Be happy, be kind, be Tony.
The final season marks a departure for the British comedian, who has never made a third season of any of his scripted series before – The Office, which spawned the NBC adaptation, Extras and Derek all ran for two seasons and a special.
Gervais is aware of this fact, telling Deadline in a wide-ranging interview that he really should have done a fourth season but that he didn’t want to risk the quality of the show dropping.
After Life, which returns January 14, follows Gervais’ Tony, a writer for the local Tambury newspaper, who is dealing with life after his wife, played by Kerry Godliman, dies. The third season picks up with the complicated relationship with Tony and nurse Emma, played by Ashley Jensen, as Tony must also deal with the grief of his father dying. Gervais promises that there isn’t a “happily ever after” ending.
The cast also includes Penelope Wilton, Tom Basden, Diane Morgan and Joe Wilkinson.
In the interview below, Gervais also addresses how the pandemic impacted the show, which filmed last summer in the UK; talks about his upcoming Netflix stand-up comedy special Supernature, which was filmed in London; as well as the current state of comedy (“it’s subjective”) and the trio of projects that he’s mulling setting up next at the streamer.
DEADLINE: You’ve been out on the road recently with Supernature. How have you been finding it?
RICKY GERVAIS: I’ve been on the road for three years with a little 18-month break because of the pandemic. I did it half of it beforehand. My last gig was at the Stockholm Arena on February 28, 2020. Then everything shut down. Everything was postponed twice. It was like the war; it’ll be over by Christmas. Then we started up again in July/August when we were allowed. I’m actually putting more in to the show to keep it fresh and this spate of gigs are the best gigs I’ve ever done. I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve been doing the same stand-up for longer than I ever have before and I keep rewriting it and keep folding the samurai sword. If you do the same gig 50 times, it’s better than if you did it 10. Even if you don’t change the material, you do it better. But you do change. It evolves so it is better.
Everyone is so f*cking grateful to be out. I don’t usually like playing the arenas but the atmosphere has been off the charts, like to the point where it’s overwhelming. I feel a bit emotional. I really liked my audience, now I really, really appreciate them.
DEADLINE: You’re filming the Netflix special at the London Palladium. Is there any pressure when you know the cameras are on?
GERVAIS: Well, I can’t see them. But time sort of slows down. You’re certainly conscious that the cameras are in. Am I doing that joke as good as I did the day before the cameras? It sends you mad. I don’t know a comedian who after filming their special didn’t think the next night was so much f*cking better. And there’s probably 1% difference. You’ve got to do it so when you’re when you’re at your worst, it’s still good, make it illness proof, so if you got there with flu and you can’t do it and you do it you’ve done it so many times that even when you’re feeling pad it’s still good.
DEADLINE: I gather you make a joke about the Netflix edit in the show itself. Is that right?
GERVAIS: Yeah, I do say that won’t make it in. That one that gets a big laugh. It’s slightly different every night and you want the audience to feel that they’re seeing something not illicit but that they’re seeing something that wouldn’t get on telly. There’s also a certain point where it’s very self-referential as well, I talk about the making of the jokes and talk about big subjects. I talk about comedy itself. The first thing I do in this show, is I explain irony. I do a bit of that throughout the show. That’s when I say something I don’t really mean, for comic effect. And the audience laughs at the wrong things. It’s funny in the present climate to explain to people what irony is.
DEADLINE: Talking of the present culture around comedy, I’ve heard you say that you can joke about anything as long as it’s funny and some people will like and others won’t. That seems particularly important given the situations with specials like Dave Chappelle’s The Closer?
GERVAIS: I don’t think the world has changed really. Comedians have always said things that at some point, someone in the audience doesn’t like. If you talk if you talk about 20 things, the chances are that everyone in the audience is not going to like one of them usually because it relates to them, or it’s their thing. They laugh at the 19 things that don’t affect them and they know you’re joking. But with the one thing that affects them it’s not funny, because why? They’re right because it’s subjective. You can’t argue with them, you can’t say no it is funny, it’s like arguing about whether they like cheese or not. It’s mad arguing about whether a joke’s good or not or offensive, it’s about feelings. I don’t know a comedian that goes out there just to offend people, it would be bad for business. But worse is trying to do comedy that pleases everyone because it’d be so anodyne. Before I did this show, I asked people on Twitter, “What’s the one subject you should never joke about?” Knowing that not only would they all say different things, but everything they said would be hilarious, because it’s so pious and arrogant. That also became my setlist.
I don’t think there’s anything you shouldn’t joke about. As long as it’s funny. I do have a sense of morality. The problem with irony is that when people don’t get it looks like the worst thing possible. That’s the point of it.
DEADLINE: We live in a clickbait world, right?
GERVAIS: Most people tweeting it, haven’t watched it. Statistically. It means nothing to say I was offended. It means nothing and it never has. Everyone’s got the right to be offended, but they might as well be screaming, “I don’t like cheese.” I mean, don’t eat it. Don’t like cheese? Don’t f*cking eat cheese. It’s really f*cking simple.
DEADLINE: The third and final season of After Life launches January 14. How was that process?
GERVAIS: It was a year of anxiety, thinking whether it would it go ahead. But we didn’t drop a minute due to Covid. Honestly. Everyone tested all the time and no one tested positive. It didn’t slow anything down. It was good.
DEADLINE: Did you have to change anything creatively due to the pandemic?
GERVAIS: No, nothing. The big decision artistically was did I have people wearing masks in the world. I assumed by the time it came out, people wouldn’t be wearing masks or talking about it, any more than they do about flu or smog. There’s one reference to it in Supernature. When I was allowed to come back after the pandemic, I was doing warm-up shows to restricted crowds that had to wear masks and I mentioned it straightaway. I never mentioned it again. I think I said I wish I hadn’t eaten all of those bats.
DEADLINE: How did you find the writing process for Season 3?
GERVAIS: It was weird. Because that year was scheduled for writing anyway. Apart from the gigs being put back a year, that year was going to be writing and touring. What happened was when the tour was postponed, I had twice as long to write it. I wrote it in the same amount of time, but I then played with it for another six months, because there was nothing else to do. I think I made it better because you think about things. It’s probably the best, most complete screenplay of anything I’ve ever written. I had more time to hone it, more time to troubleshoot.
DEADLINE: You obviously know these characters now as well.
GERVAIS: Those sorts of things get easier. I mean, Season 2 should be the easiest and best of anything, I think, because usually when you write something, you do the best job and you cast it, and you try and find the people that are right for it. But then with Season 2, you know who you’re writing for, you bring in their physicality, you know what their strengths are, you know whose good at ad-libbing and who isn’t. You hit the ground running. That was the case with this but it didn’t apply so much, because I asked people it before I wrote it. I’ve been around for a while, so I was casting all the people I knew that were right for it. It’s always an easy shoot with my stuff because I’ve already lived with it for a year. I use the same crew. I use the same ensemble of actors or I find someone new that fit in. If someone handed me Mission: Impossible 8 and said we’re filming this next week, I’d panic, but with this show, it’s like with boxers: the hard bit is the training, the rest is easy.
DEADLINE: You’ve never done a third season of a show before on The Office, Extras or Derek, have you?
GERVAIS: No. I did Season 3 of the animation [HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show], but again, it was already recorded and that was sort of someone else’s job. That was just a sweatshop of geeks and nerds in L.A. doing all the hard bit, but no as a narrative comedy or drama that I’ve written and directed, it’s always been two seasons of six and a special.
But this one this one is slightly grander, it’s got more of an elegance, it’s got the pace of a drama more than a comedy, so you can explore more. The world is bigger; The Office is set in one place, Derek is set in one place, the world is bigger and people come and go. It’s more like a Springfield, where there’s 80 characters in The Simpsons that can have their own episodes.
DEADLINE: Given it’s a Netflix show, does that give you a bit more flexibility rather than a show on a broadcast network?
GERVAIS: There was an advert when I was a kid on telly and it was like a pyramid of tinned salmon and these hands used to come in and knock them all out of the way except one and it says, “It’s the salmon that John West rejects that makes John West salmon the best.” That’s a lovely way to look at art and structuring something, it’s just a great way to look at it because they don’t know what you they don’t know what they miss. No one’s sitting at home enjoying 27 minutes and wondering what 10 more minutes would be like.
DEADLINE: At the end of Season 2, we see Tony and Emma, played by Ashley Jensen, essentially trying to make it work. Does that continue through through Season 3?
GERVAIS: It’s a complicated relationship because of Tony’s state of mind. He’s got all these things he’s worried about and it’s a bit tricky, but I think people know that I’m never going to end with they lived happily ever after.
Tony’s going through the stages of grief, shock, anger, denial then acceptance. I saw a therapist talk about grief once. They said something like, “Grief is like a heavy rucksack. It doesn’t get lighter, but you get better at carrying it.” He’s trying to answer the question from the beginning to the end as to whether if you lose everything, is life worth living? That’s what we see eventually as the sort of answer.
DEADLINE: You see that in Season 2, when he’s becoming a better friend, he’s on that road.
GERVAIS: He is sort of resigned to the fact that he can’t have the one thing he wants, so his decision is, do I take second best [option] or not? That’s this big decision. We’ve all got that through life. Some of us don’t have to face it so explicitly and urgently. But that is the question he is asking.
DEADLINE: The Paul Kay therapist character seems pretty fun to write.
GERVAIS: It’s about narcissism. I’m fascinated with ego and narcissism and vanity and fame. The last 10 years we’ve seen the rise of the narcissism; I think all the bad things in the world are about narcissists, usually men, wanting to rule the world. Now we’ve got Instagram where it’s people standing next to a boat with their shirt off. It’s not even their boat, sometimes it’s not their abs. You see it mostly in entertainment, acting and modeling and so on. But what is the worst job to be a narcissist? When you should be listening to someone else. I thought I’d make him a narcissist, mixed in with toxic masculinity. I remember telling Paul Kaye about all the lines and I said, “Do it like a football hooligan who works in the city.”
DEADLINE: Tony is fond of using the word c*nt — he calls a yoga teacher a “snot curdling c*nt” in Season 2 and shouts a similar phrase at a pub landlord in Season 3 when he’s spreading his dad’s ashes. As Brits, we generally find that word less offensive than Americans. Have you had any pushback?
GERVAIS: Exactly. As a courtesy, I do sometimes explain to Americans on Twitter, it’s not misogynistic, I’d hate people to think I was using it as a sexist slur. It has nothing to do with the derivation of that word, it’s just an impactful word. You can call someone a c*nt if you hate them, or you like them. When I was in Edinburgh, these two Scottish policemen walked past me, and said “Mr. Gervais, you’re a funny c*nt.” Thank you very much. On Humanity [stand-up tour], I talk about someone torturing a dog to death and I call them a c*nt. Someone said that language was unnecessary. They decided they were more offended by the word than someone torturing a dog to death. Some people have said, “Could you use a different word?” I’m open to suggestions, but they haven’t come up with one. It’s a great word, the syntax on it is great.
DEADLINE: This is the final season of After Life, why did you decide that?
GERVAIS: Every time someone asks that I get a little adrenaline rush wishing it wasn’t it and I could do a fourth. I know for a fact I could. But the reason I said it is definitely the end is so I’d be bullied and made fun of for going back on it. It’s a no-brainer I should do a fourth [season], I should do it in terms of economics and the audience would love it, everything points towards it except would series four be as good as the first three and actually better because it’s no good for it to be just as good. I don’t want it to outstay its welcome.
DEADLINE: You’ve signed a new overall deal with Netflix and it’s clear they’ll make another show with you. Does that play into it?
GERVAIS: Yeah, I’ve got it down to three possible ideas and one is edging its way. You better make the right decision. Not only do you want it to be good, you want it to be fun. I don’t want to do a series that’s brilliant and wins all the awards, but that I didn’t enjoy doing. I want every minute of the day to be fun, the writing in the acting, the directing, the editing and then talking about it afterwards. I can buy anything but time, so that’s the most important thing. And every, every day is a bigger percentage of the rest of my life. I don’t know, today could have been 1% or 50%.
DEADLINE: I hope it’s closer to 1% but I take your point. What are those three ideas? Are they worlds we’d expect from you? You’re not going to start making sci-fi dramas all of a sudden?
GERVAIS: No, but they’re all slightly pushing me in a slightly different direction. Three different directions probably. There’d be something in all of them that would you’d see the DNA in something else I’d done. More loopholes, I say. [Some people might say] “It’s too dramatic, who does he think he is or is it too broad? But you said you hated broad comedy and we’ve moved away from that. You always want a surprise as well. I have no desire to make TV for the sake of it. There’s enough of that. I want to polarize people. I want to open I want to open the paper the day after this goes out and I want 50% of people to say the best thing I’ve seen and I want 50% of people to call for it to be canceled.
DEADLINE: Around 100 million people have watched After Life, which is wild considering Derek was considered a hit on Channel 4 with around 2M viewers in the UK.
GERVAIS: Derek was actually a co-production with Netflix. I got Ted Sarandos’ email and said I wanted to do my next show on Netflix, I think it’s the future and he said they’d take it. I had already promised it to Channel 4 so I asked if there was anything they could do and they took the rest of the world. That was in 2013.
DEADLINE: Does working on a show for Netflix change the way you approach an idea?
GERVAIS: There are certain things. You don’t have to keep reminding people what happened last week — binge-watching in general has changed that. People have always liked an arc and I’ve always liked a slight serialization, I’ve never wanted to be one week he falls down the well and next week, he never talks about it again. I’ve always wanted to have its own memory. This is more serialized than The Office and I embrace that. After Life has performed really well with people watching it again, which is exactly where you want to be. There’s nothing more flattering than people saying they’ve watched it three times. I love that.
You put in things that that might go past but then people notice that Tony’s still got Lisa’s toothbrush. You don’t see that at first and you can put more of those things in. You can have more nuanced conversations, so it’s more philosophical for people a second time.