Ricky Gervais spent the bulk of his adult life on the fringes of British show business, as the lead singer for cult new-wave act Seona Dancing, as a manager for the rock band Suede, and as a DJ on London's XFM radio, all of which made him the last person anyone suspected as the future biggest star on BBC television. But when he and his former assistant Stephen Merchant created the mockumentary series The Office—about the soul-deadening routine at a paper manufacturer in the industrial London suburb of Slough—their conception of the worst boss imaginable, a giggling nitwit played by Gervais, set a new standard for how to make a nasty character both pathetic and sympathetic. After putting Gervais' character through the wringer in the second series (aired on BBC America and available on DVD in the U.S. this week), Gervais and Merchant ended the series with two Christmas specials, and have pledged to move on to something new.
While still basking in the glow of winning 2004's Best Series and Best Actor Golden Globe awards for comedy television, and in between serving as the occasional creative consultant on an upcoming NBC version of The Office, Gervais spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his future plans, his comedy influences, and the trappings of fame.
The Onion: You did two six-episode series of The Office, plus two specials, and then stopped the show. Is that kind of low output common in the U.K.?
Ricky Gervais: Well, I don't think many people stop when it's going so well. I think the most famous one that did was John Cleese's Fawlty Towers. But, unlike American series, if the British ones start off well and then do five seasons, you can be sure that seasons three, four, and five aren't as good. I suppose there's loads of reasons for that, particularly if you do it all yourself. The reason The Simpsons has kept up such high quality is that it's got 20 writers, whereas that's not how The Office was made. I was afraid the quality would go down, or we'd repeat ourselves. People have let me down in the past. I've loved something, and it's become a disgrace. I'd rather start again.
O: What do you think of U.S. sitcoms that have 22 to 26 episodes a season?
RG: Oh, God, I can't imagine it. There are some that manage. The Simpsons. The Larry Sanders Show. Seinfeld. Even Friends. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but it had a certain quality all the way through, and a certain standard. All my influences are American, so I can't knock it. Of course, we probably get the best of it. I'm sure there's an awful lot of pap. I know there's an awful lot of English rubbish that's successful. I think it's okay to get 20 million viewers, but I don't think it's right to aim for it. You end up not wanting to offend anyone, and it's never that funny. I'd rather the stuff I do be half a dozen people's favorite thing, as opposed to 10 million people's ninth-favorite thing. [Laughs.] I can't think of anything worse.
O: Most of your comedy influences are American?
RG: Yeah, Laurel and Hardy… Spinal Tap is a direct influence on The Office, obviously. Larry Sanders. Curb Your Enthusiasm is my new favorite show. Not an influence, because I saw it afterwards, but we occupy a similar space in a strange sort of way, picking on the embarrassment and the minutiae of behavior and eking it out to an absolutely excruciating conclusion. That's sort of what we did in The Office. I think Curb Your Enthusiasm goes further. It's different in other ways, as well, because it's sort of media-based and ours is much less glamorous. Also, I understand that it comes predominately out of improv, whereas ours is completely scripted.
O: Actually, it did seem that in series two of The Office, you pushed the awkwardness further than in series one.
RG: A little bit. I don't think we go to the dark side as much as Larry David does in terms of subject matter. But we do eke out embarrassment in terms of human behavior and body language. And with it being like a fake documentary, we've got an extra notch to go. We can take it up to 11 when I look at the camera, because it sort of sucks you into the room, and you feel for me a little bit more. That was quite an asset, having the viewers at home as another character.
O: Really, only your character [David Brent] and Martin Freeman's [Tim Canterbury] acknowledge the camera all that much on the show, although you do it in different ways.
RG: Yeah, he does it to say "Are you getting this? Are. You. Getting. This?" It's almost a savior for him—when Finchy or Gareth are making complete twats of themselves without knowing it, he can look at the camera and go, "I'm so glad you're here. It's not just me." Whereas I do it for two reasons: Directorially, I do it to remind people that it's a fake documentary, but within the character, within the narrative, I do it because he's showing off. And then I use it again to let people know that I know I've made a fool of myself. Because I'm always fascinated with how we make faux pas. We say silly things every day, but usually it's to a bus driver or a friend. When the nation's watching, it must be worse. It's a sort-of theme of The Office. I was fascinated by this spate of docu-soaps where normal people had their Andy Warhol 15 minutes, then came out and got an agent and wondered why it didn't last. [Laughs.] Like they thought "I'm the new Bill Cosby!" No, you're not! You let someone film you in a bakery for a week. That's it. Well done. It's like Brent thinks if he just gets enough airtime, people will love him.
O: Does the David Brent character contain an element of self-criticism, for somebody who thinks of himself as an entertainer?
RG: The thing about the entertainer was that, again, there's a theme in The Office that's, I suppose, a bit insular and a bit obtuse for the general public, but it doesn't matter. For me, it was a bit of a Trojan horse to have a go at bad comedy. I loved the idea that Brent thought he was funny but wasn't. He used other people's catchphrases. You go into a pub when there's a hit show on, and there's people shouting the catchphrase. What are they doing? What's the best they can hope for? We chose one big one: "Whaassuuuup!" Everyone was doing that for about six months. I never quite understood it. I don't know if it's tribal, or if they have nothing else to say. Like, if there's a lull in the conversation, someone thinks, "Well, I'd better say 'Whassup!' I'll bring this party around." [Laughs.] And also sneaking in clichés. There's one ad lib where I start going on about smoking dope and getting the munchies. You go to these comedy venues where comedians are still talking about smoking dope and going to all-night garages, and the people who go out once every three years to see comedy are crying with laughter, like it's such a new observation. [Laughs.] So I wanted to sneak that in. I was in L.A. a couple of months ago, after the Golden Globes, and I went to The Comedy Store. I saw eight comedians—one of which was really good, Ahmed Ahmed—and he was the only one out of the eight whose catchphrase wasn't "What the fuuuck?" [Laughs.] Seven different comedians. Weren't they sitting backstage going "Oh! I say 'What the fuck.' I better not…" [Laughs.] "What the fuuuck?" Brilliant.
O: One of the other themes of The Office seemed to be related to the open-plan office, where everybody can see everybody and there's no real privacy.
RG: Again, that was a sort of personal theme, because I worked in an office for seven years, and the last two years we went open-plan. And I hated it. I built a box of files on one side and I pulled a curtain across, that I tied to a window. I built myself a wigwam. [Laughs.] I just think you need walls. It wasn't meant to be a metaphor for fame, but I don't think people are meant to be famous, either. I don't think we're meant to be looked at. I think we need now and again for no one to recognize us, for no one to be looking at us. Spending eight hours a day with 20 people staring at you… I don't think it's good for the soul.
O: But don't people want that, to some extent? Didn't you ever want to be famous?
RG: No, never particularly. I wanted to be respected in my field. Fame is the worst thing about it. Shopping for pants and worrying about what people think about you is not a nice feeling. When people say, "What do you do?" I never think of myself as a celebrity—or even an actor, actually. I think of myself as a writer-director. When I get up in the morning, I don't think of myself as part of that fraternity. I've got three friends that you'd call famous, but after four years, I should have a few friends in the industry I work in. I'm sure after 20 years, most of my friends will be famous or work in television, because that's the nature of what your work is. When I was working in an office, most of my friends worked in offices. But, no, it's not something I particularly crave, because you can't turn it on and turn it off. I can't walk down the street and say, "Okay, stop it now, I'm not famous today." That's the worst thing. It feels like I'm always on duty, in a way. For the first six months, I didn't know why people were looking at me. I had to remind myself. But when I walk down the street now and someone looks at me, I assume they've seen me on the telly as opposed to me looking scruffy. [Laughs.]
O: Do you find yourself bracing for the moment when they come up and talk to you?
RG: No, I just keep walking. Now and again, I feel more paranoid than other times. Sometimes I'll be confident and go into a shop and say, "Hello, yeah, all right," and then the next day, if someone looks at me or talks to me, I just don't know what to do. If you're walking down the street with a baseball cap, you might be fine. But if you're in a pub and you see someone look at you, you think the worst thing in the world now is if they come over. It's a really weird feeling. And I'm always polite. I'm always nice to them. I've never had any bad experiences. It's always all good. It's just… Sometimes you're sort of prepared for it, and sometimes you're not. So you wind up going to the same places because you've had a good experience there before… You've been left alone before. Hotel bars are pretty good. No one bothers me there. Restaurants are safe. People are quite respectful when you're eating. But what I never do now is go to a busy bar on the weekend, or after 8 o'clock at night. That's the danger zone. Also being trapped. Never go on the Metro, or a bus. [Laughs.] Baseball cap, walking fast… fine.
O: Did that have anything to do with why the show was curtailed?
RG: No, no, no. That was to keep the quality up. And I want to do something else, really. There's a lot to do. I've got a backlog. Yeah. [Pauses.] I'm speaking like I'm Keats, like the world needs what I've got to say. "If I should die before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain." Yeah, Rick. They're all waiting. They're going, "Oh God, I hope he doesn't die before he does nine more series." What would the world do?
O: You guest-starred on Alias, but it was reported that you turned down The Simpsons.
RG: That's not true at all. Matt Groening is a big fan of the show, and I met with him and all the writers. It was really cool, and at the end of the dinner he went, "So, would you like to do a voice on The Simpsons?" I said, "What are the hours?" [Laughs.] Someone said, "The hours are really good," and I went, "Of course I would." And the British papers, being what they are, took "yes" as "no." [Laughs.] He hasn't called. He probably read that I shunned The Simpsons and thought, "That arrogant little shit! Who does that fat limey think he is? I'm Matt Groening!" [Laughs.]
O: What was the Golden Globes experience like?
RG: Got to be a highlight of the career, really. That was amazing. It was ridiculous. The second time was indescribable. When Jennifer Aniston said "Ricky Gervais"… You know that pull-in/focus shot in Jaws? I felt like that. Like… vooooom!
O: Did you feel any obligation to thank your fellow nominees, or do any of the usual awards-speech stuff?
RG: [Pause.] Oh God, I didn't, did I? Now you've made me feel really bad! Right, I'll do it now. I'd like to thank Matt LeBlanc. Bernie Mac. That one from Will & Grace whose name I don't remember, but put it in like I remembered it. [Laughs.] It's a privilege to be in such a great category and… Thank you very much. I don't believe in God, so I'd like to thank dogs. Dogs have given me everything. [Laughs.] There you go.
O: You took part in Q magazine's top 1,001 songs of all time survey late last year. Yours was "Top 5 Tunes For The Office Christmas Party."
RG: Yeah, I kept it light, as opposed to those people who want to show the world. "Well, at my Christmas party I'd have John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, and a Bill Hicks spoken-word piece." No, I said "Slade, 'Merry Christmas.'" [Laughs.]
O: Number one overall was "One," by U2. Do you agree with that choice?
RG: That's pretty cool, actually. The thing with those surveys is that it depends obviously on who you ask, and how honest they are. Because when they say, "What's your favorite record?" you can see the people who want to be respected and not look like a dork. [Laughs.] "I listen to Bob Dylan and Neil Young, just the early stuff." "Well, what's this here, Sting's Greatest Hits?" "That's not mine! Who put that there? Ridiculous!" [Laughs.]
O: You mentioned having American comedy influences, but what about your British comedy influences, besides Fawlty Towers?
RG: Well, that's not really an influence, but I do consider it probably the best sitcom from England. That's the best we've done. But I quite like The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin. That was fantastic. What else? Things from the '80s, like Blackadder. Really good. So I like our stuff, but I'm more literally influenced by American TV. What made me tick and what made me think I was funny was wisecrackers, like Phil Silvers and Bob Hope. Groucho Marx. Guys who, as flawed as they might be, your initial instinct was to laugh, because they actually said funny things. Particularly in their personal life, because they always played characters sort of like themselves. Woody Allen is an interesting one. Even though he's a little bit pretentious and a bit of a dweeb, he's still coming up with these amazing intellectual put-downs. And he always basically plays the same character, like Groucho and Bob Hope. That doesn't happen anymore. Very few people do their shtick in all their films. I can't remember one of his characters' names. That was just Woody Allen in Love And Death, Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. I know he created that character. I know he's not like that in real life, but… He basically played one character. That's quite an achievement.
O: But that's not what you want to do, is it?
RG: Right, that was the point of that whole speech. [Laughs.] When I come out with the next thing and people say "It's a bit like Brent," I'll say "Remember what I said about Woody Allen! It's all right!" [Laughs.] "I know I'm touching my tie and looking at the camera… Think!" [Laughs.] No, it's not going to be the same. But of course, you are what you are. John Cleese, after Fawlty Towers, everything he did was a bit like Basil Fawlty, and I remember Barry Norman, one of our film critics, said "Yeah, but he can't help it… He is a six-foot-four gangly bloke with a mustache and long legs! There's not a lot he can do about it." [Laughs.] I worried about that. I wanted to use my own accent and voice for Brent, because I wanted the character to be real. I got on screen something that looked very realistic, and I'm happy to trade that in for people saying, "Oh God, he's always going to be a bit like Brent." I was just worried about the piece of work I was doing at the time. That's the truth. I'm sure it'll come back and haunt me, but I don't care, because I did The Office and I've got that on my shelf. I'm really proud of it.
O: Do you have any fears about the U.S. version of the show?
RG: Uh… [Laughs.] No, I don't have any fears, because I didn't do it. [Laughs.] From what I've seen, it looks really good. I didn't make it, but they used our script for the first episode that I've seen, and the cast are really good.
O: Given that so much of The Office was U.K.-specific, how was it received by the political parties over there? Did the Tories see it as an anti-Tony Blair statement, or Labour as anti-corporate?
RG: No, but what did happen was people used it as analogy and metaphor for their own ends. It kept cropping up in surveys like "Is Blair a David Brent?" or like that. I mean, there's not a day that goes by that my picture's not in the paper next to a survey about "Is your desk bad for your back?" It's lazy journalism. [Laughs.] Someone's going, "What's that? Some robbers nicked 100 chairs? You don't want a picture of a chair, do you? I tell you what, let's get a picture of David Brent in a chair. Brilliant!" [Laughs.] I'm sure it's because I'm the flavor of the month, but people are probably always going to do it. I'm sure if there was a survey about bad hotels, we'd have a picture of Basil Fawlty again, even though that was 25 years ago. I'm going to be associated with staplers for the next 25 years.