Sitting in his office in the Hampstead section of London, feet up on his desk, black sneakers wiggling about, hair slicked back as per usual, surrounded by nothing much at all, nothing real personal, nothing real homey, just a few photographs, looking both moderately aggrieved and majorly smug, Ricky Gervais is saying that he just can’t understand what all the fuss is about. So he insulted a few movie stars from the host’s podium at the 2011 Golden Globes. What’s the big deal? Why is everyone so upset?
“I mean, if you can’t tease the richest, most powerful people in the world, who can be the butt of your jokes?” he says. “It was six or seven one-liners, throwaways I wrote in an hour. It was nothing.” Suddenly, he has an idea. “Hey, let’s go through them, one by one. Johnny Depp wasn’t offended. I’ve spoken to him about five times since. Hugh Hefner tweeted he wasn’t offended. I can’t imagine Bruce Willis being offended. I did nothing wrong. I know I didn’t!”
OK, but what about the Scientology gag, a thinly veiled reference to those rumors about Tom Cruise being gay?
Gervais, 49, pitches forward, totally wigged out. “I never mentioned Tom Cruise!” he bellows. “I never mentioned anyone! It’s people who are speculating who I meant! I’d never out anyone! That’s awful!” He would go on, because he does tend to go on, but he also has a weak bladder, which forces him to stop now and go take a “wee,” as he calls it. Two minutes later, he flops back down in his chair. “Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, OK, the thing about that gag is, even though Tim Allen is one of the most successful comedic actors in the world, who would look good against Tom Hanks? That’s all I was saying.” He pauses, fidgets. “Actually, Tim Allen might have been taken aback by it and, if so, I’m sorry. But I won’t apologize for the joke. The joke is justified. I had no bad intentions!”
Never apologize – that seems to be one of Gervais’ mottoes. Another one might be, take a swipe at religion whenever possible, as he also did at the Globes, saying, “And thank you to God – for making me an atheist!”
Gervais is grinning now. His fanged incisors are wet and sparkly. “OK, so maybe that was a misuse of a platform, but I don’t care,” he says. “All those people thanking God when they win an award, like, ‘God helps me more than other people’ – that’s ludicrous. It’s like, ‘Really? He was on your side? He hated the other fellow, did he? Eeny, meeny, minie…’ I was just trying to redress the balance! Anyway, only two things make my blood boil, religious fanaticism and animal cruelty. I cheer when a matador gets gored to death. Fuck him. People who do blood sports are fucking nasty, abhorrent cunts.”
That noted, he jumps up and walks off to wee again. He comes back again. He rants again, further justifying his actions both at the Golden Globes and at large, holding himself entirely blameless, saying stuff like, “Guilt is my hell, so I wouldn’t want to live knowing I did a bad thing.”
Then, later on, after his working day is done, he goes home to relax in a pair of purloined British Airways first-class-passenger pajamas, drink a few glasses of wine, turn on the television, maybe watch a nature show with Jane Fallon, his girlfriend of the past 27 years. But he can’t relax, not totally, until one thing is done. He pushes a button, and corrugated steel shutters grind to a close all over the house, covering the windows. Now he’s sealed inside. Now no one can get at him. “They enclose me in my tank-proof bunker,” he says, happily. “The place becomes a 6,000-square-foot metal panic room. It’s got an indoor pool, an indoor golf course, a gym, food. If there was Libyan rioting, I’d never even have to leave.” And that’s another thing about Ger-vais. He’s very, very weird.
So far, of course the Brits have been the primary beneficiaries of the Gervais weirdness. In 2001, for instance, he was a pioneer of cringe comedy in the U.K. with his TV show The Office, featuring himself as the overweening, nincompoop boss; then, two years later, with the show at the top of the ratings, having turned Gervais into a star, he suddenly pulled the plug on the thing. Just like that. Two years later, he did the same with his show Extras, in which he played an overweening, nincompoop two-bit actor; after 12 episodes and a special, it was done. Apparently, that’s the way Gervais operates. He’s got a teeny-tiny attention span and is always off onto something else. He’s writing children’s books (Flanimals). He’s starring in movies (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying). He’s on tour doing stand-up (main topics: pedophilia, the Holocaust, kids with cancer – fun!). He’s responding to the news that Steve Carell is leaving the U.S. version of The Office after seven years and saying, “It’s probably expected of me, as executive producer of the show, to try to persuade him to stay, but I sent him an e-mail saying, ‘I think you’re doing the right thing.” He’s making the most popular podcasts in podcast history, which mostly feature him and his constant collaborator Stephen Merchant goading and taunting their seemingly dimwitted pal Karl Pilkington. He’s turned those podcasts into an animated TV show on HBO called The Ricky Gervais Show, which is wrapping its second season. Also with HBO, he’s just about to air a special called Talking Funny, featuring himself, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. and Chris Rock, talking earnestly about the comedy racket. And around the corner is another new show, called Life’s Too Short, which stars British dwarf Warwick Davis playing an Extras-like actor. Naturally, Gervais will be in it too. He’s everywhere right now. He’s the biggest name in comedy right now. The Golden Globes uproar, far from slowing him down, may have made him even more popular. “You suddenly get in people’s minds again,” he says. “Usually you have to kill and eat someone to get that much publicity in America.”
He is back in his office now, on his feet, bopping around on his cellphone, talking to Jane, asking her if she wouldn’t mind enumerating his flaws. They’re part of what make him the way he is, and he knows he’s got plenty, but he wants to hear them from her. It’ll be funny.
“Tell me the truth, and I’ll make them sound a bit better,” he tells her. “Constant wittering?” Wittering is a British word for ceaseless, pointless chattering. “Well, you do that too! What else? You must know! Oh, so I don’t listen? That’s because I’m a genius, Jane! Mud on the carpet? That’s just being clumsy, and I’m not clumsy, either.” It seems that he’s got an answer for everything. Then: “A bit of OCD and a control freak?” He pauses. “Yeah, OK. That’s one. That happens all the time. I can go into that one.”
He hangs up and sallies forth.
“We’ll go into a restaurant, and someone will have the wrong voice or too loud a voice, and I’ll go, ‘We can’t sit here!’ I’m really annoying to all my friends. I have sort of an honesty Tourette’s, and in a Larry David sort of way I always have to go, ‘You know what…’ I mean, everything annoys me. Actually, it’s more that people are unaware that they’re being annoying that annoys me. I’m quite a stickler for politeness. It’s rudeness that annoys me – which is ironic coming from the man who said such awful things at the Golden Globes, isn’t it?”
He doesn’t mean that, of course. He’s just joking. But quite clearly he’s not joking about being a control freak. In fact, it seems to be one of his defining characteristics. For instance, he very rarely takes on any project, be it book, movie or TV show, in which he doesn’t have complete creative control. “Anything that’s offered to me, I turn down,” he sniffs. “I’m not an actor for hire.” Or let’s say he’s really starting to get pudgy, if not fat. He makes fun of it, other people make fun of it. But then one day he decides enough is enough, so he installs that gym in his basement and loses 25 pounds and puts on a bunch of muscle, making him look pretty darn handsome despite those fangs. Which he loves, by the way. “At school, I’d use them to peel an orange and make people laugh. I like being able to open a can of Coke when the tab has broken off. Jane loves my fangs.”
Another thing Gervais does a lot is look for ways to make himself appear special. He takes pains to let you know that his motivations are different from yours, that his reactions are different, that he wouldn’t do what you do. For instance, when talking about some supposed backlash against him and his style of comedy: “In my stand-up, I deal with taboo subjects: race, disability, children with cancer, pedophilia, starvation, all those things, but the actual targets are misinformation, prejudice, lies, middle-class angst, pretension, myself. Even so, the backlash is always there.” He yanks his feet off the desk. “I’m constantly part of the backlash! I started with the backlash!” As far is it goes, that’s true. But the real point is to allow him to say what he says next: “The backlash means nothing to me. Nothing!”
In a way, it’s like he wants to be seen as untouchable and unreachable by everyday feelings and emotions. This apparently works for him, though, just as the corrugated steel shutters on his windows at night work for him too, keeping all the bad- ness out and keeping all the goodness of him locked inside, safe and sound and beyond further scrutiny or intrusion.
Odddly enough, Gervais seems to have had one of the more perfect childhoods on record. This was in the working-class town of Reading, just west of London, where his dad was a laborer and his mom was a penny-pinching housewife. It didn’t matter that they were poor or that he had to wear homemade clothes or that unbeknown to him, the Christmas presents left under the tree for him and his three much older siblings were bought on the pay-off-over-months plan. “I didn’t even know I was poor,” he says, mainly because they were a funny family and spent most of their time trying to make each other laugh. He was precociously intelligent, started reading at the age of three and entered school two years later, where, he says, “It was apparent that I was the cleverest kid in that school” – or, as he sometimes says, “I was surrounded by idiots.” He excelled at sports (soccer, running and karate), was never an outcast, always had friends. He didn’t shoplift. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke dope. He got into only one fight, which he won. To hear him tell it, none of life’s larger, uglier calamities ever paid him a visit, making him the only comic in the history of comics to have it so good.
Also, until the age of eight, he was a God-fearing Christian. But then one of his brothers questioned his blind faith; within minutes, Gervais became an atheist and has remained rabidly and vocally so ever since. Nothing ever fazed him. At age 13, he looked up in the middle of eating his morning cornflakes and said to his mother, “Why are my brothers and sisters so much older than me?” She said, “Because you were a mistake.”
“I just laughed,” Gervais recalls. “I just laughed at the honesty.”
Listening to Gervais tell stories about this time is a little unsettling. He’s always top dog, with no one ever getting the better of him, and even when he does wrong, he did right. In class once, a white kid hit a black kid, but the teacher only saw the black kid hit the white kid and sent the black kid to see the headmaster. When Gervais objected, the teacher said, “It’s unfortunate for him that I saw him make the first blow,” to which Gervais said, “No, it’s unfortunate for him that he’s black,” which got him sent to the headmaster’s office too. Later on, though, his siblings let him know he’d spoken the truth. He’s proud of things like this, rightfully so; still, it’d be nice if he didn’t feel the need to always show himself in the best light, like he’s never royally screwed up or made a mess of things.
He went to University College London, started off as a biology major, switched to philosophy, graduated, and decided to become a pop star. His band was called Seona Dancing, and the YouTube video of its one charting song features Gervais at age 22, looking incredibly handsome and self-assured in an androgynous David Bowie/Flock of Seagulls sort of way. But he soon dropped this dream, bounced around a little bit, and eventually got a job at the University of London Union. “I worked my way up to middle management,” he says, “making notes, obviously.” Then, five years after that, he left, and went to work for a London radio station where, as his first order of business, he hired this supertall, strange-looking kid named Stephen Merchant to be his assistant. They both became on-air personalities, then Merchant left for a gig at the BBC, after which the pair began cobbling together a 20-minute demo tape of what would become The Office. At the first test screening of the com pleted show, audiences gave it the lowest scores in BBC history. Gervais didn’t care. He didn’t change a word: “I’ve always done exactly what I wanted, which is impor tant for an atheist, because there’s noth ing else. No reward later. My reward is the here and now. It’s me that’s got to sleep with me, only me.” He’s like that, too, al ways operating with an agenda and ready to graft it onto any topic of conversation even marginally able to carry its discon nected weight.
One other thing: He’s kind of persnickety when it comes to talking about his private life. One can see why. He didn’t have his first serious girlfriend until he was 17; he met Jane four years later, and has been with her ever since. He never talks about it, though, and if you attempt to do so, the first thought that pops into his head is “Why don’t you shut the fuck up?” Still, it makes you wonder certain things, like would he call himself a very sexual creature, given that he’s had the same girlfriend for so long and seems to have had little experience with women before that? He blinks. The corners of his mouth turn down and twitch. “I’m a heterosexual man with a girlfriend. That’s the beginning and end of the story.” And that answers that.
In bed, encased behind steel, he dreams. In one dream, he alone among all people can float in the air. It scares people. He goes, “No, no, I’m sorry!” But still he floats above all the rest. Later on, he will interpret the dream thusly: “I assume it’s about me needing to be aware of my power or influence or privilege,” which is one way to look at it. He arrives at the office around 11. He doesn’t read the newspaper, and he doesn’t scour the Internet looking for the latest happenings with which to inform his comedic outlook. “The Zeitgeist gets you by osmosis,” he says. “Like in the last month, you can’t get away from Egypt, Libya and Charlie Sheen.” He pauses and chuckles mightily. “And before that it was the disgrace of the Golden Globes.” But of course.
Then he’s off onto another of his favorite topics, fame.
“I am fascinated by fame,” he says.”I made a study of it with The Office as a fake documentary, then Extras looked at fame as being a mask that eats into the face and all those things. I feared it at first. It’s not normal to be famous. You lose your anonymity, which is precious. But I knew going into this that my life would change, and I thought, That’s no reason not to do something you love.’ At the same time, I want people to know that fame is an upshot of what I do. Look, I know it’s show business. But I’m not in the fame game. I’m a writer, a director and a comedian who happens to be the face of my work. Do you see what I’m saying? No? OK. I do want to be part of an exclusive club, I don’t want to con people. I don’t mind my stuff being successful, but I didn’t aim at success. I treat it like evolution. Those animals didn’t stretch their necks and change their colors. It happened, and they stayed around, and that’s how I treat this. I’ll do what I want, and I’ll either survive or I won’t. What I won’t do is start changing my survival tactics.”
So, there you have it. He’s kind of arrogant, kind of smug, kind of judgmental, kind of a perfectionist, kind of an atheist with a God complex and kind of a good guy to have around if you want someone to peel your oranges. He’s also kind of full of working-class resentment, hence, maybe, his Golden Globes gibes. “Coming from his background,” says Merchant, “you’re very keen to prick bubbles of pretension and pomposity. You’re suspicious of success, you’re suspicious of privilege, you’re suspicious of status, and I think that’s how he is.”
If nothing else, he does seem to have himself all figured out, and he has no problem saying so: “Is there anything about me I don’t understand? I’d have to say no, by definition. It’s not possible that I don’t understand something about myself. And no, I haven’t ever been to a therapist.”
But sometimes, he says, he will sit down and think back and ask himself, “Have I led a good life? Have I brought more good than bad into the world? Let’s see. I haven’t killed any one. I try to be a nice person. So I know that I’m really in the black with good and bad. I know if there was a God, he’d go, ‘You know what? You’re good. It’s 90/10. Well done. That’s above average. Come in.'” But, of course, there is no God, so he can’t go in. All he’s left with is the here and now, and, as he so often says, that will have to do.