Ricky Gervais nabbed an acting Emmy for Extras and won another for producing the long-running comedy series The Office. Now he’s hoping to catch voters’ eyes and hearts with Derek, the nuanced and bittersweet series that stars Gervais as a naive caretaker in nursing home whose optimism buoys the spirits of the elderly residents and fellow workers around him. Or not. The melancholic dramedy falls outside the comedian’s more mainstream hits and has drawn mixed reviews, although Gervais says it’s the selective viewer and not a broad audience that he was hoping to capture with Derek. The show’s second season is vying in the Comedy category after debuting on Netflix in May (Season 1 was ineligible for Emmys consideration last year). As Gervais tells Deadline, this will likely be the last full season viewers see of Derek Noakes, who may appear in his own special once Gervais’ Office alter ego David Brent gets his own spin-off film.
DEADLINE: The second season of Derek is competing in the Comedy category, but it’s really more bittersweet and deeply emotional than most comedies.
RICKY GERVAIS: Well, it’s nice to try and evoke any emotion. I’ve never thought comedy just had to be knee-jerk laughs every 30 seconds, you know? But I think that’s probably why it’s slightly different than most sitcoms – it’s slightly more sincere. I think comedy, in general, is a much more intellectual pursuit as opposed to an emotional one and possibly drama is probably more emotional. But they’re all branches of the same tree. It’s a workout for your emotions. That’s what fiction is: it’s role-play for the soul.
DEADLINE: The idea that shows or content or art has to be one or the other, comedy or drama, is rather reductive and only comes up during awards season, doesn’t it?
GERVAIS: Yes, it does. “What category is it in?” and that. But some people need to pigeonhole so they can sit down and enjoy it. It’s very strange. And it’s funny. I’ve had it with everything I’ve ever done. People decide what it is and then they complain that it’s not what they said it would be. It’s the same with when people try to retell a joke. They say the joke that I told, totally different, and then they say, “Isn’t that horrendous?” And I want to say, “Yes, that is horrendous. That’s not the joke I told. You at least have to say the joke I told to criticize me for it. You at least have to get every single word and comma and pacing and nuance before you can criticize it. Because in a joke, everything matters. It’s a piece of poetry, a good joke, and everything counts. So you can’t miss out a bit. You just can’t. You’re not allowed.”
DEADLINE: How did you walk that line between comedy and pathos in Derek, which has a way of working in a poignant gut-punch for every deadpan joke or cutaway or gag?
GERVAIS: People for some reason expect me always to be quite snarky and ironic and a bit cynical, which is very often the case. But even in the depths of my existential cynicism, something like The Office, there was a happy ending and a humanity to it, and I loved my characters. As much as I took David Brent and the audience to the depths of despair and cringe, I like him and I always try and redeem everyone. In fiction we create our heroes and villains so no one actually gets hurt, bad people get their comeuppance, or say sorry, or change, and good people forgive. It’s always been there. You take the audience through a scary forest and they really appreciate the sunlight when they get out.
DEADLINE: The first season introduced your character with such surprising sincerity it evoked Hal Ashby’s Being There, which also has deeper existential ideas at its core.
GERVAIS: I think everything I’ve done is quite existential. The Office, Extras, even my children’s book Flanimals is sort of about the futility of existence but, I hope, in a funny way. That’s the only evolutionary reason for humor. We don’t need it in any other aspect of existence other than to get us through bad stuff. When I dealt in the existential aspect of life in something like The Office, it was about becoming 30- and 40-years-old. With Derek, it’s about being 80 and 90 so straight away, the gravitas is ten-fold. And it’s all instant. You understand straight away when you see a 90-year-old sitting there. You know they’re at the end of their life so all the questions whiz through your mind more than when you see an unhappy 30-year-old. “Is that me? Out of sight, out of mind? Oh my God, it reminds me of my own mortality. What are they thinking, did they have a bad or good life? Oh my God, I hope they’re not regretting anything. Oh my God, every moment counts now, every moment counts.”
DEADLINE: Didn’t you worry that a gentle show about a naïve old folks’ home caretaker might not hit with as broad an audience as The Office?
GERVAIS: People pander to the lowest common denominator because they want everyone to like something, and I don’t want everyone to like something. I just want some people to love it. I look at my whole career and everything I do in a very Darwinian sense. I’m going to do exactly what I want, and it’s either going to survive or it doesn’t – and by survive, I mean some people will get it and some people don’t, but I don’t care about the people who don’t get it. There are seven billion people on the planet. You don’t need a very high percentage of those people to “get” something for it to be a huge global cult hit. I think people panic, and they look at the ratings in their own country, and they try and get this hit, the broad hit and things don’t travel outside anyway. I think people worry too much about things being a big, instant, broad – and usually very transient – hit. It’s sort of like the now boy bands of pop. They’ve become huge, but they’re replaced immediately whereas the things that require taste might take a bit longer to get going and fewer people like them. There’s a groundswell, and they last. Things like David Bowie and Radiohead are always going to be around longer and bigger and more importantly than these derivative boy bands that are like May flies, you know?
DEADLINE: Does that make it harder for you to get something like Derek off the ground and sell that idea to a network?
GERVAIS: No because, well, I’m bigger. I’m often bigger than my projects and I’m more famous than I should be, considering what I do. I have a strange sort of duality. I do these strange fringe projects and my stand-up is underground, and yet it seems to have become sort of quite big and mainstream. So people see me on the telly or in a film and then they come along to see me at an arena, and they’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s not like he was at The Night at the Museum. Why is he making jokes about the Holocaust? He was in The Muppets - why is he talking about AIDS?”
DEADLINE: How has the rise of Netflix opened new doors for you and the kind of programming you want to create?
GERVAIS: I have to go quite fringe so I don’t do network shows. In the past I’ve gone to HBO or BBC2 and things like that, but then Netflix come along and it’s the best of both worlds for me. There’s still zero interference, but now I’ve got sort of network ratings. You want as many people to see your work as possible but without compromise, and that’s it. I always chose not to compromise. I’ll go to a French channel to be left alone and get less ratings, maybe. Now Netflix gives you the chance to have the best of both worlds.
DEADLINE: What reports or feedback have Netflix given you on Derek’s streaming performance?
GERVAIS: They’re just very pleased, and that’s all they tell you. I know it’s probably more than it would be on all those other channels mentioned just because it’s constantly there, and it’s the age of streaming, and I can constantly remind people. It’s not like you have the billboards, then you do the chat shows, and then you’ve come and gone. It’s constantly there. It’s like every day is launch day on Netflix.
The reason I went to Netflix was truthfully, I heard other channels worrying about Netflix, and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” I got Ted Sarandos’ email, and I sent him an message that said, “I think Netflix is the future. I want to do my next show with you.” Ted sent back, “We’ll take it.” They didn’t quibble about it being only six episodes. There was no talk of building their brand. It was a really mutual thing to be in on. There was a lovely pioneering spirit.
DEADLINE: Will you be pursuing a third season for Derek?
GERVAIS: I don’t know. As much as I love it, and I’ve been so tempted for the first time ever to do a third season, I don’t want to do it just because I like it. I want to do it because it needs to be done. There’s so much TV made for the sake of it. There’s so much TV made to try and get syndication. There’s so much TV done because of this insatiable need to fill all the air space. I usually do two seasons and a special so you might get that out of me, but I never promise. A third season can ruin the first two. I might do a special to end it all. I always think that if there’s two seasons left, do one. If there’s one season left, do a special. If there’s not barely a special, don’t do anything.
DEADLINE: You’re developing a standalone David Brent spin-off movie, and yet there’s no big screen future for Derek?
GERVAIS: I’ll never do a movie of Derek. That would be jumping the shark. I’m working on a screen play for David Brent at the moment, which I’m very excited about because that’s like a new chapter in David Brent’s attempt to be a pop star and it’s even more tragic than the first two seasons. My favorite episode of The Office was episode four when he got his guitar out and now it’s even more tragic because he’s 50 now. He thinks that the camera filming him is like following The Stones around, but really, it’s a Where Are They Now documentary. I want to film that next year but I don’t know whether I’ll sneak that in before Derek’s special.