GQ&A

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.

GQ (Australia) - - INSIDE GQ - David Brent: Life on the Road is in cin­e­mas now

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.

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