Ricky Gervais: Life in the Comfort Zone

October 4, 2008


Ricky Gervais toddles around his hotel room at New York’s Four Seasons, pausing to offer his guest a drink from what looks like a display of elaborately designed bottles of, well, designer-water. He picks one up and studies it for a moment, then dissolves in giggles at the absurdity of its alternate-universe hotel-suite price.

“Imagine – it costs $17 – for something that comes out of the sky!”
Gervais is dressed in a black t-shirt and matching sweatpants. It might as well be a uniform, he says, because it’s what he always wears.

Indeed, the way he talks about his clothes calls to mind the moment from an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Marge – whose ubiquitous pearl necklace has just broken – opens a drawer and unspools another length of pearls from a gigantic ball o’necklaces. One could easily imagine the 47-year-old Gervais with a drawer full of clothing so identical he could dress in the dark with no fear of embarrassing himself.

“All my clothes are the same color,” he says. “I gave up on the whole fashion-vs.-comfort thing at 28. My sweat pants – they’re sooo close to pajamas. I only brought a suit because I’m going to Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant for dinner.”

It’s a warm May day and Gervais is in Manhattan on a brief break from directing his first film, “This Side of the Truth,” which he’s filming in a suburb of Boston. Before the day is out, he’ll not only eat at Ramsey’s pricey boite but make a surprise guest appearance on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” (hosted by Steve Carell).

He’s in New York mostly to talk about the stand-up comedy tour he brought to the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden in July (which was taped for an HBO special that airs in November). But the wide-ranging conversation goes all the expected places: to “The Office” and “Extras,” his two exquisitely miniaturist sitcoms; to “Ghost Town,” his first film starring role, which opened Sept. 19 (and disappeared shortly afterward, despite positive reviews); and to “This Side of the Truth,” his directorial (actually, co-directorial, with Matthew Robinson) debut, due out in 2009.

“Directing a movie is as easy as I hoped,” he says with a smile that seems to say, “Am I really getting away with this?” Indeed, the next words out of his mouth are, “I feel like I’m getting away with something. I thought I would come unstuck. But it seems easy. I’m not putting much effort into it.”

If Gervais devotes effort to anything, it’s to making sure he lives his whole life in his comfort zone. He appears to be succeeding.
He came almost out of nowhere to create “The Office” – and then pulled the plug after only 12 episodes (broken into two six-episode seasons) and a follow-up Christmas special. (The American version, of which Gervais is an executive producer, is at 62 episodes and counting).

He did almost the same thing with the deliciously squirmy “Extras,” in which he played Andy Millman, an actor suffering the indignities of anonymity, then the embarrassment of fame. “Extras” was an oxymoron – a huge cult hit – and, again, it lasted a mere 12 episodes (over two seasons), with follow-up special. Oh yes, and he won an Emmy for it.
Think of Gervais as a perfectionist who refuses to crank out crap simply for a big paycheck. Think of his work as the comedy equivalent of a limited edition.

“Limited editions? That’s nice. I like that,” he says, adding with a subversive giggle, “And then, of course, we sell 5 million prints of it on DVD.”

Gervais pauses, then adds, “Quality control is the answer borne of integrity. It’s too bad the real answer is laziness. And I get bored easily.

“I want to do it all myself but that’s exhausting. I don’t use other writers or producers because I’ve been let down in the past. I don’t want anyone saying that the third season is not as good as the first or that I did it for the money or that it’s exactly the same.”

Gervais has found his level and knows it. He recognizes that, by creating material that he himself approves of, he is excluding large chunks of the TV audience that want the jokes spoon-fed to them.

“With TV, the more you dumb it down, the more you have to dumb it down. Me and Steve (Stephen Merchant, his “Office”/ “Extras” collaborator) are resigned to the fact that there are about 3 million people who like what we do. I guess you could say there’s a strict door policy at my club. I don’t want to drop the prices or change the name. If you give people something new and don’t water it down, they’ll watch. If you give kids nothing but sugar and salty snacks, it’s hard to get them to eat a carrot.”

Gervais’ giggle is infectious when he talks about his show-biz niche. Sure, he’s a perfectionist – but, in his mind, that’s a by-product of his own basic laziness.

“I dedicate my heart and soul and passion and all the integrity I can muster – between the hours of 10 and 6,” he says. “As long as I can get away with it, there’s no reason to change. I got an A for ‘The Office’ and I got hooked on trying to get A’s.”

That may have come as a surprise to writer/director David Koepp, who cast Gervais in “Ghost Town.” In the film, Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist named Bertram Pincus, who has a near-death experience during a colonoscopy and wakes up to discover that he can communicate with ghosts, who want him to help them with their unfinished business.

At one point, as Koepp and Gervais talked during preproduction, Koepp said assuringly, “We’ll never do more than 14-hour days.” To which Gervais replied, “That’s crazy! What does that leave for sleeping and eating?”

Telling the story, Gervais adds with a chuckle, “Sometimes he kept me until 7.”

But Gervais saw no point in angsty dithering to achieve a Method moment for the camera: “If you’re happy with the script, then they’ve chosen you to be you,” he says. “If I was playing Fidel Castro, I’d panic. If I was doing Shakespeare, I’d struggle. But I know what I’m doing. That’s why they hired me. It’s all a matter of taste.”

So it was with “This Side of the Truth”: “When you write a script or create a show, there are no surprises,” he says. “It’s already in your mind. Once I was on the set, all it did was relax me. I called Steve and said, ‘It’s easy.’ You shoot to edit and put in what you want to see.”

Despite playing the leads in “This Side of the Truth” and “Ghost Town” (his first starring role in a feature) and taking smaller roles in films like “Night at the Museum” and “Stardust,” Gervais has no interest in building a career as an actor.

“I’m not trying to be an actor. I love it but it’s not the main thrust of what I do. I only act to make sure the role is done right. I like creating. I like to get the clay and make it myself.

What Gervais loves to create – and what his fans have come to love watching – are moments of painful vulnerability, spiced with doses of humiliation, embarrassment and cringing. Whether it’s David Brent of “The Office” miscalculating when he jokingly tells Dawn that she’s fired or Andy Millman being put down in song to his face by David Bowie, Gervais wrings laughs out of the kind of supremely deflating moment at which you have to laugh – even as you wince.

“I can’t stand machismo in comedy,” he says. “If there’s a basic difference between British and American comedy, it’s that we embrace the loser more. You celebrate success more happily. I want to say, ‘C’mon, play the loser. They’ll like you more.’ It’s OK to lose sometimes.”

Growing up lower-middle-class in Berkshire, England, his influences were Monty Python (especially John Cleese) and its forebears: Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. But the one that really stuck was Laurel and Hardy. In his unified theory of narrative comedy, all humor emanates from the beautifully crafted two-reelers of Stan and Ollie.

“They invented it,” Gervais says. “Like all funny people, they have to be precarious. I wanted to hug Stan and Ollie. I want to save them. What I loved mostly was the empathy. You’ve got to like people to laugh at them.”
“In ‘The Office,’ David Brent is a Stan. He’s the idiot who affects other people but isn’t affected himself, whereas Tim was an Ollie. With ‘Extras,’ I wanted a platonic Laurel and Hardy with a girl, because there’s a different comic dynamic. Andy Millman was an Ollie, surrounded by Stans.”
“The Office” grew out of his own seven years spent working in an office, from the stultifying sense of dead-endedness that the worst jobs can engender: “When people are busy at work, they’re happy,” Gervais says.

“Give them boredom and they feel like they’re wasting their life and try to avoid stuff. That’s where the existential quality comes from. They’re only looking forward to the weekend and literally wasting their lives. There’s nothing worse that that – and you’re getting that from an atheist.”
But the tone of it was important. Conceptualizing it as a documentary being shot in the office of a paper company gave Gervais the platform he needed.
“I’m a slave to realism, so I wanted ‘The Office’ to be about body language,” he says. As for the urge to induce cringing, he shrugs as if to say, ‘What else is there?’

“I’m a white, middle-class, educated, middle-aged man. So I’m pretty much the top of the pile when it comes to being oppressed. The worst thing that happens to me is a bit of bad service or social awkwardness. But I can still be a loser. Wherever you are, you’ve always got vanity, paranoia, ego, jealousy. As Andy Millman says in the ‘Extras’ special, people who want to be famous will never be famous enough.”

That’s something that Gervais himself struggles with. He pokes fun at his own pomposity in his entrance for his stand-up show (walking on in crown and robe, with 7-foot-tall lightbulb-inflamed letters spelling out “RICKY” as the only scenery), but worries that he’s not measuring up to his own standards, which are high.

“Deep down, I always sneak in a little bit of art,” he says. “I don’t want to do light entertainment. It’s not TV for the sake of TV. I’m like Andy Millman: I do despise those shows. They just bring more tat into the world. It’s just merchandise – tat breeding tat. Tat is something with no artistic content or quality, with no reason for being other than money-making. I hate it. It’s preying on the weak and bewildered and the stupid. It’s horrible, it revolts me. It’s not evil – well, some of it is. But nearly all of that merchandise is being made in Third World sweatshops. So if you bring tat into the world, some 12-year-old kid made it.”

Gervais still struggles with ambivalence about how much money he makes. Raised in relative poverty, he wrestles with the disparity between how much money he makes and how little effort it takes, compared to his blue-collar father.

“For the first few months the money ruined me because I felt guilty,” he says. “I did an advertisement, which was easy money. But I didn’t want easy money. It’s OK to win the lottery – but not to be proud of it. I took a corporate show one time because I was being offered my dad’s wages for an entire year for 40 minutes of work. I thought, Well, I have to take that. And then I thought, That’s why I shouldn’t take it.
“I’m not proud that I make money but I’m not ashamed of how it’s made. It’s bad enough to earn millions – I’ve got to do my best. I just want to be able to sleep at night.”