It's more fun in the moment to play the annoying putz who says stupid things.
AVC: You've found that the guest stars on the show enjoy playing worse versions of themselves.
RG: I think they do for loads of reasons, really. It's a nice couple of days out. A lot of these stars sit in a Winnebago for six months to appear on screen for half an hour. This is a chance to play with their own image. It's like an exorcism for them, and I think it must be quite liberating. And also, a lot of these people don't [usually] get a chance to play the butt of the joke. They were only over to add realism to the plot, really. If it really were a film that was gonna be a blockbuster, then you really would see Orlando Bloom and Sam Jackson. We didn't just want to have the back of someone's head and someone referring to them, "Oh look, there's Samuel L. Jackson." We really needed them in it. It might look quite lazy on the face of it, but we do create a character for it, and hopefully write them a credible part. It's not like going, "Look at my new Hollywood chums." They're nearly always secondary to the main players. It's an ensemble piece. It's certainly following Andy and Maggie through their mutual but different struggle.
AVC: After the first season, you talked about some of the guest stars making their characters worse than you'd written them. Were there any surprises like that in the second season?
RG: Orlando Bloom read the first draft and said, "You can go even further." That's where we come up with all that he's jealous of Johnny Depp and just lying that people want to kiss him more. Daniel Radcliffe came up with that line, "A ring don't mean a thing." They are heard. It's not like we just come in and read the lines once and that's it.
AVC: You didn't have any problem getting Diana Rigg to get a condom thrown on her head?
RG: That's a day's work, isn't it? I remember it. It was a really hot day on the bus, and I remember laughing while I was going, "Can you just hang it over the right eye a little bit more?" And I was thinking, That's a weird job. Asking Dame Diana Rigg to wear a condom hanging over her eye a little bit more. "What did you do at the office today?" "I hung a condom off Diana Rigg's head. What did you do?" But no, she was fine. It was in the script. She was a good sport.
RG: He wrote the music, [but not] the lyrics. I sent him the script and I said, "We thought maybe it could be quite retro, something off Hunky Dory, with an anthemic chorus, like 'Life On Mars.'" He went, "Oh, sure, I'll just knock off a 'Life On Mars.'" And I laughed and went, "Oh, yeah, that did sound quite insulting, didn't it?" He knew what to give us. He gave us über-Bowie. [Sings.] "See his pug-nosed face…" The crew was singing it for about a week.
AVC: Who else would you like to have on?
RG: In all honesty, I don't think we're gonna do another season. I think two is our limit.
AVC: Do you like doing short runs of shows?
RG: Yeah. They seem short to you, but they seem long to me. It still takes a year. It's a year of my life that's three hours on TV. I think you've got to work faster. I think we've got those things off our chests now. I might do a special or something. It takes a long time. I've had a few ideas for people. I think I could do something great with Mel Gibson and maybe Michael Richards. So if those guys are watching and they want to be in one, I'll do a special around those two. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think people expect Andy to fail and disappoint?
RG: It's difficult with a sitcom, because no one wants to watch unfeasibly cool, handsome people do everything brilliantly. Where's the fun in that? Comedy often comes from a struggle. I think drama and comedy all come from empathy. Most people sitting at home aren't cool, successful, witty Hollywood stars, but they all worry about what people think of them when they faux pas. In a safe Western world where we're not being shot at and we're not starving, the worst thing that happens to us most days is someone's rude to us, or we accidentally insult someone. Social faux pas is the worst thing that happens to most people, most days, so we've got to concentrate on that, really. You don't need a high incident. The minutiae of human behavior is really the most interesting thing you can explore. You don't need people being taken out by snipers for something to be interesting, 'cause it's not what most of us relate to.
AVC: Do see much empathy in popular comedy today?
RG: The best ones. That's what I like. Everything that I've liked has had more than just clever lines and funny situations. You care about the person. Making people care is the biggest hurdle. Same with stand-up. If someone walks out and you like them, they're already winning. That's why so many stand-ups are successful and people go and see them, but they're never being loved, because they act like they're better than the audience, it's just a collection of puns and one-liners. You don't feel they're getting their hands wet. You don't feel you're getting a piece of them. If someone can walk out and they go, "I've had a bad day," you're already smiling. You don't like someone who'll walk out and say, "I've had a brilliant day, I did a photo shoot for Vogue, I made another million pounds, everything's going really, really well." You're gonna go, "Why are you telling us that?" Most people have a little bit of a struggle most days, just getting through.
AVC: Apart from Larry David and Christopher Guest, is there any current comedy that you enjoy?
RG: I watch a lot of American chat shows because I like the comedy from Letterman and Conan and Jon Stewart. They're great comedians, putting a show together every night. I'm a big fan of people like Jerry Seinfeld. There's a guy called Patrice O'Neal that I think is fantastic. I watched Sarah Silverman's Jesus Is Magic, which is great. That's pushing it further than I've seen it pushed before. I really like things like Kathy Griffin. She's not popular in some circles, but I really love My Life On The D-List, that was hilarious.
AVC: Stephen Merchant beat you this year for a British Comedy Award for his role in Extras. Is he lording it over you?
RG: No, those are the British Comedy Awards; everyone gets a turn at that. When The Whistle Blows would win a British Comedy Award. One year it would, anyway. I actually said, in my speech, when I won, "Wow, British Comedy Award, quite a prize—not to me, I've won American awards." But to people in that room, this could be the highlight of their career. I think I've won four or five. But it's very flattering. I'm having a go, but it's very nice to win an award, whatever it is.
AVC: You've said that you work fast. Is all that DVD-extra footage of you goofing off on the set misleading?
RG: Absolutely not. I'm the worst. My job is to put the other actors off. I remember once, it might have been Martin [Freeman] in The Office, I even turned the cameras around so he was in one shot, so that if he laughed it ruined the take, just to annoy him. And Stephen said to me, "Rick, it's as if making your own sitcom isn't interesting enough for you." Yeah, I multitask. I can do a sitcom and put people off. I can do two things at once.
AVC: What's the most elaborate prank you've ever played on the set?
RG: I would leave pictures, papers on a desk. I remember I did one with Mackenzie [Crook, on The Office]. I made sure he could see that picture, but it was out of shot. I wrote things on my thumb when I was doing Keith's appraisal, just little faces on my thumb, so he could just see them. Mackenzie was hard to make laugh, actually. I had to revert to touching at one point where he wasn't taking the bait. I just put my hands under the table and put my hand on his knee, and that got him. That's cheating, really. I was ashamed of myself. It's just fun to throw something in the mix. There were some things where we thought we'd never get through them. That Tim appraisal, in [The Office], season two: 70 takes. We just couldn't get it. In Extras, when Keith Chegwin comes and sits next to me, and he's a sort of bigot, that took about 50 takes.
AVC: A lot of your humor draws on discomfort.
RG: Oh, yeah. Embarrassment's funny. Not at the time, but you laugh about it afterward. But again, it's what I said about empathy. Everyone knows what it's like to be embarrassed, so you up the stakes of empathy. It's funny because you're empathizing with Andy. No one empathizes with the racist. No one goes, "Yep, the racist is right, Andy looks uncomfortable." It's just making that connection to the audience.
AVC: Where do you think your approach to humor comes from?
RG: I suppose, really, "Can I make someone laugh at any time?" Given the situation, and given the people in this room, can I make them laugh? Less so now that I'm a famous comedian. Growing up, the most important thing, after taking care of your family and getting a decent job of work, was having a laugh. That was the point to life. I always chose all my friends on whether they were funny. What's a better way to pass the time than laughing or smiling?
AVC: One of the things that unites your characters is that they all have hope or confidence, no matter how ridiculous they get.
RG: Yeah. Hope can be everything can't it? It's okay when things are going well, but if things aren't, that's the last keeper of the gate, the last defense. Whatever else is happening, there's always hope. And when there's no hope, it's over. You've always got to have hope. I like people with hope, as well. I like people like Brent, because when they fall over, they get back up and dust themselves off, and you want to shake their hand.
AVC: People seem to struggle between wanting to empathize with your characters and wanting to look down on them.
RG: Really? I don't look down on the characters in The Office. I don't like looking down on comedy creations. I like all the people that we come up with. I like David Brent. I like Gareth [from The Office], really, he's a bit of a putz, [but] they're not evil people. There's only two people you shouldn't like, and that's Neil and Chris Finch. Finch is a bully, he's one of those people who comes into a room and takes a piss out of someone else, and you laugh, but really you know it's your turn next. And Neil you shouldn't like, because he doesn't care. He was better than David Brent at his job, but it meant less to him than it did to David Brent. I never look down on the characters, really. I don't do it in real life, and I don't do it with these fictional heroes and villains that we create. I can't look down on people, really. I even feel sorry for people in power. I feel sorry for the Queen, in a way, that she hasn't had a normal life. It'd difficult for me to hate anyone. Immediately someone's unpopular, I feel sorry for them.
AVC: What are your upcoming film roles like?
RG: I do cameos now. I missed the 40 years of working up and just jumped straight to cameos. I've done three films, they're all sort of three-day shoots, two- or three-minute scenes, and they're all comedy roles. I did For Your Consideration, Night At The Museum, and Stardust, where I got to meet Robert De Niro, which is one of the reasons I took it. My role is a dodgy fence, he deals in antiquities and potions and magic and all that, and he's just a really objectionable, nasty, grubby little urchin. Again, a putz, a bit of a loser who thinks he's onto something. And they put me in these awful sideburns and extensions. I looked so horrible.
AVC: What's next for you?
RG: I'm going to tour throughout the year. I'd like to do more film. I'd love to do something with Ben Stiller again. I'm developing my children's book for TV, a big six-part or maybe 13-part thing, like "Walking With Flanimals" or something. I feel like I'm in that period where I've just completed something else now, and I'm looking around deciding what to do next.
AVC: But you seem to end up doing a lot of projects you don't expect to do.
RG: I'm almost sure that'll happen. I'm almost sure something will come along, and it wouldn't be what was planned, because it never is, which is good. New things come along. If Tom Cruise is listening and he wants to do a Christmas special of Extras, tell him to give me a call.