Ricky Gervais has a cold. He just flew home to England after a stint in the U.S., and he’s jetlagged. Nevertheless, he worked a full day, putting the final mix on his upcoming movie David Brent: Life on the Road, which is due at the end of the week. “It couldn’t be a worse time, because my ears from the flight are bad, and all I had to do today was listen to the minutiae of the movie,” he says in the sort of remarkably dry tone that, unique to Gervais, always sounds a bit like a routine, even when he’s serious. “I’ve got three more days to go back and find out what I didn’t hear right.”
Nevertheless, he’s in good spirits. “I’m in my study with my feet up,” he says. “I’ve just had a bath, and I’ve just poured myself a first beer. But remember, it’s 6 p.m. here, just so you don’t think … ” As his sentence trails off, Gervais breaks into one of his trademark cackles. “I think if I walked around every day and people said, ‘Do you want a beer?’ I’d say, ‘Yes,'” he says, chuckling. “Luckily, that’s only on Christmas.” When Rolling Stone says that drinking all day long would be the life of a rock star, he laughs again. “Oh dear, yeah, I’m so rock & roll,” he says. “If you could see me now in my slippers and my pajamas on this really soft sofa and my lovely parquet floors. I do have three guitars in my study, though, so that’s pretty rock & roll, isn’t it?”
Regardless of would-be rock cred, Gervais lives by his own code. Fifteen years after The Office made him a star – at age 40 – the comedian, now 54, has continued to mastermind his own TV series and movies, a comic auteur who insists on and gets final approval on his works. These include Extras, about desperate actors, An Idiot Abroad, a travel show where he sends his frowny friend Karl Pilkington around the world, Life’s Too Short, which focuses on little-person actor Warwick Davis, and Derek, about a nursing-home resident who enjoys life’s simplicities. All have found loyal followings.
His latest release is the Netflix-exclusive movie Special Correspondents. Based on a like-titled French film, it stars Eric Bana and Gervais as a radio journalist and down-on-his-luck technician who fake their reporting on a war in Ecuador – and the mayhem it creates. He also has another film in the works, David Brent: Life on the Road, which will show what has happened to The Office‘s clueless boss in the last 15 years. Both movies, he says, he proudly made on his own terms.
“People think it’s arrogant when I say, ‘If you get final edit and it turned out exactly as you want, you’re bulletproof,'” he tells Rolling Stone, during a lengthy, in-depth and hilarious interview. “Some people take that as meaning, ‘Oh, arrogant. He doesn’t take criticism.’ No. It means that I enjoy the creative process. I’ve always enjoyed doing it my way, because not getting your way is worse than anything. Luckily I’ve always sort of gotten my own way.”
You wrote, directed, and starred in Special Correspondents. What’s your secret to staying sane while doing everything?
I don’t think I am sane. I’ve reached the point now where I don’t care if I’m sane or not, because as long as I’m happy it doesn’t matter. I see lots of mad people that seem really happy [laughs]. I remember once, Christopher Guest said, “How will we know whether we’ve lost it or not?” And I said, “Who cares?” And he laughed.
How do you keep from stressing out then?
You don’t. You get stressed out of your head with all the pressures and can’t wait for it to be over. Last year was the maddest year I’ve ever had in my career. I’ve been working on that film for two or three years, but I was going to do the David Brent movie first. Then suddenly, after three years of puttering around doing Derek and writing two films in various states of production, we get the call to make Special Correspondents. I had to film it, and I had to deliver it on the 9th of November, but I started filming Brent on the 6th of November so as to finish it before Christmas for the BBC. It’s just crazy finishing one movie whilst another is in preproduction. Doing two movies at once is proper mental.
How did you enjoy working with Netflix on the movie?
It’s very interesting, I think, how it’s going to change the genre. Up to know, all they’ve done is pander to the way people watch stuff, i.e., binge-watching. But I think an unseen upshot of this will be the return of the auteur.
How do you mean?
Originally Special Correspondents was a studio film. When I sent the script out, we had lots of offers and we actually went with someone. Then Netflix heard about it and said, “We’ll buy it out. We’ll buy them out. We’ll buy you out. We’ll give you a guaranteed backend of what it might make at the cinema.” It was a crazy no-brainer for me. I get final edit, but then I don’t have to worry about keeping it in cinemas.
I’m sure that’s easier with Netflix than with a studio.
At the moment, Hollywood is superhero films and franchises, Marvel comics, things I’ve never heard of. What was Hollywood is now Sundance and Tribeca. I think Netflix is going to be an alternative to that. You make the film you want. It doesn’t get a week in the cinema and then no one sees it; it gets two years on Netflix and everyone might as well watch it, because they’ve paid for it and it’s a new movie. They like it or they don’t, but that’s a lot of people.
What are your thoughts on The Office now that you’ve had a decade to move on from it and do other things?
Oh, I’ve got a fondness for it for many reasons. I’m very proud of it, because it’s certainly the thing that made my career easier. Once I demanded final edit for that, and the awards came in, I was left alone forever [by producers]. I have nothing but affection for it.
Well, it changed your life.
Right. But I didn’t go to film school. I wasn’t slogging around doing standup for 10 years. I had a normal job in an office. I was a middle manager in an office for 10 years, which I based The Office on. I actually even shot my own little demo in my real office, because I thought the script would never stand on the page. Comedy is meant to be performed; it’s not meant to be read in a script. “Middle-aged man says joke, isn’t funny. No one laughs. He touches his tie, looks at the camera awkwardly. Walks away slowly.” Now, does that not jump out of the page? So I had to show them, and when they saw it, they went, “Yeah.”
On a personal level, The Office was the first thing I ever tried my hardest at in life. I was one of those sort of academic kids who was pretty smart so I didn’t try hard. I got through because I knew I could. I winged it. God, I wish I could go back and try my hardest at everything. So I did with The Office, and I got an A for it. And I got addicted. I knew that I’d done well there, even before the good and bad reviews.
You recently posted the first review of The Office on Twitter.
I do it every now and again to remind people. It just said, “A summer stinker. This will never make it. This is boring. Gervais often fluffs his lines.” Which is my favorite. Right? Like I fluffed my lines accidentally. While I was editing it, I left that in? [Laughs]. Oh God. But it was a very slow burner. It polarized people and still does. Some people think it’s the most boring show ever. Some people think it’s great, and there’s everything in between.
Then you did Extras.
I did that show because I wanted to play the opposite character. Brent was a study of delusion, whereas Andy Millman was the opposite. If Brent was the satisfied, Andy Millman was the dissatisfied Socrates. He knew that he was surrounded by idiots and he hated it and he couldn’t believe why he wasn’t getting on. So that was the other side of the coin. I was almost a straight man in that. You have to keep changing. And then, obviously, Derek was even more fringe and weirder. It confused people more.
“I’m happy to be sub-Dickens. Aren’t we all sub-Dickens?”
Did the reviews get any better?
Well, Extras was “bloated.” One person said it was “sub-Dickens,” and I was thinking, “That’s not a very bad insult.”
No, it’s not.
I’m happy to be sub-Dickens. Aren’t we all sub-Dickens? It’s like, “He’s no Einstein!” And then, Idiot Abroad was, “Oh, this is exploiting his friend, who’s obviously got mental problems.” No, he’s in on it. He’s my co-producer. And then Derek. … Derek was getting slagged off before they’d seen it. The English press was saying it was offensive before they’d seen it. I had time to write a little thing in the first episode with the press reaction of the first episode, where someone says to Derek, “Is Derek autistic?” I had time to write in some of the bad reviews of the first episode. Think of that [laughs]. And then, when it got nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globes, people just went quiet.
Obviously, negative reviews don’t bother you anyway.
Nothing polarizes people quite like comedy or maybe religion, because people take it personally. People can’t understand that someone likes something that they don’t. And what’s funny is that it’s not enough for people not to like something – they don’t want other people to like it. They think it’s a threat, like, “Am I missing something?”
You tend to embrace offending people with your jokes, like at the Golden Globes.
I think what happens is, people confuse the target of a joke with the subject of a joke. They think if you’re making the joke at all about something, the something is the target. Which just isn’t true, because we wouldn’t have irony, we wouldn’t have satire. Some people hear a taboo subject, a buzzword, and think, “Well, I can’t laugh at this joke.” Well listen to it. You might be able to, because it might be pro that thing, or it might be anti. What’s this comedian saying? Is that a racist joke or is it just a joke about race? What’s the target?
Offense is good. It makes people think about stuff. I’ve always said, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.” Also, someone telling me “I’m offended” is about as interesting as someone telling me their dream. Everyone has the right to offend, everyone has the right to be offended. But no one has the right to get through life having never been offended.
So what is going on in David Brent: Life on the Road?
A different documentary team has caught up with David Brent, and he’s 15 years older. He’s 15 years sadder, 15 years more desperate. And I think he’s 15 years funnier. I think the tragedy increases and the pathos increases but his enthusiasm doesn’t wane. That’s funnier in a way. It was bad enough him being 40 and acting like a man-child and wanting to be the center of attention. But now he’s 55.
How is he faring in these more politically correct times?
Well, of course, he’s a man out of time. It’s slightly more desperate. He thinks this documentary movie is like Scorsese following the Rolling Stones ’round. But it’s a much more, “Where are they now? Let’s laugh at him even more. He’s even sadder now.” That’s because of these people that think, “Fame will sort me out.” People that keep going back to the tabloids or keep doing another reality show. They think, “No, this time, I’ll show ’em. I’ll get ’em.” Well no, you’re not going to, because that’s not good television. You’re going to show them what an idiot you are again, because that’s what the program makers are going to make sure you show them.
He doesn’t get it. It’s quite sad. He’s searching for something. What he’s doing now is he’s repping. He’s in a big, cold office, not as cozy as Wernham Hogg; it’s more anonymous. He’s a rep, he’s out selling toiletry products and women’s hygiene products: tampon dispensers, urinal lozenges, you name it. And he’s cashing in pensions, cashing in his paid holiday, because he’s paid to put a band together, mercenary session musicians who are just doing it for the money. It’s just a gig for them. He’s trying to relive the days of when he was in a band, in the Eighties. It’s really sad. He thinks he’s going to get signed. It is quite tragic, because he’s been sold the lie that anyone can become famous, because Simon Cowell told us they can. He doesn’t quite get it.
“There’s no difference now between fame and infamy. People don’t care why they’re famous as long as they are. Serial killers want to be famous.”
Also, reality TV has changed in the past decade.
Yeah. The Office came from not only working in an office for 10 years but also I watched a lot of those quaint docu-soaps of the Nineties, where a normal person got his 15 minutes of fame, and that was it. But now it’s insatiable. Now we’re in a time where people live their lives like an open wound. People let the cameras into their house 24/7 and allow you to see the most awful things so they get their TV time. There’s no difference now between fame and infamy. People don’t care why they’re famous as long as they are. Serial killers want to be famous. These shows are such a terrible, terrible lesson for people, because they do get rewarded. They get money to fall over. We’ll soon have a show called Celebrity Enema [laughs].
You couldn’t spoof future TV. It would be impossible. You’d be behind. It’s ruthless now. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. People get on The Apprentice by saying, “I will destroy anyone who stands in my way.” When did that happen? When did that happen? When did people start showing off about being more brutal than their competitors? Everyone thinks they’re T2 now: I’m more, I’m harder, I’m more destructive. You’ve got, potentially, a future president who isn’t happy with Forbes saying he’s got $5 billion; he says, “I’ve got $10 billion.” [Laughs]. “$5 billion? That makes me look like an idiot.” [Laughs].
Have you been enjoying Trump?
A 24/7 channel with him just standing there talking, just honestly, would be amazing. I want my own Trump cam. Forget the Kardashians, let’s get At Home With the Trumps. It’ll be fucking amazing. It would make The Osbournes look like The Waltons. It would be incredible.
At one of his rallies, someone protested and Trump said, “Boy, I’d like to punch you in the face!” [Laughs]. Can you imagine Roosevelt saying that? “Oh, I’d like to fucking punch him in the fucking face.” It’s delightful.