Interview: Ricky Gervais

On lies, music, nostalgia and round-headed buffoons

 

"HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"

Ricky Gervais' plaster-loosening cackle peals in from the side-room adjoining the modest office where totalfilm.com is chatting with the fella who does his website.

We're talking about our ongoing campaign to get Gervais' Podcast/Audiobook fall guy Karl Pilkington a surely unwanted role in The Hobbit. (Sign up here).

"Yeah, Ricky passed that on," says Website Fella (Matt). "He loved it..."

"...because Karl will hate it."

The Gervais work gaff skulks anonymously above an estate agent's office in the posh and perky London borough of Hampstead.

He's a notorious stickler for punctuality ('lateness' was one of Gervais' choices when he took a turn on the Room 101 TV show). So we're there bang on time.

But the office is so meticulously unmarked, we have to bother one of the estate-agent clerks to confirm we're at the right place.

"Yeah, I think there's an office up there," he confirms. "Haven't heard anyone, though..."

"HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"

It's hard to miss Ricky Gervais. It's been ten years since the ex-band member/band manager/DJ/sketch comic did that funny dance in The Office.

Since then, he's conquered the comedy world, bagging seven BAFTAs, three Golden Globes, two Emmys...

A committed Yankophile, he's one of the few British comedians to have cracked America on his own terms - no smoothed-down edges, no cosy compromises for the sponsors or fawning to the gallery (see his inevitably mixed reception as host of last month's Golden Globe Awards).

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Just round the corner from 50, Gervais is driven by a ferocious work ethic which has just seem him simultaneously cover the promotion for his latest movie The Invention Of Lying while finishing the final edit of Cemetery Junction, his debut feature collaboration with Office/Extras co-writer Stephen Merchant.

And then there's the funny and feral Podcasts and Audiobooks that have made such an unlikely - and unwilling - megastar of his friend and ex-producer Karl Pilkington...

"We're going to stop doing them now," he says, feet up on the table, a framed but unhung Office poster to the side of the desk, featuring - weirdly - his most famous character, David Brent, in a similar pose.

"We've said, 'That's enough...' before, but the Guide To The Earth (out later this month) will definitely be the last one."

Shame. There's still lots of topics we need to hear Karl's thoughts on. Death, Psychology, Sex...

"Yeah, but I suppose they're all psychology in a way. It's all about Karl's psychology - and how fascinating it is.

"It will be sad to stop doing the Podcasts - they are the most fun thing I do, and it is a bit boring making films - to be honest.

"At the time you're doing it, making TV is a lot more fun because you're constantly moving on and doing lots of things in a short period of time. Film-making can be just getting someone to walk into a room and turn around slightly, fifty times. Because it's got to be perfect. It's forever - you're committed to celluloid... The legacy is prevalent in your mind."

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Do you really feel that films are more 'important' than TV?

"Well, I don't personally. I think they're equally as important. But most people do - and that's why there's so much bad TV.

"A lot of people think of TV as throwaway. It can be, and some disposable television is fun. But I don't want to make it. There's plenty of it to go round.

"People in TV, they make a bad programme and they get promoted. They're literally just filling a schedule with all this 'cheap' programming.

"I just think, 'Fuck that. Let's do The Sopranos! Let's just do things as good as The Sopranos and have telly not start until 8 O'Clock. If all you do is feed people cheap shit, then that's all they know."

 

The people who watch nothing but throwaway telly... If you could get them to watch the good stuff, they'd probably enjoy it.

"I think they would. People are smarter than they know. There is something abhorrent about force-feeding them crap because it's what they want - or what they think they want.

"It's self-perpetuating. It's like the magazines that show a picture of Cameron Diaz with a pimple or somebody getting out of a car accidentally showing their knickers... I don't know who wants that. If the magazines weren't there, would people be going, 'I need to see Lindsay Lohan getting out of a car!' They wouldn't..."

Is that what you're trying to do with The Invention Of Lying? Smuggle in a subversive message in the guise of something that looks like a traditional romantic comedy?

"Yeah, we did it on purpose. I like the high-concept nature of it, because it gets you to a very clean place, where you can dispense the comedy or satire. It's a nice, clean idea - a world where lying doesn't even register as an option.

It's also escapist. If I'm gonna do a Hollywood comedy, I don't want to do something like The Office or some kind of worthy documentary. I want to do something lasting and timeless like It's A Wonderful Life."

 

A sort of godless version of the Frank Capra universe.

"Yeah, exactly. As much as I love those films, they all assume an afterlife. This one does the opposite for a change.

"The Invention Of Lying was criticised by some quite erudite, intelligent reviewers who said it would have been a fantastic film had it not been atheist propaganda. I thought, 'Really? Atheist propaganda!?' Reviews that said, 'Why oh why does Mr Gervais have to shove this down our throat?'

"I thought, 'Hang on! It's the other way around. People sell bibles door to door. People preach every Sunday, they send their children to denominational schools. That's shoving it down your throat. One person dares to suggest there might not be a god and he's lambasted for pushing an agenda! The balance is still pretty strongly in favour of the religious side! Let's get this in context..."

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Organised religion is strange, though. All that size, scale and apparent strength of belief - but with this vast insecurity beneath the surface.

"Yeah! An interviewer earlier asked me how I could possibly be an atheist. How could I be so sure?

"I said, that doesn't make any sense. The burden of proof is on you to back up all these strange ideas. It's like someone saying, 'How can you say there isn't there a big elephant in the room?' I'd say, 'Well, because there isn't! Obviously!'

 

"There's a big difference between spirituality and religion. With spirituality, there's the fact that you might believe in a god - that's true or it isn't. There either is or there isn't a god.

"Religion, though, as an organised, mass-belief thing... It doesn't care if there is or isn't a god. All the different religions are arguing amongst each other, so they can't all be right. There's a level of fascism in some religious groups - and that's abhorrent and immoral.

"Believing in god isn't immoral. A vicar isn't immoral. In my opinion, he's just mistaken. He's not a fraud or a charlatan or con-artist. He genuinely believes what he believes. But religion is something else."

But there are people who use the idea of 'spirituality' and 'afterlife' to con and defraud - by claiming they can talk to the dead.

Gervais smiles.

"Well, that's for you to say and get sued for... I don't believe that they can know they're talking to the dead because I don't believe the dead can talk. So I don't have to prove whether they're a fraud or not."

 

It'd be a fun day in court, though, if they did try to sue...

"Well, that's the absurd thing. They can say they can do whatever they want - and it's up to you to prove they can't, that they are making it up, that they're not actually talking to the dead. Insane.

"The sceptic James Randi put up a million dollars to be claimed by anyone who can demonstrate 'supernatural' powers. There should be a queue round the block. No-one's claimed it yet." (The offer has been open since 1996).

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Your character in The Invention Of Lying tells lies at first to pay his rent, then to save his mum's feelings.

"Exactly. He invents religion in good faith and everyone says, 'I'm gonna see my mother when I die? Wow!' It's such an attractive idea, isn't it? It's irresistible - for someone to tell you, 'You might be dying, but don't worry, this isn't it. There's more after this. And it's much better.'

"I think that's a cop-out. It's a qualified life. Being an atheist makes you live life being nice to people here and now, because you know this is all we've got - and we've got to make Heaven on Earth.

 

"I saw a phone-in on TV in America - about Haiti. And one of the relatives was saying that they had someone who was missing, so they got out the Bible, read two lines and the phone rang with the news that they'd been found. It was a miracle! No! This person was alive all the time. Are they really saying that god had time to go, 'There she is! Make the phone call... now!'"

You deal with that in the film. The guy in the crowd who asks about how powerful 'God' is...

"Yeah, the fella who says, 'Did he save me when my boat capsized that time?'... Yes. 'Did he make the boat capsize in the first place?' Yes... So, God's playing noughts and crosses with us? If he's in charge, he's responsible for everything, surely. He doesn't take his eye off the ball!"

It's that thing about if God's willing to prevent evil and he can't, then he's impotent. If he's able but not willing, then he's malevolent. If he's both able and willing but he doesn't bother, then he must be evil So what's to 'worship'? What's the point?

"Yeah! Anthony Burgess said an amazing thing... In response to the old religious answer that, weeell... God moves in mysterious ways. Burgess said, 'But what's the difference between a God who acts randomly and no God at all?' Wonderful...

 

"And while we're quoting people... Stephen Hawking said, 'God does indeed roll the dice. But sometimes he rolls them where he can't see them.'"

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Were you worried about how a film with an atheist message would go down in notoriously non-secular America?

"A bit. But look at how something like Life Of Brian was attacked... It was totally misunderstood as being blasphemous. Obviously, it's not blasphemous, it's heretical. The Invention Of Lying is neither. It's a fictional world where God was invented by man. So it's hard to attack it. If I'd never said I was an atheist, they'd have no grounds for complaint whatsoever.

 

"We also decided there was no Holocaust - but that doesn't make me a Holocaust-denier. We decided that there wouldn't be a Holocaust because without lies, racism wouldn't exist. So it's a house of cards. You can't just bang your fist on the table and denounce it as blasphemous or whatever.

"It's like The Flintstones. Our joke is that everything is the same, except no lies. In The Flintstones, everything is the same but it's just made of rock. And our rock is the truth."

Some critics have complained that it's not a world where there are no lies. It's actually a world with no shame or diplomacy - where everyone blurts out whatever they're thinking.

"Yeah, it's a sort of Tourette's. But you have to have it that way otherwise no-one would say anything. It's more like everyone's got Truth Tourette's."

You made The Invention Of Lying - and your previous Hollywood movie Ghost Town - with a co-writer/director. You're known for being very single and uncompromising. Do you find it hard to collaborate with someone new?

"You get it sorted out beforehand. It's first based on respect, then on common ground. Me and Steve Merchant have a lot of common ground. Me and Matt Robinson [Invention Of Lying co-writer/director] knew we had lots, too. So he sought me out.

 

"Then we agreed on the same rule that me and Steve have had for the last ten years... One veto and it's out. Everything gets two votes. So we're left with something that we both love. That's how it worked with The Office and Extras. No prejudice, no sulking. I'll say, 'What about this?' Steve will say, 'No...' And it doesn't stay in. If we suggest something and it makes the other person laugh, it stays. If it doesn't, it goes."

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The Podcasts you've worked on with Steve and Karl Pilkington... Are they a way of loosening up that strict way of working? Do you edit them much?

"Not a lot, no. Doing those Podcasts and Audiobooks... it's like a day off. It's the funniest thing I do. There's nothing funnier than Karl Pilkington. That's because he's not a comedian. He's not trying to be funny in the traditional sense. He's just a friend. There's nothing funnier than your friends.

 

"Your friends are funnier than any comedian, any film, any concept. That's because you've got a weight of investment in everything they do or say - and you know it's not staged. So, when Karl says something, it catches me like no comedy could."

Karl does have an incredible brain, though. He is naturally very funny. Like in the Guide To The Human Body, where he goes off on an increasingly strange tangent about when he was a kid and he told his mum that he'd been up all night talking to what he thinks was a ghost called 'Mrs Battersby'...

"HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

It does remind me of some of the stuff he says in the earlier Podcasts. I wonder if he is becoming a bit 'aware'. That he's starting to realise that he is funny and that he can play himself as a bit of a character?

"A little bit, I suppose. But I still think he's totally genuine. That story about the ghost at the end of his bed - it transpired that it wasn't even his memory. It was his mum who'd told him about it!

 

"The thing about Karl is he's the least pretentious person I know. He can't be pretentious. He hasn't got the gene for it. He doesn't understand what it is. He's a child - and children don't have pretentions.

"With Karl, there's no malice. He genuinely thought that Anne Frank was just a squatter - someone who was avoiding paying rent. The idea of Karl watching the world is strange. So when he says something that seems harsh - or even racist - it's not. Because for that to be true, there has to be hate or an agenda involved."

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There's a fantastic extra on the Invention Of Lying DVD documenting Karl's turn as an extra - a caveman - in the movie...

"Yeah, but we didn't use it in the end. Not on purpose, but because it didn't really work once we'd got a sense of the wider movie."

 

But that's what's so funny about it. He doesn't get to wear a decent caveman wig, because you made sure he got a sort of mullet-type wig that exposed his baldness...

"HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!! For my amusement, yeah..."

And he didn't want to do it in the first place, it was cut - so he wasted his time... And, as he moans in one of the Podcasts, he's convinced the caveman suit gave him ringworm!

Gervais is breathless with laughter at the thought. He takes a few gulps of air and recovers...

"Joking aside, Karl is a brilliant bloke. He's a great friend. He's the most trustworthy bloke I know. He's smarter than he thinks - but he won't have it. He will not have it that he's smart. He's so practical and he's got this amazing brain.

He's a wonderful mix of lateral and straightforward.

"Karl is the only true artist I've ever met, because he sees the world differently. He doesn't accept anything. He sees everything from a different angle. He's wired differently.

"Karl is fascinated by apes, chimps, monkeys... I told him that I'd read something on how primates go through an adolescence and have a rebellious period similar to humans. I told him about how this adolescent chimp who'd had a spat with his father and run away from home.

 

"Karl's question was, 'What was the argument about?' That's hilarious! You could never predict that. A comedian tries to think like that - to see the misdirection, the lateral angle. Karl does it every time he opens his mouth. He makes up one-liners worthy of any comedian.

"With Karl, I feel like I've stolen a goldmine from under someone's nose. I almost feel like I'm exploiting him. Sure, we share everything and he's done okay, but I still feel like a fraud with him.

"We've got him in Cemetery Junction as well. That one will definitely stay in, though.

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Are you happy with Cemetery Junction? No compromises?

"I'm so proud of Cemetery Junction. It's the best thing me and Steve have ever done. That won't stop it being slagged off as the worst thing we've ever done, though. But I've come to terms with that.

 

Does criticism bother you?

"It really doesn't, because it's what builds careers. People hating your stuff as much as people love it - that's what makes you. Otherwise, you potter along and do stuff and become a national treasure.

"But a national treasure is just someone who lived to 78 and didn't hurt anyone's feelings. You've got to keep risking everything. You've got to keep the same feeling of wanting to tell everyone you're here."

Is Cemetery Junction the most personal thing you've done?

"It is, but then I've always written about what I know. The Office, Extras... Even The Invention Of Lying which, on the face of it, is a big, high-concept, Hollywood rom-com. But it's about the thing that I'm more sure of than anything in my life - there is no god and our point on this Earth is to be nice to each other.

"Cemetery Junction is more personal in a slightly more sentimental way - family, friends, growing up... I'm very patriotic and it's my love-letter to England. I don't mean patriotic in the jingoistic sense, but patriotic about the things that are peculiar to England. The nostalgia of it all...

 

"And nostalgia plays funny tricks, but then so does Hollywood. That's where Hollywood is at its best, really - selling someone else's vision as a dream.

"Cemetery Junction came from a lyric - Bruce Springsteen's 'Thunder Road'. 'It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win.'

"It's a bigger emotional journey. We've left the veil of irony behind. It's set in 1973, but we're not laughing at the funny haircuts or people saying stupid things. We're right behind the characters. They're cool people and we want them to succeed."

So it's not like The Royle Family...

"No, it's more like Saturday Night Fever or Diner or Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. And yeah, those are quite dark films in a sense, but everything we do is existential, it has that 'What's the point?' thing underneath it.

"You have to get people thinking like that. A comedian's job isn't to make people laugh, it's to make them think.

"But I still want everything I do to be uplifting. Even the drudgery and the terrible tragedy of The Office... we left them with hope. Same with Extras."

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The Office and Extras gave you this reputation as the inventor of 'cringe comedy'. Do you worry that you're seen as a bit blokey? Most women I know find it tough to watch The Office...

"Yeah, I think most comedy is for men. Women tend to prefer a bit more, I dunno, depth of emotion. But I think The Office definitely has that. It also has women characters who are far more rounded and real. In a lot of sitcoms, women characters tend to be just props. But the excruciating social faux-pas, people acting stupid... That's more for men than women, yeah.

 

"In The Office, we portray men as boys and women as adults - because it's true. Men don't grow up. They really don't."

Yeah, it's that permanent mental age of about 15/16...

"Exactly. Women don't sit around at home, thinking, 'If I ever got mugged, right, I'd punch one in the throat, then... Might learn karate because then I could take down three at once and be on the news.' Women would just carry an alarm or something... They're practical."

 

Youve mentioned Springsteen... You always include a song link on your blog postings. Is there still a frustrated musician in there somewhere?

"Oh, more than that. Nothing moves me like music. I don't understand it. There's nothing that can get me like a certain chord. There's a chord in Vaughn Williams' 'Five Variants Of Dives and Lazarus' - I can't listen to it when I'm away from home, because it just hits me too hard.

"And it's not just missing England or whatever. It just makes me feel sick, it's so beautiful. It does what all art should do - it moves you.

"Art is man's greatest achievement. Some would say god's greatest, but... y'know..."

 

The Invention Of Lying is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.

 

Comments

    • andyrew5000

      Feb 2nd 2010, 18:25

      I love the extra on the Fame DVD where Karl is talking to the man who thinks he can live forever. This man is clearly mentally ill and is probably use to people treating him so. But Karl plays it totally straight and wants to know the ins and outs of living forever. The man who thinks that he can live forever seems as though he is suddenly questioning what he has belived for years!

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    • Hadouken76

      Feb 2nd 2010, 19:49

      Its extremely painful to watch him 'act' and even more so when hes sucking up to Christopher Guest and Larry David, like the little boy who wants to be in the big boys gang.. "lemme join! i can be funny, i caaan"

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    • alowe

      Feb 3rd 2010, 12:17

      andyrew5000: Yes! Amazing. Never mind who's replacing Ross for Film 2010. I'd love to see Friday Night With Karl Pilkington.

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    • namedropper

      Feb 3rd 2010, 20:19

      Apparently he's threatened to do one to America where they appreciate talent more than Blighty with its alleged hatred for genius. Whipround anyone?

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