When one walks into Ricky Gervais’s North London home, on a cobbled side street in the posh village of Hampstead, it’s not initially apparent why he prefers to keep the place off-limits to journalists. The house is a pleasingly spacious refuge of dark wood floors and modern sofas; in the kitchen, Gervais’s girlfriend of 25 years, novelist Jane Fallon, is halfway through unpacking the weekend groceries. But then Gervais appears, dressed in a black T-shirt and sweatpants, fretting nervously over the whereabouts of his beloved cat, Ollie. Gervais is afraid that Ollie has escaped into the wilds of Hampstead, and it’s only after Fallon reassures him that the animal is safely asleep in a spare room that the interview can begin.
Evidently it’s to prevent outsiders from witnessing moments like this—episodes of genuine, everyday neurosis—that Gervais usually does interviews elsewhere. But in fact, a few public displays of vulnerability can only help his image right now. Seven years after he made his name with his award-winning BBC series The Office, which led to the even more successful American version, Gervais’s career is reaching new heights, and the ever cynical British press is eager for any opportunity to confirm its suspicion that the comedian is turning into one of the self-involved celebrities that he loves to lampoon. These days it’s hard to escape the multitalented Gervais in any media platform, in any part of the world. His podcast of what he calls audio drivel went straight to No. 1 on iTunes, earning Gervais, in his opinion anyway, the sobriquet of the Podfather. His illustrated Flanimals books, featuring luridly colored beasties with names like Mung Ungler, now run to four volumes. Gervais is currently directing his first major feature film, which stars Rob Lowe, Jennifer Garner, Tina Fey and, of course, Gervais himself. And in July he’ll start a run of stand-up shows at major venues in New York and Los Angeles.
Alas, even in the comfort of home, Gervais—like most comedians—is an expert at talking a lot while revealing little, and deflecting queries with smiles and shrugs. Where does he find the chutzpah to spread himself across TV, cinema, radio and publishing? “It’s all comedy,” he says. “It’s all getting stuff off your chest, and it’s all showing off.” Rather than deliberately seeking a broader audience, he says, he remains inspired solely by what he finds funny. “I’m only trying to please me,” he says. “And the more you only try and please yourself, the more you’ll come up with something different.”
Whether Gervais’s apparent self-assurance is actually rooted in defensive smugness or genuine confidence, it works. It informs all his efforts and on one occasion saved his greatest creation. Before The Office premiered on the BBC in 2001, Gervais recalls, the show received the lowest audience test scores in the network’s history, but he defended every word in the script. It was a similar story with the American version: Gervais remembers getting an e-mail from producer Greg Daniels saying the series had scored abysmally. “I sent back a message: ‘Brilliant, so did we,’” he says. Now, he points out, The Office is NBC’s highest-rated sitcom. “All the things I’ve ever loved, I hated at first,” Gervais adds. “The best things are an acquired taste.”