Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email email@example.com.
Ricky Gervais hasn’t used the ongoing coronavirus crisis as an excuse to hunker down and stay silent. With a new season of his Netflix sitcom After Life, shot before the world shut down, ready to roll out, Gervais has been engaging heavily on social media, serving up a series of bitesized livestreams of his day from his home office in London. With something close to two dozen 20-minute videos in the can, Gervais has been expounding daily on topics as diverse as Tiger King, Winston Churchill, aliens and why celebrities should stop complaining about being isolated as they swan about luxurious mansions and swim in private pools while healthcare professionals work overtime to treat patients sick with COVID-19.
Of course, Gervais has form in putting the glitterati in their place. In January, he completed his fifth stint as host of the Golden Globes, and in his monologue, told assembled nominees not to use the podium as a political soapbox if they won an award. “You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything,” he said. “You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So, if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your god, and f*ck off.”
As for After Life, its second season hit Netflix today, after a rousing response to the first, which struck a real chord for its sensitive, emotional, and, yes, hilarious look the ravages of grief, depression and guilt. These may not be obvious topics for comedy, but Gervais has watched the show become a real tonic for audiences grappling with loss. And with the world in disarray right now, that can be no bad thing. The first season wrapped up the first part of Gervais’ character Tony’s story, in a way Gervais told me last year he built into its design in case it never went beyond a single season. Now, he says, he feels scope for a third and possibly more, which would mark the first time any sitcom of his has run beyond two seasons and a Christmas special.
DEADLINE: How are you handling this lockdown? Any complaints?
RICKY GERVAIS: Well, it’s strangely exhausting, for doing less than usual. I don’t know why, really. I’ve been going to bed earlier, even drinking less, and getting up early to get my exercise in before anyone else. But, you know, as I’ve said many times, you won’t hear me complain, not when there’s nurses doing 14-hour shifts and risking their health. All I’ve got to do is stay at home and write comedy.
DEADLINE: Indeed, you recently railed against celebrities complaining while they sat out the lockdown in their big houses. In the opinion of our co-editor-in-chief you deserve a knighthood for that. He wants you to be the emcee for the virus.
GERVAIS: Oh, that’s lovely. I think I’ve blown any chance of a knighthood at this point [laughs]. I don’t think they give it to mouthy, sweary atheists.
DEADLINE: It probably doesn’t help that every time someone on Twitter lists your accomplishments, you reply, “And still no f*cking knighthood.”
GERVAIS: True… Some people think I’m being serious. They think that I really want a knighthood. The truth is, if I could still ride around on a horse and kill people, then I’d take it. Right? But it doesn’t mean anything anymore. I’d rather be a Don. Can’t I be the head of the mafia? Make me Don [laughs].
DEADLINE: It’d be a good way to put an end to the mafia.
GERVAIS: They’d call me, they’d go, “We’re losing a lot of income.” I’d go, “Yeah, I let him off. He said sorry, so I let him off.” “What do you mean? You can’t let him off!”
DEADLINE: You’re an animal rights activist, too, wouldn’t you want to put a stop to the horses’ heads in peoples’ beds thing?
GERVAIS: Exactly. “That’s cruel, what’s that horse ever done? Don’t kill his horse. Put some carrots in his bed or something.”
DEADLINE: It’s nice to see the big ideas are flowing, even in all this.
GERVAIS: Yeah [laughs].
It’s been fine, really. The only big thing for me has been the postponed shows, which… it happens. We’ll do them when everyone can enjoy them. I’m writing, I’m doing more PR than usual, because it’s easier. I might as well. And they’re better now that everyone’s discovered Zoom. It’s certainly changed the way people think.
I think people are getting tired of TV shows made on Zoom, though. I’m hoping they’re going to appreciate how lovely After Life looks by comparison [laughs]. The world’s become YouTube.
DEADLINE: It feels like that has been on the cards for a while. This has been the catalyst for a lot of people to say, “Hang on, why are we overcomplicating this?”
GERVAIS: That’s true. I think it’s made a lot of people who have shows on TV every day realize, “Oh, everyone knows now that anyone can do this.” They’re doing it, too. They’re no better than everyday people talking to their webcams. Most people don’t get a studio audience, but it’s such a level playing field now. That’s what’s very funny.
DEADLINE: The pendulum may even have swung the other way. There is plenty of production value to a lot of YouTube creators that eclipses what the late-night hosts and others are doing with their home setups.
GERVAIS: Yes, because they’ve been doing it for five years. They really know how to make one person and an iPhone work, by editing themselves. Yeah, I think that’s going to have an effect. The downer is that people are desperate, so now people are coming out of the woodwork and getting their own show that wouldn’t have gotten a show two months ago. So, it’s swings and roundabouts, this or that [laughs].
They’ll reach an equilibrium again. But I remember the writers’ strike in 2008, and all that terrible reality TV that came out of it. These things change the paradigm, and when the paradigm changes, everything changes. It’s all back to zero again now. I imagine that people who did one thing and can’t do that right now are thinking, Well, how can I adapt? We’ve got to do something. The world’s different now.
I mean, I think this is going to go on a lot longer than people thought. I think people thought we’d be staying indoors for a couple of weeks and then, “I’ll see you in the pub.” People are still asking me whether my New York gigs are on for next week. No, they’re not going to be on. I’m playing for 10,000 people. It’s going to be a gradual process. First go see your mum, then you can go to the pub, and then you can go and see Ricky in an arena [laughs].
DEADLINE: Some interesting stuff has emerged through all this, though. Your rough and ready daily videos are attracting an audience and plenty of headlines. Then there’s John Krasinski with his roundup of positive stories about peoples’ response to the virus. It’s not all virtuous celebrities singing “Imagine.”
GERVAIS: Well, I mean that was an early one. It was probably slightly misjudged [laughs]. You know what? I’ve got nothing against those people, but it wasn’t a great project, as they go. But there have been people that got the band back together remotely, and it’s a really lovely idea. They’ve really put a product together, and you think, Wow, that’s great. Musical casts have been doing it.
That “Imagine” video was a bit, ‘Let’s get it out there,” but I’ve got nothing against them. I tease them, but now and again—and it’s not just those people—when a celebrity does something out of the kindness of their heart, with some of them you can really see it in their eyes, how they’re going, “I could cry at how beautiful I am.” [laughs] “Oh my god, did I really do this? Am I really that amazing? Oh my word.”
As for my daily videos, I did it for a laugh, really, because I thought I was going to get bored. It’s longer form than any other interview, and it’s more honest than any chat show. Because it really is me in my house talking bollocks for 20 minutes. I think people are engaged with it because they know I don’t care about it. I’m not watching my Ps and Qs. I’m not worried about the edit. It’s like I’m talking to a couple of drunk mates. It’s just that 100,000 people are watching.
DEADLINE: Do you think, perhaps, it strikes a similar nerve to After Life, which is a show that deals explicitly with grief and addiction and depression? On the surface, not fertile breeding grounds for comedy and audience engagement, and yet…
GERVAIS: It’s about honesty. It’s about being real. Some of the things that these characters do, an awful lot of people go, “Oh my god, I can’t believe he got away with that.” When you look at it, you go, “Well, that’s just how real people talk. They just don’t put that on telly much.” They go, “Look at the state of Brian [David Earl], oh my god.” You go, “No, no. You’re just used to seeing George Clooney. But that’s how most people look.” Most people look like me and Brian. So, when you see real, on TV, it looks different.
I think everyone creating TV starts off with really good intentions. They go, “If only there were someone that’s honest, brutal and brave. I’m not going to compromise. I’m going to put it out there and say it like it is.” But then someone will go, “Oh, it’s great, but if we could take out some of the c-words, we can put it out at 9 PM.” So OK, they take a couple out. “If we only lost that story, because people will complain,” and you go, “OK, I’ll take that out.” Soon, you’re back to having a show that looks like everything else.
I think that too many people second guess what an audience can take. I’ll go, “Of course they can take it; real life’s worse.” This is still just fiction. The characters in After Life are dealing with all these things that people deal with in real life. And, in fact, I’ve never had a reaction like the reaction to the first series of this. I don’t just mean the size of the reaction. That could be a reflection of Netflix having 170 million subscribers. But the emotional response… My agent got 300 letters. That never happens. No one writes letters anymore. It was because we were telling their personal stories. Everyone came up to me on the street—when they were still allowed to—and they would say, “I lost my brother three weeks before…” What it makes you realize is everyone is grieving all the time. Because when it happens, we only know about ourselves.
There’s a line in series one when Matt [Tom Basden] says, “So remember, next time you try and get a waitress fired because the soup is cold, she might have just found out her mother’s got cancer.” It’s really about that. I didn’t really try and make a study of grief. That was just a jumping off point, you know? That was just a way to explain this man’s behavior, and the dramatic and comedic antics. Then, when I realized that everyone identified with it and liked it because of that, and it was special to people, I felt a responsibility. I thought I had to treat it right. I didn’t make him just be better, because you don’t snap out of depression. That’s an irresponsible myth.
DEADLINE: The first season did come to a kind of conclusion, but here in Season 2 we see the aftermath of that.
GERVAIS: Tony’s still going through the seven stages of grief. In the first season, we saw him go through shock, denial and anger. Now he’s going through negotiation. He’s kind of saying, “OK, if I’m going to stick around, what’s in it for me? What’s good? How can I be happy?” That’s what he’s asking. He tried violence, and that didn’t work. He tried drugs, and that didn’t work. Now he’s trying to help people. He’s trying kindness. And that doesn’t always work, but he’s trying. He’s trying, which is what we are all doing. How can I be happy? How can I not be bored? How can I be liked? How can I live with myself? How can I get through it?
And, really, in that way the show employs a staple of comedy, and particularly sitcom. An ordinary person trying to do something they’re not equipped to do. He tried to make himself a badass verbal vigilante. He tried to make himself a psychopath so he wouldn’t feel anymore. But he’s not a psychopath, so he was burdened. He wanted to kill himself, but the dog was hungry. He had responsibilities. He was nice to the new girl, and the old lady. He loves his nephew.
The other place it comes from is us living vicariously through his bad behavior, because we all wish we could say what we meant sometimes, and we’re scared. When he’s not scared, that’s funny. When he gets mugged and he says, “I’ve got nothing to lose,” that’s funny. It’s also inspirational, because we wish we could go, “Do you know what? Come on. I’m not scared of you.”
DEADLINE: There’s another aspect to this second season, now that he’s traveled down the road of his grief a bit more, which is that he frequently catches himself in a happy moment. He remembers his wife, and he breaks down. That certainly feels authentic to the experience of a loss that’s growing a bit more distant every day.
GERVAIS: Yeah, he’s got mixed emotions because sometimes he knows he ruins the atmosphere. Sometimes he starts with good intentions, like it’s advice, but then he remembers what he’s lost. You don’t forget it. If you’re going through that sort of grief when you’ve lost everything… And he is depressed, as well. He has got problems apart from that, you know? He is drinking every night. He’s in denial, so he’s screwed up. He’s really screwed up. The one thing that would sort him out isn’t around. She isn’t around. Yeah, it’s not like he goes a day and forgets his wife died, you know? It just doesn’t happen.
I guess deep down he’s hoping that time will heal and he’s thankful for his friends. They tried. It is about a man’s struggle, but it’s also about the mundane saving you. I mean, people realize now they’re missing things they didn’t think they’d miss, like poking around the shops. I never did that, but I can’t wait now [laughs]. Those crappy little human-interest stories that he has to cover, they’re diversions. Some of them even made him feel spoiled. He’d go, “Oh yeah.” He realized that some people are worse off, and that’s very human. We’re all like that. We all think that if we’ve had bad luck it’s the worst luck in the world. You’d see a news report about an earthquake and then you’d go, “Oh, you forgot to get milk? Oh, my night is ruined.”
DEADLINE: We remember moments like David Brent dancing in The Office, or Patrick Stewart pitching his movie idea in Extras; these moments of surreal humor. For all the human truth in After Life, there seems to be even more latitude to include those kinds of surrealist comic moments. Why do you think that is?
GERVAIS: I think it’s because there are surreal things in the world. I haven’t broken the laws of nature here. For example, the woman who made her rice puddings out of breast milk, that’s based on a true story. The vaginal yeast in bread, that’s based on a thing I read. The botched surgery, that’s a very real thing. The guy posting his letters in a dog waste bin, that’s a true story. It was an old man who did it for two years.
All these things that seem surreal, they happened or could happen. It’s just how they’re dealt with. It’s just how people treat those people. It might be hard to believe a person like Brian exists, but there are loads of hoarders. Being odd is what’s normal. And so, again, when people see these things, they go, “Oh my god, what a crazy town,” but that’s because they’re used to seeing George Clooney playing a doctor and Michelle Pfeiffer playing a lawyer. That’s what’s not normal.
DEADLINE: I think everyone watching Tiger King right now is coming to a similar conclusion.
GERVAIS: I mean, everyone in that is madder than the last. You may not meet those people, but they’re out there. There are millions of them. The thing about that is, when the first person says, “Can I keep a tiger?” The answer should have been, “No, of course you can’t, that’s mental. It’s 500 pounds and it eats people, of course you can’t keep a f*cking tiger.” So how on Earth did they get to there being more captive tigers in America than in the wild? That’s how many people there are that are like that.
There was another documentary that I watched a while ago, The Imposter, about the guy who pretended to be someone’s missing son. He told the FBI that he was tortured, and that’s why his eye color had changed, and they believed it. You want go, “But… You’re the FBI! That’s not a thing!”
When I first got famous, I found my Wikipedia page, and 50% of the stuff that was on there wasn’t true at all. You go, “Well, so everything’s a lie, then. They wouldn’t just get mine wrong. Everything out there is 50% wrong.”
And it’s more and more, now. Now, people use it. They use it like they’re speaking truth to power. People tell blatant lies, and they know they’re lies, but they know people will believe them because they agree with them. They’re owning the libs, or they’re owning the right. It’s become this ridiculous game.
People think the psychiatrist [Paul Kaye] in After Life seems surreal, but when you realize that everyone in the world is a bit of a narcissist, you can believe a psychiatrist might be. And I’ve spoofed that before, of course, in Extras, or at the Golden Globes, because actors are meant to be narcissists. We accept that. But I thought, Well, probably every profession has their narcissists, and what’s the worst profession to be narcissistic in? Someone who should be talking about you and not themselves, and they’re angry it can’t be more about them.
I’m always going for the underbelly of society, really, and I’m always looking for the blind spots. I’m always looking at the difference between how people perceive themselves and how we perceive them. The big things—before the pandemic—in the world are still narcissism and fame and truth and lies and acceptance and power. I’ve always loved to make the ordinary extraordinary. I’ve always loved to go into those little, little things. It’s asking the big questions, but it’s ordinary people asking the big questions.
DEADLINE: You’ve always only ever done two seasons and a Christmas special with your shows. Do you see After Life following the same trajectory?
GERVAIS: I could see myself doing a third season for the first time ever, because I love the world. There are so many strong characters. I’d say there are six characters that could have their own sitcom; that could be the lead in a sitcom. Even the place is a character, I think. We’ve only seen five hours of all those people. That’s nothing. How well do you know someone in five hours? You know, it’s still only half a season of an American sitcom, if you could both seasons.
But it’s got to be a demanded encore. This has got to go down a storm again. Netflix have got to say, “We really want you to do a third season.” Then I’ll do it. I won’t do it for the sake of it. I won’t do it to get paid. I won’t do it because they need another two and a half hours on their platform, you know? I’ve got to know that it’s a pleasure for a lot of people, and then I’ll do it. Otherwise, I’ll do something else.
I haven’t run out of ideas, though, because we haven’t gone in depth with a lot of these characters. You can keep twisting the knife. It’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s like, imagine you moved to a town and you’ve met a few people. You’ve spent five hours there. You don’t go, “I think I know everything about this town.”
I’ve always hated that thing in rom-coms where they kiss, and they live happily ever after. Well, do they? How do we know that? I love the ending of The Apartment, where at the end she just says, “Shut up and deal,” and you realize that they’re soul mates and they’ve got a chance, but you can’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t want to tie everything up in a little bow and everyone gets married and lives to a ripe old age. You know, things happen. Life’s not easy, but it’s about making the most of it. That’s what I like.