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The Long, Funny Career of Ricky Gervais

From the ‘Office’ to ‘Extras’ and the ‘Simpsons,’ the roles that have defined Gervais over the years

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Beginning with projects such as his retrospectively hilarious Brit pop band Seona Dreaming and his ode to Bowie break-out TV project Golden Years, Ricky Gervais's career trajectory has taken the comedian from cheeky, irreverent upstart to cheeky, irreverent international comedy star. Here's a chronicle of his (mostly intentionally) hilarious career.

By Halle Kiefer

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Seona Dancing (1982-1984)

During his senior year at University College London, Gervais and friend Bill Macrae formed the New Wave pop duo Seona Dancing. Essentially a poor man's Pet Shop Boys, a lithe Gervais crooned the group's two singles "More To Lose" and "Bitter Heart" in what was his first experience as a public performer. After limited success, the group broke up in 1984. Its humiliating legacy, however, lives on. 

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‘Golden Years’ (1998)

Having worked as an events manager at UCL, landing a similar position at London's XFM radio 1997 and meeting collaborator Stephen Merchant (whom he hired as his assistant while at XFM), Gervais's television debut came with Golden Years. Written for Channel 4's Comedy Lab series, the one-off sitcom episode stars Gervais as Clive Meadows, co-owner of a video rental company who's obsessed with David Bowie. "I've not so much followed in his footsteps as walked alongside him," Meadows muses about Bowie. The documentary style and Meadow's mix of bravado and desperation is seen as a template for The Office's David Brent.

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‘The 11 O’Clock Show’ (1999)

Gervais' first regular TV gig came as part of Channel 4’s The 11 O'Clock Show, a satirical late-night news show in the vein of a Daily Show or Colbert Report. Gervais garnered attention as an angry, filthy-mouthed reporter who often turned on the subject of his stories. 

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‘Meet Ricky Gervais’ (2000)

Based on his success on The 11 O’Clock Show, Gervais landed his own show, Meet Ricky Gervais, also on Channel 4. Combining celebrity interviews and game show elements, the show was a commercial bomb and sputtered out after one season. "It was a mistake to use my own name. I thought people would understand that I was playing a character. I should have called myself Billy Bigot. Some people really did seem to think that I thought famine was a good thing, and so on," Gervais has since said about his obnoxious heightened style. It was during the show’s run that Gervais and Merchant wrote what would become his break-through project, The Office.  

‘Flanimals’ (2004, film slated for 2011)

Written by Gervais and illustrated by Rob Sheen, the children's book Flanimals categorizes the grotesque flora of an imaginary world. The first book has been followed by sequels More Flanimals (2005), Flanimals of the Deep (2006), Flanimals: The Day of the Bletchling (2007), and Flanimals: Pop-Up (2009). A film adaptation of the book was announced in 2009 by Illumination Entertainment, with Gervais voicing the protagonist, is scheduled to be released this year.

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The British ‘Office’ (2001-2003)

Playing the incompetent boss David Brent, Gervais served as the inspiration for the American Office's Michael Scott. Through Brent, Gervais channels the ultimate clueless supervisor, while still making him just empathic enough for his blunders to twist the knife. Imagine the "Scott's Tots" episode (Episode 12, Season Six) of the American Office: You want to put your face in your hands when Michael admits that he can't actually pay for 15 kids to go to college, a promise made out of a signature mix of hubris and self-delusion. Now imagine sustaining that for three seasons.

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‘Extras’ (2005-2007)

Other than his turn on The Office, Gervais's most famous role is as struggling-yet-still-committed actor Andy Millman. Millman manages to tear out your heartstrings while simultaneous lampooning the hubris that runs rampant among the creative elite. In this clip, Gervais's longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant,  who plays Millman's incompetent agent Darren Lamb, has to tell Millman that his sitcom is a total failure.

‘Stardust’ (2007)

This bizarrely earnest fantasy film only included a cameo by Gervais, but his small turn as a filthy lightning trader is satisfying mainly because of his choice to go meta while haggling over the price of lightning. "Are you having a laugh?" Gervais asks Robert DeNiro in a callback to his character, playing a character, on Extras – a reference that was undoubtedly lost on most of the film's audience.

Paramount Pictures

‘Ghost Town’ (2008)

In Ghost Town, Gervais' Bertram Pincus answers the great question: What if someone could make contact with the other side…and that person happened to be a grouchy prick? Notable mainly for being his first leading role in a feature film, Gervais add a healthy dose of acid to an otherwise fairly standard rom-com also starring Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear. 

Sam Urdank/Warner Bros. Pictures

‘The Invention of Lying’ (2009)

Not even a sweet, shockingly believable love story with Jennifer Garner can scrub any of the black of the humor in Invention, in which Gervais' Mark Bellison realizes the human capacity to deceive…and promptly invents religion. 

‘Sesame Street’/’The Muppets’ (2009/2011)

Despite being someone who consistently embodies jerks, Gervais made an appearance on Sesame Street and embraced his warm, faux-furry side…up to a point. "Do you know what necrophilia is?" Gervais asks Elmo in the show's outtakes, before warning the little red puppet that certain topics are off-limits: drugs, child abuse, the Holocaust. The fact that Gervais shares an identical laugh with the Sesame star is just icing on the cake. Gervais will also guest star in the new Muppet movie, where hopefully they can keep some of his dirty riffing on camera.

Giles Keyte

‘Cemetery Junction’ (2010)

Though billed as a comedy, Gervais's Cemetery Junction – which he wrote – is in reality a solid little drama about teens coming of age in Reading, England in the Seventies. Co-written with Stephen Merchant, Cemetery was dismissed by some as the efforts of a comedy trying to "get serious," but nonetheless showcased Gervais' ability to venture far afield from just the snide or the silly.

FX

‘Louie’ (2010)

Gervais at his most charmingly abrasive is the just the asshole to flesh out Louis C.K.'s universe of shame. In the third episode of the show's first amazing season, Gervais as Dr. Ben riffs on his patient's cancer ("From her vagina to her eyeballs!"), jokes that Louie has AIDS and finally introduces C.K. to the ultimate humiliation: health care. "That's the worst penis I've ever seen in my life; it's disgusting," the good doctor tells him. Watching Gervais snicker while giving Louie a rectal exam is painfully embarrassing. Just what the doctor ordered.

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The Ricky Gervais Show (2010-today, Podcast: 2005-today)

The Ricky Gervais Show – which currently airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on HBO – brings to cartoon life the comedy podcast of the same name. Gervais, Stephen Merchant and fan favorite/eccentric Karl Pilkington hash out current events, riff on daily life and mercilessly make fun of Pilkington's profoundly round noggin, all while in cute, pudgy cartoon form. 

©2006FOX BROADCASTING

‘The Simpsons’ (February 20, 2011)

A little over a month after his controversial Golden Globes hosting gig, Gervais stopped by The Simpsons to play himself in "Angry Dad: The Movie" (Episode 14, Season 22), skewering his own sense of entitlement and seemingly that of Hollywood at large. "Who else in here is going to tip $10? Keith Urban? Helen Mirren? I don't think so. They don't have the common touch do they?" Gervais brags to a disinterested bartender, while nearby a "Do Not Let This Man Host" sign hangs nearby. When you see him steal back his tip, you know he means it.

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‘Life’s Too Short’ (2011)

Set to premiere later this year, Gervais's Life's Too Short is, besides a delightful pun, an observational comedy show casting Leprechaun I-V star Warwick. Featuring a cameo by Johnny Depp and a promised host of celebrity guest stars a la Extras, Life's follows Warwick as himself as he weathers the trials and travails of life as a little person. Considering Gervais is also slated to star, the show is likely to have more bite than any feel-good Little People, Big World-type program might offer up.

NBC

The American ‘Office’ (2011)

Having lived so long in their own spheres of influence, the inevitable meeting of the American Office's Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) and Gervais's David Brent went just as we'd expected: they get along swimmingly; they're two men whose raw vulnerability is the only thing that keeps them from getting punched in the mouth daily. "Comedy is a place where the mind goes to tickle itself. That's what she said!" David proclaims to Michael. Gervais will also be stopping by the season finale post-Carrell, along with Will Arnett; Gervais even revealed that David will be interviewing for Michael's position. Flying David to Pennsylvania is the perfect way to pass the mug to Dundler Miffin's new commander-in-chief, even if Gervais doesn't take up his mantle (which would actually be amazing).