Ricky Gervais revels in the anguish of the uncomfortable moment, he loves to make us squirm and understands the excruciating pain of embarrassment from the inside out. At once brilliant and confounding, he will put himself – and others (ask his mate Johnny Depp) – on the spot in a trice, shining a bright light on their most unattractive traits or foolhardy decisions.
By challenging liberal sensibilities and teasing out our angst he has created some of the most memorable comedy of the modern age – principally in his TV comedies The Office, Extras and most recently Life’s Too Short, but also in four hugely successful stand up shows: Animals, Politics, Fame and Science.
Of course, the best of his subjects – such as Depp and regular foil Karl Pilkington – take it all on the chin and serve up a generous helping of the same in return. In 2011, in his second stint presenting the Golden Globes in Hollywood he managed to rile the likes of Robert Downey Jr and Tim Allen. The LA Times sniffily reviewed his performance saying his opening remarks “set a corrosive tone for this year’s ceremony that was reflected by both onstage repartee and in backstage opprobrium”. None of it can have hurt him too much as they invited him back to do it all again in 2012, but it was touch and go for a while.
A few months earlier I had spoke to Ricky ahead of two nights in Bournemouth with Science in July 2010, not that the show had a great deal to do with Science of course – none of his shows have much to do with their titles – but everything to do with, well, everything really.
What’s it all about Ricky?
I think it’s my duty to say something people haven’t heard before. Look, I don’t want to see a comedian try to be sexy or tell you life is brilliant. I’m still a putz. What’s the worse thing that’s likely to happen to me – I get some bad service or make a social faux pas?
Look, I’m jet lagged, I don’t know whether to eat or drink or sleep or stay up, but I’m not complaining. Why am I jet lagged? I’ve just got back from New York where I’ve been filming Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David. It was amazing. I genuinely felt I was in the presence of an icon. Larry David is one of the most important people working in comedy today. He’s also the only person I’ve met who laughs as much as me, he messes up just as many takes as I do.
What a privilege to be doing work like that. With all the A-listers we had on Extras, making films with Hollywood stars, whatever, I’ve always come away and thought: ‘Oh that was fun, they were nice people, what’s next?’ This time I was very conscious that I was taking part in what will become a museum piece.
Fame seems to be a relatively uneasy incidental result of your success – certainly in comparison with some celebrities – but you must feel it’s a price worth paying.
I’m getting better with fame, but you have to define the rules. I don’t want to live my life like an open wound and walk around on red carpets waving. I didn’t sign any contract that let a journalist go through my bins.
I’ve kept my powder dry, especially in England. I don’t pop up on panel shows, I don’t do adverts, I’m not always on other people’s shows.
Of the other things I have done – a film [Ghost Town] written for me by David Koepp, appearing in The Simpsons, Sesame Street and now Curb Your Enthusiasm, these are things you just don’t say no to. I know I’m lucky and it’s a privilege to be able to do what I do and fame is a by-product of what I do.
So, is jet lag the price of fame?
It’s the price of fame in two countries! Over ambitious see – if I’d kept it to one country I could’ve walked everywhere!
Despite what you say, it’s never just about Ricky Gervais, it’s also about your friends. Stephen Merchant stepped into the spotlight in Extras, Karl has followed suit in The Ricky Gervais Show and An Idiot Abroad, Warwick Davis as well in Life’s Too Short, what’s happening with the film version of Flanimals you’re working on with illustrator Rob Steen?
He’s in New York now and I was with him the other day – we’ve been friends for 24 years now that’s amazing. What I do is a labour of love and I don’t want to work with people I don’t like. Life really is too short.
If this all finished tomorrow I’d have my six friends who know who I am and be genuinely very happy about it. Your reputation is what the public thinks they know about you, your character is who you are and that’s what your friends know. If I can narrow the gap between my reputation and my character then I’ll be winning the battle.
Ricky wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister to point out that even though Jonathan Ross’ reported £6 million a year job at the Beeb had come to an end the papers (principally the Daily Mail) were still moaning about how much his friend had been paid.
He wrote: “As it happens, I paid about £6 million in tax last year in the UK. (My pleasure. Not a problem. You’re welcome.)
That money, as I understand it, goes towards schools, roads, police, and national health.
Now… I don’t have kids, I don’t drive, I use a private security team and I’m in BUPA. Could you give Jonathan my tax money and let him do what he wants so no one can complain anymore?”
Did you get a reply?
No, I’m still waiting. Actually I’m thinking I should write again to tell him he’s still welcome to my taxes, I’m glad I pay taxes, it makes me feel good about myself, but I was going to say now that I’ve given him some money everyone can go and get one of my DVDs.
There are still some people who have not bought The Office on DVD would you believe, so now everyone can get one. It’ll be like the new National Insurance card, a Ricky Gervais DVD.
– photo of Ricky on the set of Cemetery Junction by Giles Keyte