He may not be much of an impressionist, but Ricky Gervais has plenty of other talents, as the creator of The Office and Extras, a controversial host of the Golden Globes, and the star of films like Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying and, now, Special Correspondents.
His Globes hosting stint might still be his most familiar work to American audiences—he played only a brief cameo as David Brent in two episodes of the long-running US version of The Office—but Special Correspondents seemed to command plenty of attention when it debuted on Netflix platforms worldwide on April 29. For his part, Gervais thinks Netflix offers a new paradigm for reaching audiences. Millions, he suggested, watched the film in its first weekend, even as the reviews were far from his best.
The film, which he wrote, directed, starred in and produced, is of an ilk for Gervais, who has specialized in warm-hearted comedies about regular people. The high-concept edge of his feature film work—seeing spectres of the dead in Ghost Town; becoming the man who learns how to lie in a world full of truth-tellers in The Invention of Lying—is reflected in Special Correspondents’ tale about a radio journalist (Eric Bana) and his technician (Gervais), who fake reports about a rebel uprising in a South American country from a New York apartment when they’re unable to fly directly.
And it’s the first of two features for the comedian this year, who will also revive David Brent in a film spin-off of The Office, that will debut on Netflix in the US after a UK premiere on August 19. Plus, he’s already planning to mount a new round of stand-up shows. He doesn’t feel busy, though, he says, and has carved plenty of time for binge-watching Bloodline, Game of Thrones and Scandinavian TV dramas.
Ever opinionated, on topics like comedy, celebrity and religion, Gervais reflects on the changing landscape of distribution.
In film, you’ve favored comedies with a slightly high concept and a lot of heart. You didn’t write Ghost Town, but is that where your feature ambitions tend to land?
Yeah, and they’re a bit of a throwback as well. I’m influenced by those ’40s, ’50s and ’60s films; things like The Apartment—I was a big fan of Billy Wilder. I like grown-up comedy, where it’s about character and attitude and life as opposed to obvious gross-out and jokes.
I think Netflix will allow more people to do that. I think you might see the return of the auteur. They’re not so panicked to make their money back in the cinema that they want everyone to go and see it on the Friday or it gets taken out on Saturday. They don’t focus-group it to death so you get something very anodyne or homogenized or gross-out for a particular demographic. With this, and Ghost Town, and, to a certain extent, The Invention of Lying, I call it grown-up comedy. Whatever that means. It can still be silly and fantastical and quirky and odd, but I think it’s okay for people over 14 as well.
Do you think that has anything to do with the fact that grown-ups are able to find these movies on Netflix? It seems to be attracting a demographic of people who have given up on the cinema.
I think that’s exactly right. The problem with cinema is that, first of all, it had to compete with great TV. Once cable came in, with really smart stuff like The Wire and The Sopranos, it started beating movies, and then came binge-watching and now Netflix. Alongside that, the only things that were working at the cinema—so-called “Hollywood”—was Marvel franchise movies, sequels, and a particular demographic. What grown-ups would call Hollywood for the last 10 years has actually been Sundance and Tribeca, and of course, the problem with those films is they’re low-budget and not many people see them. The great thing about Netflix is, it can do those films that are a bit smarter and auteur-driven and not desperately trying to get every single demographic to like it, or be lowest common denominator, and people will watch it.
The great thing about being an artist is, we want our work to be seen. If a movie grosses $100 million at the box office, you’ve had to spend a lot of money to get it to that point, and basically, that’s less than 10 million people that will have seen it. On Netflix, 10 million people can watch it the first weekend. They might as well because they’ve paid their $10, or whatever. Everyone wins. The money rolling in is astronomical; it’s ridiculous. They’ve been so faithful and they pay the artist well. I’ve been paid for this movie, and everyone might as well watch it.
There’s no decision for them to weigh up.
Exactly. With Netflix, I browse, I watch documentaries about things I’d never dream of, but I think, “I might as well.” I watched a documentary about a Sommelier test [Somm]. It was f—ing brilliant. I’ve watched about 10 social injustice films now. It’s so funny, because the quality of my TV viewing has gone up. I don’t now sit for five hours flipping and hoping to find something. This year, I’ve watched The Bridge, Blue Eyes, Bloodline, and it’s quality every night. It’s two hours of a quality program. If someone said to me, “Do you want to go to the cinema tonight?” I’d be like, “Why would I ever do that? I’m watching Bloodline.”
The arrival of streaming seems to have broadly had that effect. You realize how much of broadcast television is made to be passively flipped to and absorbed.
That’s it, and that was cheap programming. I think America started getting it after the Writers’ Strike when they realized they needed things to fill those spots for a few weeks, and then people got hooked, and makers got hooked because it was cheap TV that people could dip in and out. There’s always been that—there’s always been those shows you just watch and wash over you, like family sitcoms or whatever—that are just ridiculously awful, and you didn’t want to think about them when you got in from work. There’ll also always be a place for those.
And in fact, my career is sort of because of bad reality shows. When I wrote The Office, apart from working in an office for 10 years, the biggest influence on that was me watching those docu-soaps of the ’90s where it all started. It was quite quaint, then, and about a normal guy being famous for 15 minutes, and now he’s got a DVD to show his kids and that was the end of it.
Now, it’s insatiable. Now, there’s a new breed of famous. They will do anything to be on TV and to be famous. They will live their life like an open wound, they will let the cameras into their lives 24/7. There’s no difference now between fame and infamy. They will do awful things if it keeps them in the limelight. You’ve now got trolls that are famous, that are so-called journalists, and they get invited to say awful things for clickbait. They do morning shows and Celebrity Big Brother. It’s a new breed of, ” I’d rather be hated, than not known.” The new David Brent movie [David Brent: Life on the Road] embraces that a little bit, because even though David Brent hasn’t changed much, the world has, so now he’s in a room full of alpha males who eat him alive. You feel sorry for him now, he’s the nicest guy in the office, as opposed to the worst.
With Special Correspondents, if there is a target, it’s not really media and journalism. Again, it’s fame. Vera [Farmiga’s] character is the epitome of everything that’s wrong now with society. She’s spoiled, she thinks the world owes her a living, and because she wants to be famous, we’re meant to let her. You see people go on X-Factor and they’re crying, going, “I don’t want to go back to my job. I want this more than anything,” and we’re meant to go, “Oh okay, then. If you want it then… ” We’re going to run out of doctors because they’re all going to be singers soon. [laughs]
They did a survey amongst 10 year-olds recently, and they asked them what they wanted to be when they grow up, and they said, “Famous.” They didn’t even say “Pop star.” What does that mean? It’s all gone into this in a way.
On your initial point, Netflix didn’t really change the genre—except perhaps accidentally—they just pandered to the way people had changed their viewing habits. Everyone was watching box sets anyway and saving things up. I started watching the new Game of Thrones, but I didn’t start watching it until I had the whole series, because I know I can’t stand to wait a week now to watch a show where it’s this captivating. It’s great fun and I’ve loved it, but coming off the back of all those brilliant Scandinavian dramas, and Bloodline, it’s suddenly a bit… not real. Suddenly the dragons don’t really bring the heat—no pun intended. It almost seems a bit more trivial than it would have done, but it’s still fantastic. I have watched five of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen in the first few months of this year. That never would have happened before Netflix and binge-watching.
Does it raise your game? Not that you were phoning it in before, with The Office and Extras, but surely in a marketplace this crowded with quality, you have to work twice as hard not to let things slip.
It does, in the sense that, on television, you could say, “Oh there’s nothing good to see,” and when you look at it you could think, “If I care just a little bit, I’ll be in the top half of programming.” But when you see things like Bloodline or Gomorra… I just don’t know how they do it. They’re the densest, most beautiful things. The thing is, if I tried to do a show like that I would fail. I know what I do, and I keep doing the things I do and hope that I’m one of the best at that game, because I wouldn’t know where to start with Game of Thrones or something. People say, “How do you direct, write, star and produce all at the same time,” and it’s like, it comes as one package. If someone said, “You’ve got to do Avatar 2,” I’d go, “I don’t know what that means.” [laughs]
You’ve always found a serious side to your comedy though. There are heartbreaking moments in The Office and Derek.
There are, because I think tragedy can be funny in the way you deal with it. I think human behavior is funny, because of all those terrible things like ego, jealousy and desperation, and being something you’re not, and lying and getting caught lying. They can be deadly serious, like in Bloodline, or you can make them funny. It’s simply your take on it and how lightly you deal with it. I could have made anything desperately serious, but it’s the way it’s played and the reason people know why they’re watching something.
That’s not to say you can’t shift the goalpost. I quite like investing in a character like David Brent, and laughing at him because he’s a putz, but then when he cries and begs for his job back, you simply go, “Oh yeah, of course, he’s a real person.” The people we laugh at go home and cry sometimes. I like doing that. In Derek, characters like Derek and Kev are out doing a stupid thing, and then someone dies and they loved them and it’s hard. People said, with Derek, “I don’t know what it is. Is it a comedy or a drama?” Well, it’s a fake documentary, so what’s your life? Is your life a comedy or a drama? It’s everything. You’re having a laugh, then you find a lump, and it’s simple as that. That is life. That’s why I deal with it. I deal in realism; I think it resonates more.
Everything I’ve done is sort of existential. I didn’t realize it at the time, but The Office was about becoming 40 and middle-aged, and, “Have I led a good life? What comes next?” Derek was about being 80, and, “Have I led a good life? And what do I pass on?” In Extras, the Hollywood backdrop was about as important as paper was in The Office. It didn’t really matter. What we were watching was a bunch of hapless fools trying to get on. [Andy] had to be the bottom rung of whatever he did, even if it was something as glamorous as acting.
Even Flanimals was about the futility of existence. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m an atheist, or because I’m fascinated with why we’re here and what we do. I suppose I deal with the big questions, even if I deal with them in a very silly, light-hearted way. I do worry about life and death and relationships and good boss/bad boss, and all those things that we all deal with.
People pigeon-hole it as generally I deal with the comedy of embarrassment. I deal with excruciating social faux pas, and the reason I do that is because everyone understands that. I can’t really write about my first born dying of dysentery, or being stuck on Mars. The worst thing that happens to me, and most people in a safe, Western society, is that we embarrass ourselves in front of a waiter, or we had some bad service. That’s why I deal in those, because it’s easier if you get at something that everyone understands. You can go into it deeper. Everyone’s worked in an office, everyone’s had an old relative die, everyone’s lied.
Is it therapy, then, in a sense?
I think it is. Because when I come up with an idea, I stand up and my heart goes faster and I think, “I can do that.” I go for a run and it’s like I have to come down from an idea. It is therapy for me, yeah. If I finish one thing and I relax, I have another idea because I’m relaxed. I’ve got that sort of brain, so it’s me downloading all these thoughts, and it’s a f—ing privilege. I’m very excited and I love every aspect of it, but the idea is the best. It doesn’t get more exciting than when you first have an idea in your head, and you work on it and then you cast and you see it happen; you build the world. I couldn’t not do it. If someone said, “You’re not allowed to do this anymore,” I’d just quote a line of Dudley Moore’s in Arthur: “Sometimes I just think funny things.”
You’re prolific too. You have two feature films this year, and you’re mounting a new stand-up tour. Is the pool of ideas bottomless?
I think because I started [my career] late, I’ve got a backlog. I’ve got five ideas I could do next. I’ve got two totally different ideas for sitcoms, I’ve got an idea for a TV show, and one movie idea, and I’m holding them all back because I promised myself that this year I’d do stand-up. I haven’t done stand-up for six years. I also don’t hang around for long. I do two series and a special. I want to move on to the next thing.
But I don’t feel like I’m always working. I feel like I’m always playing. I’m paid to muck around. Winston Churchill said, “If you find a job you really love, you’ll never work again.” That really is what it feels like. I can’t moan about writing and acting and telling jokes for a living when there are people hiding in a trench with a gun. The least I can do is enjoy it and try my best.
I suppose, broadly speaking, I’d say I’m a comedian. I do enjoy the drama, and you’ve got to be a bit careful because people start thinking you take yourself a bit too seriously. With stand-up it’s different because I deal with really horrific subjects. For a reason, you know, as a taboo. I think I deal with taboos on purpose because I want to take the audience to places it hasn’t been before. I want to escort them through this scary forest and come out the other side and they think it’s okay. I do like exploring ideas, and everything I do is about humanity. It’s all about people’s reaction and what they’re thinking and what they’re doing and our place in the world.
I’ve seen your stand-up and it’s always struck me as very curious. Whether it’s science or animals, or whatever the topic, it’s always felt like it’s a shade away from a Discovery documentary.
That’s a great way of putting it—as soon as you said it’s always curious, I realize that that’s what I am. As a kid, I was lifting up rocks to try and find out what creatures were in there. I was reading books about science and nature. I’ve always done that. I’ve never thought, “I can’t ask this question.” I’ve always asked all questions, from asking my religious teacher stuff to asking my parents. I thought, I never thought there’s things you can’t ask. Now, as an adult on Twitter, I find myself as some sort of champion of free speech where I have to go, “No, you can ask these questions.” There are no sacred cows. Ideas don’t have rights. They’re not like people. You can say what you want and you’re allowed to point and go, “That’s not true.”
Obviously the worst of this is any sort of dogma and religious freedom. If there are two things that make my blood boil, they’re probably animal cruelty—injustice in general, but animals can’t speak for themselves so I feel that that’s become a bit of a thing for me—and religious freedom. This crazy fascism that you’re not allowed to question someone’s behavior because of what their God says they can do. Whoa, whoa, no I am quite allowed. I’m allowed to question anything. That’s my right.
Where did your curiosity come from, do you think?
It was already there. I did believe in Jesus, as a kid, because I was told to. I went to Sunday School at about the age of three, and a child’s brain is a sponge because it has to be. Evolutionary speaking, there are certain things we’re meant to take as read. When an authority figure—when the leader of the pack—says, “Don’t go near the cliff,” you don’t do it because it saves your life. “Don’t go near the fire. Don’t go near the lion. Don’t touch that spider.” They’re for a reason.
I liked Jesus, I thought he was cool, because I thought he was a man. I thought he was kind and I believed the story. I knew he was half-God. Didn’t really get that, but whatever that meant, I sort of believed it because my teacher told me and the teacher never lies. They tell you all these things and they’re true, and so this one’s true, we just can’t prove it. And for a working class mum, Jesus is an unpaid babysitter. “I can’t see you, but God can, so be good.” I remember my brother came in—he was older than me, he was about, I don’t know, 18—and he said, “Why do you believe in God?” And my mum went, “Bob…” I knew. I knew from human behavior. He asked a question I couldn’t really answer and she didn’t want me to answer it. I knew from that day and I worked out, “Oh it’s not true, it’s a myth. It’s a fairy tale.”
It’s amazing how that stays with you. It’s the difference, too, between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is yourself, and it makes you feel better, and you think you’re connected with the world and all that. That’s great, that’s fine, but religion says, “You’ve got to believe in the right God, and you’ll be punished if you don’t.” Even without the power and corruption, I just think, look at the evidence. There’s 3000 Gods, and you choose the one God that is the God of your parents and your country. Well, that’s a coincidence, isn’t it? And I think, what difference does it make? Look around at the world. What’s the difference between a God who moves in mysterious ways—i.e. randomly—and no God at all? Well, there isn’t one.
I like the fact that another interview has descended into me ranting… [laughs]