AS THE CREATOR OF UNCOMFORTABLY REAL COMEDIES AND INFLAMMATORY STAND-UP ROUTINES, RICKY GERVAIS IS ALSO A PASSIONATE CAMPAIGNER FOR THE RIGHT TO SPEAK FREELY. NOW, HE’S REVIVED HIS MOST FAMOUS CHARACTER TO RAIL AGAINST MODERN MORAL OUTRAGE.
Ricky Gervais is back and ready to speak his mind. Maybe too ready.
In the nouveau-plush library of London’s Soho Hotel, Ricky Gervais is beginning his day by worrying about appearances. Before his arrival, an assistant ordered him a light breakfast of coffee, water, two bananas and a single shortbread biscuit on a goldtrimmed plate. It’s all laid out on the table for him, directly in front of an exceptionally grandlooking chair. “I didn’t ask for them to be put here,” he insists, in the grinning, highly insistent way that, despite being robbed by ranks of younger comics (yes, James Corden, robbed), remains utterly Gervaisian. “It’s like a throne,” he says, bouncing happily up and down, gripping the seat’s ornate arms. He seems excited to talk about his new film, David Brent: Life on the Road. And yet, there’s anger underneath the trademark grin. Some of that emotion surrounds critics of his work, both professional and online. Gervais’s masterpiece was The Office, the BBC series he co-wrote with former writing partner Stephen Merchant. His next comedy, Extras, was less well received, while follow- ups Life’s Too Short and Derek divided opinion further. And then further still. His other 2016 film, Netflix outing Special Correspondents, co-starring Eric Bana, has a cumulative Metacritic rating of 36 per cent. Life on the Road represents something of a comeback for Gervais. With uncharacteristic humility, he describes it as just “a fun TV movie” and in it, we find a Brent that’s more catastrophic and yet more sympathetic than ever, as he takes his musical act (complete with some surprisingly good songs) on tour. Whereas the urge when we first met him was to superglue his mouth shut, now we want to put our arm around his shoulder and lead him safely from the sharks and bastards that surround him. This, it emerges, is Gervais’s comment on how our culture has changed since we first met his signal comic character. It’s also the major source of his anger today. The new censoriousness that’s bleeding out of social media and university campuses, a preoccupation with ‘correct’ thought and the vengeful pursuit of those who don’t comply, is now, sadly, mainstream, but it hit bawdy comics like him first. He sees celebrity culture, too, as becoming meaner and more aggressive. Just as this grim new social context provides a more generous view of Brent, so it does of his creator. It’s encouraging that all this has made Gervais even “more belligerent”. And it bodes well for his creative future.
GQ: How do you think Life on the Road will surprise people?
Ricky Gervais: They’ll be surprised how much they like Brent now, because he’s the underdog. He was a bit of a prat in The Office because he was the boss and everyone else was nice and normal. But now the world’s changed and everyone’s a bit of a bully and an alpha male.
GQ: On a creative level, how do you think the film would’ve worked out had Stephen Merchant been involved?
RG: Oh, I think anything changes, doesn’t it? David Brent is a character I’ve had for years, before The Office. Brent was always 100 per cent mine, the rest was all 50-50. And this isn’t The Office I’m bringing back. That’d be weird, 15 years later, everyone still at their desks.
GQ: In preparing the script, did you do lots of work on Brent’s backstory?
RG: Oh, the minutiae I went into! I worked out what David Brent would have been earning at Wernham Hogg...
GQ: What was it?
RG: I won’t say, but I worked out what he started on and what he worked up to, what his mortgage would’ve been, what house he could’ve bought in 1989, what it would be worth now. Then I found the house in Slough.
GQ: Did you actually go and scope out Slough?
RG: Yeah. I went on [property website] Prime Location, found the right house price, then the right area, and then we found the absolute perfect house that he could’ve afforded. Then you
place subtle things inside it, like a couple of pictures of America. You don’t see half of them. He had his big leaving do card that everyone had signed. That was cut [from the film]. You’ve got to treat him like he’s a real person.
GQ: It’s surprising just how much warmth we feel towards Brent in the film.
RG: Well he’s us, now, and it’s worse because the world’s worse. The biggest influence on The Office, apart from the fact I worked in one for 10 years, was watching those quaint docu-soaps in the ’90s, where ordinary people became famous for 15 minutes and got a video to show their grandkids. Now it’s insatiable. Brent was The Terminator but now we’ve got Terminator 2. People are harder. They understand infamy is just as good as fame. They’d rather be hated than unknown these days, and that’s the world he’s competing with now.
GQ: So you feel that the world, in general, has become harder and harsher in the last 15 years?
RG: I think bad things are rewarded as much as good things. Since The Office, we’ve seen The Apprentice, where people get on by saying, ‘I will destroy anyone who stands in my way.’ People get into Big Brother by going, ‘I’m going to get drunk and get my tits out all the time.’ It’s like, ‘I will do anything to be famous.’
GQ: The Apprentice helped create Donald Trump’s brand, of course. Without it, he probably wouldn’t be in race for the presidency.
RG: Well, without this culture Trump wouldn’t be there because, correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t think Eisenhower ever said, ‘Get him out, I’d like to punch him in the face.’ It’s this world of dog eat dog. You hear stories of people measuring their trailer to make sure it’s longer than the other stars’. One actor told me their agent asks for £1 more than the next highest paid person. They hire people to manage their charity profile. Someone told me there’s this guy who goes around Hollywood and says, ‘You can’t do water, Leo does water. You can’t do Africa, George does Africa. I’ll tell you what you can do...’ It’s bizarre.
GQ: Are you more immune to criticism these days?
RG: I am, yeah. When I first became famous I feared it. I didn’t want to be lumped in with those people who would do anything to be famous and I thought, ‘Oh god, reputation is everything.’ I thought it was an injustice that people would say something that wasn’t true. Now I realise that reputation is what strangers think of you and character is who you are. When you get the first bad thing said about you, you realise, ‘I’m not dead. Oh, it didn’t matter.’
GQ: So the grief you get on Twitter, for example, doesn’t touch you anymore?
RG: It doesn’t touch me anymore because they’re idiots. This guy is living in a bin and he’s trying to make me unhappy. He can’t. This guy, who’s in his mother’s basement, masturbating into a Jiffy bag, wants to bring me down a peg or two. He can’t.
GQ: Stephen Merchant said that he doesn’t believe the BBC would make The Office in the same form today, because of the new wave of puritanical political correctness.
RG: I think it would be made, but they’d be on it so much; they’d be scared of everything that might be misunderstood because they’re worried about reputation. We’re in a culture of mob mentality where if enough people say, ‘This is wrong,’ we say, ‘Well, it’s wrong, then.’ We’re in a culture where people think it’s enough just to say, ‘I’m offended,’ but that’s a meaningless statement. OK, you’re offended. Now what? It’s nothing more than telling me you can’t control your emotions.
GQ: Did this climate change the way you approached the character of, say, Derek?
RG: No, because I’m belligerent. But I would like to say I’m not moaning about PC culture. I think I’m politically correct. I’m not saying it’s my right to say awful things and hurt people’s feelings; I’m saying I’m not doing that. Just because you say I am, it doesn’t mean I am. But what’s happened is that some people have mugged political correctness and use it as a tool to say, ‘I have a right never to be offended.’
GQ: Would you say that speech is becoming more limited?
RG: There should be no limit to free speech. Everyone has the right to say what they want and everyone has the right to find other people awful and ridiculous. That’s the difference that people don’t understand. You’re allowed to be offended; I’m allowed to offend you.
GQ: How does this new wave of PC feel compared to the one you experienced in the ’80s?
RG: I think the PC we grew up with was attacking inequality. Those ’70s comedians would do terrible jokes about people’s race and sexuality that just weren’t true – that was the problem. It was an injustice. The PC now is that you can’t talk about a subject that anyone finds offensive. But you can joke about race and not be racist. My first stand-up show in New York, I did Madison Square Garden, so thousands of people were there. I joked about everything. I joked about famine, cancer, the Holocaust, disability. I got one letter of complaint saying, ‘We enjoyed your show but we did not appreciate your jokes about Anne Frank. It is not a subject for comedy.’ So I wrote back and I said, ‘You knew I was joking about famine, you knew I was joking about cancer...’
GQ: People seem to have areas they decide are off limits.
RG: They have their thing. And now people complain on other people’s behalf, because they want to get involved. Some people are professional agitators. They’re like hecklers. They just want to say, ‘I was here.’ You have the ‘Social Justice Warriors’ coming on, searching your [Twitter] stream. They’re always assuming malice and sometimes there isn’t malice, sometimes there’s confusion. However liberal and fair we are, when our 90-year-old grandad says ‘coloured’, we don’t say, ‘Fascist!’ We go, ‘Grandad, they don’t say that anymore.’ He’s not a fascist; he’s out of the loop. But they don’t care why people say something that’s wrong. They think it’s always a crime. There’s no leeway. I did a joke at The Golden Globes about Caitlyn Jenner that was definitely not transphobic: ‘I’m going to be nice tonight. I’ve changed – not as much as Bruce Jenner. Obviously. Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she’s had! She became a role model
“THESE DAYS PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THAT INFAMY IS JUST AS GOOD AS FAME. THEY’D RATHER BE HATED THAN UNKNOWN.”
for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers. But you can’t have everything, can ya? Not at the same time.’ It was just a joke about a trans person. But my crime was ‘deadnaming’ her. I’d never heard of that.
GQ: What’s deadnaming?
RG: I said the name she used to go under. I genuinely didn’t know I couldn’t say that her name used to be Bruce.
GQ: Does it seem like they create new sins?
RG: Yeah. I even decided to look into it. Someone said, ‘The point is that we say she was always a woman and this is gender realignment.’ OK, that’s fine. I get it now. But it was a way into a gag about stereotypes. They didn’t listen to the joke. The other thing is that I think no harm can come from discussing taboo subjects. Offence is good because it makes you think. Whatever I do, someone is going to be offended. I even try and guess. I used to rank jokes by most offensive and get them right. It’s a new vehement demographic, trying to get respect and get noticed and that’s great, I understand that, but I think you have to choose your battles, because sometimes groups do more harm than good for their cause. My thing is animal welfare, but it’s no good starting with a tribesman hunting a rabbit. You want the rich people who are paying poor people to hack a rhino’s horn off.
GQ: Do you think not having kids amplifies your love for
your animals in any way?
RG: I don’t know if that’s true because I’ve always felt like that. I couldn’t stand it when an animal was in pain.
GQ: Is it the helplessness?
RG: It’s just the fact that they haven’t got a voice. I’ve never understood kids burning an ant with a magnifying glass. Burn a bit of paper! It’s because they think it’s in pain. These fox hunters wouldn’t want to hunt a robot fox. They like it to be an animal. There’s something wrong with their psychology. I don’t get it. I’ve put down an animal as a mercy killing before, but the vet didn’t say, ‘Can I try it with a bow and arrow and then take a selfie with it?’ They did it with respect – it was a beautiful mercy killing.
GQ: Back to the film, and congratulations on the songs in Life on the Road. It’s like the best Oasis album since Be Here Now. Do you have serious songs that you keep private?
RG: My serious songs would be more cringey than the David Brent ones – that’s what you try and tap into. The reality of cringe is so much worse. But you do take it seriously because the joke isn’t that the songs are comedy songs, it’s the backstory that’s funny. A song like ‘Freelove Freeway’ is fine until you know it’s about going across America picking up chicks, which this guy has never done.
GQ: Could Brent become a songwriter for a musician?
RG: No, he could never be that successful.
GQ: What’s the void in Brent? What’s he searching for?
RG: I think liking himself. I think that’s the key to everything. If you’re happy with yourself, nothing can hurt you, you’re fucking bulletproof. No one can ruin your day.
GQ: Have you learnt that through your success?
RG: I always sort of knew it. I always tried to fill my day, and therefore my life, with fun. Even the office I worked in was really fun. I made Wernham Hogg more depressing. The danger of that is that you can be there until you’re 60. What I was saying was, if you’d rather be a novelist, don’t wake up at 60 and go, ‘Fuck, I’ve left it too late.’ Some people make excuses. They say, ‘I could do a sitcom, but I have kids.’ What they mean is, ‘I need four hours’ drinking time’. I do it. I say, ‘I work my bollocks off.’ What I mean is, ‘I work my bollocks off between the hours of 11 and 3’.
GQ: You’ve a new stand-up tour on the way. Any plans to bring it to Australia?
RG: I’d love to go to Australia.
GQ: Do you enjoy visiting?
RG: I haven’t been.
GQ: Wait. What?
RG: I know, I know. I’ve never been to Asia, I’ve never been to Africa, I’ve never been to South America. I’ve only been to parts of Europe and North America. Again, I make excuses. I tell myself, ‘I can’t take three weeks off,’ but I could. It’s next on my bucket list.
GQ: You’ve said that the new tour is going to be twice as good as last time. What have you learnt that’s enabled you to make it so much better?
RG: I’ve realised things – it’s a privilege to have 15,000 people pay for a ticket, get a babysitter, find a parking space and come to see you, so you’d better have something you mean. You better have something someone else hasn’t said.
GQ: So you’ve put more work into it.
RG: I’ve put my heart and soul into it. And I’m more belligerent now. I’m fighting. I don’t care what people think of it. It’s my house, my rules. If you don’t like it, you can fuck off. I don’t care whether you like it – I’m going to say it. Freedom of speech is one of the greatest privileges we have and I’m going to use it to the best of my abilities.