Ricky Gervais interview: 'I don’t court controversy - I try to deal with truth'
'The Office' and 'Extras' creator sits down with The Independent to talk offensive humour, outraged Twitter users, and his new Netflix special
When you think about Ricky Gervais, how do you imagine him? As David Brent, the bumbling boss from The Office? Perhaps as the depressed wannabe actor Andy Millman from Extras? Or even the wise-cracking, Karl Pilkington-mocking host of The Ricky Gervais Show? During our fleeting moments together, Gervais comes across as a amalgamation of them all.
“Thanks for meeting me, it’s a real pleasure,” I say after introducing myself. “We’ll see about that,” he answers with a giggle. He then confesses to being unable to relax during any interview because he’s a control freak. “I do my own radio show, and if I say something stupid I can take it out. Not here because you’re in charge. Although my job is saying stupid things!” He giggles again.
Unfortunately, I was unable to catch the Humanity tour last year, instead watching a rough cut sent across by Netflix (“As it was intended,” he quips) who are releasing the filmed version. There are moments of genius throughout the special, some incredibly funny jokes. However, not five-minutes pass before it becomes abundantly clear that some of these are going to cause controversies, one segment dedicated to discussing Caitlyn Jenner and transgender issues being an obvious touchy subject.
The routine starts with Gervais discussing his tenure as host of the Golden Globes, detailing one specific joke told during the 2016 ceremony — “I’m going to be nice,” he told the audience. ”I’ve changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously. Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course.” Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate backlash online, people furiously posting their angry comments on social media. Rather than apologise, Gervais explained that automatically equating a joke about Jenner to being transphobic was the equivalent to suggesting Bill Cosby jokes were automatically racist.
During Humanity, the 56-year-old takes the gag one step further, impersonating the former Olympian and imagining Jenner speaking to a doctor about transitioning (following up by mocking the initial backlash). It’s provocative and, Gervais admits, just waiting to be taken out of context by clickbait hungry blogs and thrown around Twitter.
“It gets in the way,” Gervais says of online outrage. “I don’t really court controversy because I like the truth more. I don’t like being labelled a shock comedian because I’ve never done that. I’ve had that ever since The 11 O’clock Show, before they realised it was irony. That was until David Brent came out, and then people thought I was just like David Brent. Then Andy Millman came out.”
He continues: “For the first couple of years, every month someone said ‘It’s the end of his career.’ The first time it happens it worries you. The next couple you just think it’s ridiculous. I’ve got to break the law to end my career, or give up. And in light of what’s happened in the last couple of years, we’ve realised telling a rude joke is not the worst thing you can do in entertainment.”
Perched on a chair, Gervais speaks with urgency (later explaining he wanted to give me enough material to work with). He has, of course, told multiple controversial jokes throughout his career, not backing away from taboo subjects such as the Holocaust, AIDs, and cancer. I ask whether he worries about people taking these jokes out of context, to which he offers a 500 word response — he seemingly has a lot to get off his chest.
One key point that comes up again and again is context, that people are willing to watch quick snippets of jokes rather than watch an entire routine. Humanity, as anyone who attended the live shows will have noticed, includes multiple footnotes and disclaimers from Gervais who insists these are merely jokes at single targets, not entire groups of persons.
“I take the audience to places they haven’t been before,” he says. “The occupational hazard is someone not liking a subject. I don’t go out there saying the worst things possible, picking the worst things and saying ‘f**k you’. These are really considered jokes. I make them bullet proof so I can confidently and without guilt tell them because I can defend them. But I should not have to because that becomes a bit of a bore. When I fire back at people, I’m not saying ‘Yes, it is offensive. deal with it.’ I’m saying ‘I don’t think it is offensive. I think you may have misunderstood the target.’”
Gervais has always provoked a strong reaction. Some people detest The Office, finding David Brent a shambolic, sexist, racist figure beyond redemption. Others dislike Andy Millman, described by Radio Times as a “tasteless mess” despite Gervais gaining multiple BAFTA nominations for the role. Previous stand-ups Animals, Politics, Fame, and Science have also stirred up severe reactions.
“It’s a comedian’s job to provoke, but not for its own sake,” Gervais says. “Traditionally, we’re court jesters. We have low status, nothing to lose or gain. I’m more a court jester at the Golden Globes more than any other time. The room is filled with millionaires and I’ve got to play the idiot, to stick it to the man for the guy at home. I try to make it a spectator sport. The problem comes when they say ‘You’re a millionaire entertainer.’ That is true, and because I try to deal with truth I can’t make a joke like ‘Argh, signed on yesterday. Bloody bus driver!’”
There are, Gervais says, two ways of keeping a lowly status despite being a multi-millionaire (he reportedly sold Humanity and another stand-up to Netflix for $40 million [£28.9 million]). The first is to invite the audience into his life, telling true stories about being being knocked down a peg or two. He offers an example: “I say ‘Oh you think it’s cool having I private jet? Well, I hired a bloke and he thought I was the chef.’” The other is to joke about things money can’t help with: “Getting fat, growing old, and getting bald.”
By doing so, I say, Gervais attempts to appeal to the Everyman. “I don’t appeal to every man,” he replies, “because I know that if you’re saying something not anodyne you’re going to divide. And you should. You should polarise, if you’re saying anything interesting, because people are different. But I know that if somebody gets the joke then the joke was getable. If everyone in the world does not get a joke, there’s something wrong with the joke.”
It’s a bad joke, then? “Exactly. The fact that 800,000 people are laughing at a joke and only one person finds it offensive — that’s regrettable but I’m not going to change the joke, because I stand by it. Feelings are personal and offence is about feelings. It’s going to happen. I remember a time I got a letter, I think during Politics. It was from a Jewish society. They said they loved my show but they said they were ‘disappointed by the jokes about Anne Frank.’ I said ‘I totally get that but, coincidently, you knew I was joking about AIDS, famine, and cancer but did not know I was talking about the holocaust, because that’s to personal to you.’ They replied ‘I see what you’re saying’. Often people can’t see the wood through the trees.”
The subject of context comes back up, Gervais pointing out how the forum — whether the Golden Globes or during a stand-up show — can make or break a joke. Offending someone may also be a good thing, he continues, as it encourages a discussion around certain subjects. During Humanity, Gervais mentions how many conversations today are limited to Tweets, described as shouting matches dictated by likes and retweets. I mention this and receive another lengthy, increasingly funny monologue (this time only 400 words long).
“There’s loads of problems with social media,” Gervais begins. “People say things they would not say to your face. They’re braver. They’re anonymous. It’s not a real conversation; it’s a terrorism. Trolls or hecklers — which is what they are — don’t want a conversation. They want you to have as bad a day as they’re having. If you get a nasty Tweet, just look at the timeline. You will soon feel sorry for that person.”
Gervais compares trolls to cavemen who leave their hand print on a wall to say ‘I was here’, calling them “frustrated because no one listens to them.” However, a worrying new trend has begun: elevating these people to minor celebrities.
“When other people do listen, trolls suddenly get addicted to it,” Gervais says. “They realise that they’ve been invited onto This Morning because they said a terrible thing. Now they’re going to say another terrible thing to get invited back on. It’s this cyclical thing. There’s no difference now between fame and infamy..”
Before social media, people would have to write a complaints letter if they were annoyed. “If you did not like something on the BBC, you’d have to get a pen and paper and go ‘Dear BBC… Oh f**k it I can’t be bothered.’ Now you can Tweet something that gets picked up, retweeted, and it suddenly becomes news. It should not be news. The news should not be coming round your house and listening to you argue with your mate, but they can see what you’re doing on Twitter. It’s shouting out of a window. It’s reading every toilet wall in the world at once. And there are some good things toilet walls, and some bad things. We need to know the difference.”
As you can see, much of our conversation concerns — as the Netflix special does — humanity and human nature, whether that’s wanting to be heard or being offended by a joke about something personal. Considering the state of humanity at the moment, particularly politics, the name seems very fitting.
“It’s funny, because I had the name before this last year happened,” he says. “The joke of having these academic titles was that I was a pompous comedian. But Humanity became accidentally a little bit relevant and zeitgeist-y and — dare I say it — more seriously than my other stuff. When Brexit and Donald Trump first happened I was halfway through warm-ups.”
Gervais confesses that he’s never been overtly interested in politics before, but calls right now “the most exciting year in politics”. He wakes up and searches the names ‘Muller’ and ‘Trump’ every morning. “It’s strange that it’s him,” the comedian continues. “It could be worse; Trump could be clever. We’ll look back at this and say ‘Thank f**k it was Trump and not someone really smart.’”
Despite this, jokes about Trump and Brexit were kept out of the show for the most part, Gervais wanting to keep the message succinct. As a result, he believes Humanity marks his finest stand-up work yet (“that’s really hard for me to say”), and all because of the approach. Rather than begin Humanity like an Edinburgh show or a TV episode, as he did the other standups, Gervais decided to develop the material while on the road.
“I discovered that writing it was largely a waste of time compared to performing it,” he says. “If I spend 10 hours writing something, half of the jokes would not work. But if I spent 10 hours performing, in 10 hours they would all work. With standup, you instantly know whether something works or doesn’t. An audience picks your best hour for you, and they don’t even have to think about it — if they laugh, it stays in.”
That’s not to say Gervais will do anything for a laugh. “Sometimes I feel guilty about a laugh,” he says. “Not because there’s something wrong about it morally, but because it’s too easy. You feel like a cheat.” The jokes, he explains, must stand on their own, making a memorable impact on an audience member.
“And you want it to get nice reviews,” he adds. “They don’t make much difference to me anymore, these days, but I’d be lying if I said I did not prefer a five-star review to a one-star. You want everything; you want it to sell out in a minute, to be the biggest tour, the most fun tour, you want it to be nominated for an Emmy and the five-star review. You want the world.”
And you want it on Netflix, I say. “And you want it on Netflix,” he replies, giving out another giggle. “In fact, I would give all that up for what Netflix paid.”
Independent News Service