ONCE MORE WITH FELT
He’s starring in a movie with Kermit the Frog, but Ricky Gervais isn’t green when it comes to his comedy empire. That’s why he’s come over all American about money and new media, writes Benji Wilson
DOWN in the basement of a London editing suite, Ricky Gervais is looking wistful. It is not a habitual bearing for a man whose poster face is generally a leering grin, but give him a break — he is deep in reminiscence. “I was dancing with a frog that day ...” He sighs. “I was dancing and talking to a frog.”
We share a moment. The frog in question, obviously, was Kermit, and their dance was for
Muppets Most Wanted, the second movie since the Muppets reunited the gang in 2011 and reanimated the franchise. Gervais is the human lead, though of course virtually every scene is stolen by a felt animal. He plays Dominic Badguy, sidekick of Kermit’s evil doppelganger Constantine. Badguy is a tour manager dead set on dastardly deeds who, in spite of his name, convinces the Muppets he merely wants to help them tour Europe once more. The film is very stupid and very funny, part of a welcome trend for movies-that-should-be-silly actually being more absorbing than silly-movies-that-weremeant-to-be-serious.
“Everything about them being a) animals and b) fake animals is ignored, which is funny,” says Gervais, who is in comfort gear today: dad jeans, wool hoodie, trainers. “Everything is played straight — to all intents and purposes, they are characters, characters that just happen to be frogs and pigs and rats. The human cameos (including Tina Fey and Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) don’t look at the camera and say, ‘Why am I talking to a frog?’ ” So when Badguy had to do a song-and-dance number with Kermit, Gervais was, as he says, dancing with a frog that day. “It’s not pretend 3-D, it is 3-D. You’re walking around them, they’re there. That frog was dancing. I bought into it.”
Gervais can be dismissive of some of his American work — he describes the difference between America’s The Office and the British original as “the difference between donating sperm and bringing up a child”. But the Muppets appealed on another level. “The crux of the Muppets is that it’s a bunch of hapless friends trying to make it in a cut-throat business. You’re rooting for them because they’re underdogs. It’s inspirational in a really sweet, fairytale, childlike way. Trying is the important thing. Togetherness. It’s lovely, lovely values.”
There is something ickily discordant in hearing Gervais talk about togetherness and lovely values. It was the same something that stuck in the craw when Derek, his latest television series, set in a care home, debuted in Britain and Australia in 2012. What jarred for some was that the man who had set the template for the so-called comedy of embarrassment with The Office, satirised the cult of celebrity with smart-bomb precision in Extras, and pioneered a brand of comedy so knowing, you practically needed to watch it in a mirror, was now giving his worldview a mawkish gloss. The title character, Derek Noakes, who appeared to have some kind of learning disability, was a Pollyanna — “better than us”, as Gervais said at the time.
Derek returns to British TV soon for a second series of what its creator calls “tight little parables”. Doubtless the brickbats will come with it. “People think I court controversy. The opposite is true. I hate controversy getting in the way. I want to go, ‘ Just watch the show!’ But if someone says it’s controversial and I deny it, then it suddenly is. And there’s nothing controversial about Derek. It’s the sweetest and least controversial show in the world.”
I suggest it wasn’t so much the controversy that disappointed his fans — whether or not
Derek was mocking those with learning disabilities, rather than satirising prejudice against them — as the fact that it seemed Gervais had lost his acerbic edge. “Let’s be honest — I feel sometimes that I overshadow my projects, which is annoying. But what can I do? They’re not reviewing Derek, they’re reviewing it as a year in the public life of how they perceive Ricky Gervais, because they can’t divorce themselves from it.
“If you don’t like someone, you don’t like them. And you can’t let them off, which is fine. The more famous you get, the more people love you — but the more people hate you as well. The pie just gets bigger. But what can you do? It has never been a popularity contest with me. Never.”
I confess I am a Gervais-liker by this point. Yes, there is an arrogance there, but at least he has the work to back it up. I can’t count the number of American TV comics who cite The Office as their Urtext. He meets me during the edit for Derek’s second series — no time limit, happy to engage as long as I am prepared to engage with him. He is on his own and plainly has been working hard — he looks tired, thinning a little, 52, beard untrained.
“I try and do hands-off, and I can’t. I micromanage. I want to create it, write it, direct it, be in it, edit it, choose the music, write the music.” That’s either arrogance or perfectionism, depending on what you think of the results.
In the US, the second series of Derek will be shown first on Netflix. This is a departure for Gervais, who has always worked with HBO there. I wonder what his former backers think of his jumping ship. “I don’t know. But they put on other people’s shows, they don’t ask me!” The logic there doesn’t quite work. He reconsiders: “I’ve never done a handcuffs deal. I still stand by HBO. I’ll show them my next thing, along with Netflix, but I wanted to try this out.”
That he didn’t feel quite so loyal to HBO is a mark of his commercial nous. The former entertainment officer at university has always been an astute businessman as well as a brilliant writer and comic. That may be one reason America has embraced him: he makes shows for the love of it, but knows how to sell them, too.
It’s also why he is so un-Britishly rich, and so un-Britishly happy to talk about it. The Office
came out just at the peak of the DVD boom. “I was lucky.” Yet he has been “lucky” several times in succession. He meandered into the boom years for stadium stand-up; he sold a British comedy to the Americans (that they didn’t spatchcock); he made a decent fist of being a movie star in his 40s; and now, he thinks, online platforms are where the future lies.
“Netflix hasn’t come up with a new type of program or filming technique or genre. It hasn’t changed the art form. It only pandered to the way people want to watch things. That’s the beauty of it. All it did was accommodate this natural evolution.”
The platform has other attractions for Gervais. He likes the fact that artists don’t have to sign up to a seven-year deal, as is common with some traditional TV networks. And his direct relationship with Netflix head of context Ted Sarandos obviously appeals to his ego. “I don’t deal with the head of the BBC or the head of HBO. But now I’m in a restaurant talking to the guy who runs the company and says: ‘ We want you.’ Not only is it going to be the biggest broadcaster in the world, but it still has that entrepreneurial excitement.”
The other thing Gervais has always wanted, though, is what he calls “that connection” — “Any art form, even one as lowly as TV comedy or presenting an awards show, is about making a connection.” One downside, however, to putting out shows on Netflix (which is not available in Australia) is that connection becomes less direct. If people aren’t watching at the same time, or at all, there won’t be a moment like the final
Office Christmas specials in 2003, when a large part of Britain sat down in anticipation of what Ricky had written next. Gervais’s response, one you will hear often from Netflix acolytes, is that in this brave new world, social media has replaced that communal experience.
“The common consciousness is now Twitter and Facebook. Fifteen years ago, the common consciousness was ‘Did you see it?’; ‘No, I didn’t’; ‘Oh, I’ll get the DVD.’ Now it’s, ‘Did you see it?’; ‘No. I’ll watch it now.’ I can tweet a link to watch it on Netflix, just click here and get a free month’s trial. It’s incredible.”
Like most comedians, Gervais is a zealous tweeter. He has 5.7 million followers and regularly engages with them. “I do it for fun, and it’s funny what comes back sometimes. But equally — I make no bones about it — it’s a marketing tool. I’ve got five million people and I want them to know when I’ve got a TV show on. Or I want a petition to stop killing dolphins. I do use it for those things. And, probably third, it is a social experiment, because I learn stuff from it.”
One thing he has learnt is the extent to which his characters have an afterlife. “Things pop up on Twitter and Facebook, things where they’ve done something to it — a little montage of clips and scenes and stuff. That’s always nice and fun or flattering. I try to encourage people playing on the internet.”
David Brent stars in most of these mash-ups, which may be what has set Gervais thinking. “The reason I didn’t bring Brent back before is that I wanted to do lots of other things first, but secretly I do want to do something else. It has to be right ... It can’t be an unwanted encore. It can’t even be a wanted encore, because people don’t know what they want.
“I think I’ve got something, but I’m still working on it — the music side of it [he has played several small concerts as Brent with his
ANY ART FORM, EVEN ONE AS LOWLY AS TV COMEDY OR PRESENTING AN AWARDS SHOW, IS ABOUT MAKING A CONNECTION
backing band, Foregone Conclusion] is really a Trojan horse for something else I want to try.”
He tells me what it is, asks me to keep it a secret, then says I can put it in after all. “It’s just an idea. I want to do a tour, a little tour — and people think they’re seeing a tour. I film it, but actually it’s Brent who thinks he’s making a Scorsese-type thing of On the Road. Of course, behind the scenes it is so much sadder and more poignant. It’s Spinal Tap meets sad Scorsese meets Anvil. It’s more of the breakdown of this man who thought he was going to be something else.” It sounds grand. I wonder where we’ll see it. “That will be on Netflix ... Or HBO. Or BBC.”
The Sunday Times
Muppets Most Wanted opens on April 10.
Clockwise from main picture, Ricky Gervais; scenes from Muppets Most Wanted; and, below, Gervais in The Office and Derek