Ricky Gervais rejects the amphitheater of Netflix’s London screening room—complete with cushions and throws branded with the name of its myriad shows—as the venue for our interview. Too cold. Too grand a room for two people talking. Instead, we set up in what can best be described as a gussied-up broom closet. There are only two chairs crammed in—I offer him the larger one. “His neurosis kicked in immediately as he had to change rooms,” he imagines me writing in my introduction to this piece. “The temperature was wrong. The seating was inferior. He pretended it was for my comfort, but he got the big chair.”
To be fair, he is better versed in the habits of the press to take a harshly-slanted read between the lines than most. It has been 18 years since the first episode of The Office, created by Gervais with Stephen Merchant, first aired in the UK and turned him into an overnight success story; the kind critics are especially primed to cut down at any opportunity. He exported the show to the US in 2005 to even greater success on NBC, and has created other shows and movies, performed sold-out stand-up gigs around the world, and become one of the Golden Globes’ most deliciously divisive hosts, in the time since. At every turn, he has faced criticism from the politically correct and easily offended, and faced it head on.
Now, Gervais is firmly ensconced in his new home at Netflix—the company rather than the closet—and is riding high on the success of his first sitcom for the streamer, After Life. On its surface, it is the kind of work with which Gervais pokes at the easily offended. He plays Tony, a grieving widower whose response to the untimely death of his wife is to hurl insults at any who come into his orbit and start taking hard drugs. But it has struck a real chord for what lies beneath: a sensitive, emotional, and often romantic look at what grief, depression and guilt does to us all. It is not so far removed from Gervais himself. On stage, he says, he has a particular role to play, rooted in the boundary-testing legacy of the comedy he reveres. Off stage, this Billy Wilder-loving animal rights advocate has an optimistic soul…
The reaction to After Life has been profound; as a study of grief it seems to have hit deep for people.
I’ve had that a lot, yeah. It’s an amazing reaction, and I love that people are loving it. I’ve never had anything like this before. But also, it’s not just the sheer number of people loving it; it’s the intensity of the love. I didn’t know so many people were grieving, either now or recently. I suppose people don’t usually come up to you and say, “I’m grieving.” But now people have come up and, whether it’s a parent dying or a partner dying, have said that the show has helped them. I’ve never had that before.
People have liked what I’ve done, but not on this deep an emotional level. The love has usually been, “We love The Office, we can quote it, we grew up with it.” That’s lovely, but it’s not an emotional connection. It was their favorite comedy of the time, or whatever. This has been something else, and it’s been nice.
It’s lovely that it has that idea of comedy plus to it. It feels like you’ve done something good with your time; not just something funny. It has been lovely to hear.
Television and film has dealt a lot with the sadness of grief. After Life deals with the other emotions: numbness, confusion, even—
Because Tony says he feels guilty that he resents going to see his dad every day, and that frustrates him. He’s frustrated with his dad, and he feels guilty about that because he knows it’s not his fault. There are so many mixed emotions with grief and dementia. With dementia, you try to get by, by telling yourself, “That’s not the person I knew,” but then you feel guilty about that. No, it is the person you knew. They just don’t know you. All these things swim around in your head.
People also feel guilty about the relief of death after a really long, terrible illness. My mum had lung cancer, and you think, Well, she’s not in pain anymore. And then you feel guilty for thinking that.
I’m quite militant about that now, because I’ve thought a lot about it. I’m very pro-assisted suicide and Dignitas. We know it’s a lovely thing to do to a Labrador when they’re very ill. We know it. And yet we don’t want to be the person who says, “It’s a f*cking lovely thing to do to your grandma if she wants it.” It’s crazy for people to think like that.
I saw a disgusting thing, put out by some religious group, that basically said assisted suicide was denying God his grace. So they’re saying that God would rather someone die in agony. It’s a really odd, confused thing to argue. Of course, most religious people—99%—aren’t crazy like that. But it still f*cks with people’s minds. It still makes people feel guilty for those feelings of relief.
Life is an amazing gift, but it’s only a gift if you’re able to enjoy it. There’s no joy in total agony. Death is going to come to all of us, and the best we can hope for is that we’re able to enjoy every minute of life that we can; and when we can’t, that you don’t have to do it anymore. If everyone died peacefully in their sleep there would be no sadness, no angst, no guilt, no terror. “I miss them, but they went out and had a great time, and then they didn’t wake up.” What a great f*cking life, you know?
People have asked me what my worst fear is. It’s not being dead, because I won’t know about that. That’s the good thing about being dead. It’s not even dying itself, because I’m ready for that. It’s how you die. My worst fear is being told, “You’ve got six months, and it’s going to be the worst six months of your life.” F*cking hell.
You’ve been outspoken about being an atheist, and yet the scenes between Tony and Penelope Wilton’s Anne in the churchyard are sensitive to the positives of religion.
Well, it’s the difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is a personal thing that does no one any harm. If it makes you feel better, good luck to you. I don’t believe it’s true, but if you do, that’s great. Wherever you find it, whatever you think—whether it’s a connection with nature, or you think there’s an Almighty, whatever—that’s lovely.
Religion takes that and uses it as a stick to beat you with. Religion says, “Oh, you love God, do you? Well, I know Him, and He says if you give me money, I’ll get you into heaven.” Or, “If you do these things, then you’ll get into heaven.”
Religion’s a middleman, I suppose, for feeling good. That’s all it is. It’s a broker. You can have all the good bits of religion without religion. So much of it is snake oil salesmen. If you’re selling Bibles or you’re selling Apple Macs, you can make a lot of money. But if you’re selling an afterlife, you can make a lot more money. So that’s the promise, isn’t it? It’s the promise of that everlasting life. You can’t really compete with that.
I’ve never had a problem with spirituality. In fact, I put it in The Invention of Lying, which is, I think, how it was invented. I think it came from a good thing—telling the dying that it’s not over. “You’re going to a nice place,” like you tell a kid that the dog’s gone to live on a farm. It’s exactly that. A lovely fairy tale for adults to make the scared and bewildered feel a little better.
It came from me thinking, when my mum was dying, that if she’d have asked me whether there was a heaven, I’d have lied for her and told her yes, because there’s no point not to. So I get it. I get the appeal. And I get the initial white lie. But it was then…
Mildly corrupted, yeah [laughs]. Exactly that.
The thing about Penelope Wilton’s character is I wanted to do a kindness-of-strangers moment, because everybody expects their family and friends to help them, but what’s great is the kindness of human beings as a superpower that we all have. We can make someone feel good at a bus stop. You can say, “What a lovely dog you have,” you know? And it works.
Anne is just a good person. She just said the right things to Tony, and I liked that intuition. I like the gut feeling she got, when she said to her husband after Tony left, “He seems nice.” I just love that; a little throwaway thing, and Tony hears it. Good people have good gut feelings, because they’re programmed to have that compassion.
She’s an incredible actress. She made my lines. That’s all you can ever ask, as a writer and director. You want to find actors who can make your lines sound good, and she makes them sound even better.
The show finds tremendous warmth in a character who starts out treating people horribly, and then starts taking heroin.
Well, it’s fun isn’t it? Very underrated [laughs].
It’s moreish, yeah… But in the press, on both sides of the Atlantic, you’re often painted as a provocateur and a controversialist; more like Tony at the start of the show. The warmth that comes out as we spend more time with Tony—and it’s been there in your previous work too—disputes that idea of you.
Everything I’ve done has had a warmth to it. Everything’s been about humanity. Everything’s been slightly existential. “What’s the point?”
I’ve always thought the joy of fiction is that we create our own heroes and villains as roleplay for the soul. Unlike real life, I can make sure that heroes are rewarded and villains either get their comeuppance or they redeem themselves. Either is just as good.
I’m big on forgiveness. I sound like a Christian when I go on about it—which culturally, I guess, I am—but I’m all for forgiveness. Unlike most people in the world, who think they are, and think they’re tolerant, but there’s a spite in there.
I think it’s because I spend too long on Twitter, but being on Twitter makes me want to tweet things from The Bible for these so-called religious people. My favorite thing from The Bible, which I want to put up on Twitter every day when I see these hypocrites going after someone and trying to destroy their lives because they’ve done something wrong, I want to go, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” That’s been forgotten.
People want blood, and it’s really hard. But I’ve always been a romantic, I think, and I don’t see that as a dilemma with morality and logic. I think they go hand-in-hand. I think the logical thing to do is also the kindest.
We talked about the white lies, and I think there’s that, but I also think that I got that flack when people saw me go out with a swagger and a beer in my hand and have a go at—or slightly tease—the most privileged people on the planet at the time. They got confused somehow.
That’s the other thing with being a comedian, is people don’t realize that it’s all a bit of roleplay. They get it when—I don’t know—William Shatner plays a Nazi. They don’t go, “Oh, he’s a terrible person for doing that.” They know it’s a role. Well, it’s the same when I say the things I say on stage, particularly with irony. That sort of brand of comedy is about getting people to laugh at the wrong thing because they know what the right thing is. It’s all a roleplay.
The vitriol you got for bursting the bubble of celebrity when you hosted the Golden Globes was surprising to a fellow Brit.
Well, it’s odd, because I didn’t even think I was doing that, particularly. It’s such a British thing that we do all the time, and it’s quite a traditional form of satire. You punch up. What I did was I played the schlub; I played the guy at home who isn’t winning awards. There’s nothing in it for him, so I tried to make it a spectator sport. I represented the guy at home who gets drunk in his underpants and watches all these millionaires, right?
The fact that I’m one of them should be irrelevant, because they can get that I shouldn’t have been there. “Who is this drunk, fat little Brit?” That was the setup for me to punch up, and then I’m allowed to punch up because I’m not sat in the audience winning the awards. I’m staff. I punch up against people who are richer and more famous than me. I punch up at NBC because they’re paying me. And I punch up at the Hollywood Foreign Press, because they were in charge of it all.
Everyone said, “Oh, he had a go at the Hollywood Foreign Press!” Well, of course I did [laughs]. I’m the court jester, they’re the king. NBC, the Hollywood Foreign Press and George Clooney are the king and I’m the idiot who shouldn’t be there. I thought that was obvious, and it wasn’t because they saw me as the king. They thought I was in charge, because I had the mic.
It’s a very powerful position to be in actually, and it’s the same with stand-up. Traditionally, again, I’m the bloke in the jester’s outfit, in the mud, trying to make people laugh at the king. But now people know how much comedians earn, so we have to try and get our low status back.
I do it in two ways with stand-up. One, I invite them in. I go, “What, you think it’s all brilliant? Well, the first time I hired a private jet, they thought I was the cook.” The other way I do it is I talk about things where the audience is better than me. I talk about being old, close to death, fat, going bald. That’s how I get my low status. In reality, of course I’m not low-status. They’ve given me all the money, do you know what I mean? But you have to create that world, and I think the thing is that some people don’t get that irony. They think, “Who’s the millionaire making jokes?” And it just destroys the theatre of it.
Do you think people also want to be upset?
Oh they do. Any excuse to be heard. Any excuse to say something. Yeah, because it’s strangely life-affirming. It’s always been an aspect of humanity, from the cavemen blowing woad on their hand and marking the cave to say, “I was here.” Now people demand more “I was here”. They demand it every day, and so it just amplifies their lives. They’re shouting out of a window. “Look at me! What about me?”
Also, the bigger fish they go after, the more it resonates. If I answer a troll, and I’ve got 13 million followers, that’s a big amplification. That’s a goal. They can get the odd person to argue with, but if they can get me? So it’s amplifying their existence and they don’t care about the result.
I put it in After Life, where people would rather be known for being sh*t than not known at all, because they started getting rewarded for it. The reality shows, the documentaries… I explored in The Office and then in Extras too, that idea that bad behavior was being rewarded.
You know, you can do terrible things and then write a book about it. You can defraud a bank or murder someone, and then get invited on chat shows. People started thinking, “Oh well, that’s just as good.”
I don’t think it really serves any purpose, you know, but it kills a bit of time. They feel like, “At least I was heard. At least someone knew I was alive.” It’s odd.
Do you think everyone has that condition?
No, most people aren’t like that, in fact. Even most people on Twitter aren’t like that, because if you saw the arguments on Twitter, you’d expect to be able to look out your window and see people throwing firebombs at each other. But you go outside and it’s not like that. People are nice and normal, and getting on with their stuff. They don’t know about these arguments on Twitter.
The echo chamber is real.
The echo chamber is real, and you do it for peace of mind often. I’m not one of those people that follow people I hate, because I don’t want hate in my life. All the people I follow are nice, rational people, and so I start thinking the world is just that. And then, when someone pops their head up and says something bizarre, I think of that person as living in a bin and shouting at people as they move past. That’s why it doesn’t hurt me. Nobody’s ever hurt my feelings on Twitter.
But it has become instant column inches.
That’s the worst thing. The worst bit of clickbait. I hear it now every day—sometimes about me, which is to be expected, but mostly not because there are a million other famous people around—and it’s, “So-and-so said a thing, and people are furious.”
Right. One person is furious, and actually that person is probably a Russian bot.
That’s exactly it [laughs]. They get that tweet: “Sandbag33 says it’s rubbish,” and that’s their entire article. I want to go, “No, no. Maybe 0.0001% of the population are f*cking furious, but the rest of us don’t give a f*ck about it and we wouldn’t have heard about it unless you’d written a sh*tty article about it.”
Again, it’s emptying a drawer out of a window. Twitter is reading every toilet wall in the world all at once. Don’t go up to a toilet wall and argue with the graffiti. It’s like getting angry with dust. “How dare you land on my cabinet?”
Do you think the cesspit gets ever deeper?
Well, I imagine it’s cyclic, because not everyone can make a million by taking selfies or making YouTube videos. There has to be some sort of balance.
But isn’t there always going to be that level of people who dream of it, even if they never achieve it?
That’s the problem, isn’t it? It was bad enough when talent shows told people, “You can do it!” I worried at one point that we’d become a world of bad singers. There’d be no doctors. I’d have a heart attack and someone would go, “I can sing!” But now it’s even worse, because now the aspiration isn’t even to have a skit. It’s just to be yourself.
And get free sh*t.
Get free sh*t, yeah. But I think, again, there’s a ying and yang to it, because people will step up to the plate. If carpenters start getting rare, we’ll pay more for them…
We forgot to talk about After Life.
We got it in there a bit… Well, let me ask you this: you seem like you’re on a tear with the show right now. You’ve already written the second season, right?
Well, I’d say I was halfway through. I think of a first draft as being halfway through.
But yeah, it’s incredible to be going into a second season with all the love for the first. You shouldn’t go into anything again if it isn’t at least watched and liked. But this has been extraordinary, I must admit.
I did finish the first so that it could be the only series. I always do that, in case I die tomorrow [laughs]. So I did it with The Office and with Extras. There’s always an ending. But as soon as you know you’re going to do another one, that’s not the ending anymore. It becomes a cliffhanger. That’s so lovely as well.
The second series of anything should be the best. You’ve put all your eggs into one basket, you think, but how well do you know someone after three hours? Right? With a second series, you know who you’re writing for. You know what worked and what didn’t. It’s like having six goes at a pilot in the first series, so that first episode of Series 2 should be like f*cking hitting the ground running.
I think I’ve also got the best cast of any comedy/drama in history. It’s incredible. And they’re all coming back. It’s just so much fun once you’ve already set up the world. It’s all set up for you.
You say it did have a conclusion, and that’s true. There was a sense that Tony was on a journey and he reached the end of it, you know?
Right, but I’ve never been one to have it all end, “And they all lived happily ever after…” That’s why I would never end a movie with a kiss. Because we never know if it’s happily ever after. Most marriages don’t end in happily ever after.
I think I’ve stolen everything for endings in everything I’ve ever done—from Ghost Town to The Office to The Invention of Lying—from The Apartment. When she says, “Shut up and deal.” I love that. They’re soulmates. They’re already friends. They know there’s much more chance of happily ever after than somebody who someone bumps into and hates for most of the movie. So I’ve always tried to put a grown-up romance in there, if I do put romance in, which I usually do, because what else is there but sharing your 80 years on this planet with someone else?
I think that this is sort of like a fable along the lines of It’s a Wonderful Life. To prove to someone that life’s worth living. There’s a bit of Christmas Carol in it. He was Scrooge, and kindness made him realize he was wrong. But of course, Christmas Carol ends on Christmas Day. What happens on Boxing Day? Or on New Year’s Eve? Does he keep it up?
So that’s Season 2. What happens the day after? Because depression doesn’t just end. “Oh good, I have a date with a nurse, I’ll never be sad again.” Really? Well, we’ll see.
This is the first sitcom you have brought to Netflix, after you did Special Correspondents and your Humanity stand-up special with them. But you started with The Office at the BBC, which seems to be facing mounting political pressures as a public broadcaster. What’s the future, do you think?
What it comes down to is that the big threat is bowing down to the mob; bowing down to all these things that are trying to encroach on freedom of expression and freedom of speech. That’s important politically and socially, but it’s even more important in our art, because nobody really gets hurt. People are saying, “I didn’t like what you said in your fiction.” Really? Do your own thing, then, and don’t watch it. This isn’t politics. This isn’t policy in government. This is: I made up this thing, either watch it or don’t. So when people complain about language, or portrayal, or somebody playing a part they shouldn’t have played, I go, “Nobody really got killed. This is just one example. Watch something else.”
I do hate it when the BBC goes, “Oh yeah, we pulled that thing,” or, “We cut that thing.” That’s what happens all the way along, because they don’t want to offend. A lot of people will say, “Oh, this show’s great. It’s uncompromised.” All right. I know loads of writers who start out with those great intentions, but then they go, “Oh, they’re worried about the language. If I cut out one C-word, they can go out at 9PM.” Or, “They’re worried that this lobby might take it the wrong way, so we have to change this scene a bit.”
Soon everything becomes a gray sludge of conformity.
Yeah, because they don’t want anybody to write a letter. They think one complaint ruins everything. I’ve never had a complaint upheld, and that’s the important thing. People complain all the time. Imagine if no one complained; that would mean no one is watching. Someone somewhere will complain about everything you say. Was it Hitch who said, “Someone will find something to complain about, even if they have to stand on a stepladder and look out over the neighbor’s garden to find it”? That’s a lovely metaphor.
Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right. Some people are offended by equality. It doesn’t mean anything. “I’m offended,” is just you telling me how you feel. I hate it when people say, “That joke was offensive,” when they really mean they found it offensive. How can it be offensive? That doesn’t exist.
People have to get a little braver. When someone says, “I didn’t like it,” you say, “Well, watch something else.”
Does the BBC where you developed The Office and Extras still exist anymore?
I don’t know, really, because I haven’t worked with traditional television since Netflix came along. Traditionally, to get final edit, which I’ve always had, and to be uncompromised, I suppose I went to the smaller channels that would leave me alone because I was less of a threat. So it was BBC2, not BBC1. It was Channel 4, not ITV. It was HBO, not NBC. The compromise was that you wouldn’t get as many viewers there, probably. Whereas Netflix comes along and goes, “Not only do we get more viewers, but we’ve got deeper pockets and we don’t interfere at all.” So it’s a win-win at that point. It’s like a f*cking dream.
I mean, it’s still evolution by natural selection. If I went mental one day and it was just me, naked in a field saying “c*nt” for half an hour, nobody would watch it, and they certainly wouldn’t do a second series [laughs].
The challenge then isn’t to just say what you want. It’s to have people love it. So success is still a driving force, because you want to get paid to do it again.
It’s a different model of success.
It’s greater success, because people watched it and I didn’t have to compromise. When you compromise and still people don’t watch it, it’s a double whammy of shame. So it’s a no-brainer for me. Do what you want, and it either works or it doesn’t. But you’ve had the best time doing it.