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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

RICKY GER­VAIS

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

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