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With a new live show and a film in the works, Ricky Gervais extends his reign as king of comedy.
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.”
For a long time it looked like England would never be ready to acquire a taste for Gervais. He was born in the provincial town of Reading and studied philosophy at University College London. Subsequently it took him a few years to progress from the job of receptionist to events manager at UCL’s student union. (For a look at what he was up to circa 1984, check out YouTube for the video by New Wave band Seona Dancing. The lead singer is none other than Gervais, wearing heavy makeup and tight pants. “I wanted to be a pop star, but I failed,” he says wistfully.) His first break came in 1997 with a programming job on Radio XFM, where he met his chief collaborator, Stephen Merchant. Later he earned a spot doing comedy skits on The 11 O’Clock Show. Gervais attributes his slow start to a lack of early ambition. “It wasn’t that I was a late developer,” he says. “I was just a late trier.”
By 2005, when his second series, Extras, was on HBO, Gervais’s status was such that he could lure guest stars like Orlando Bloom, Ben Stiller and Kate Winslet, who memorably made obscene gestures while dressed as a nun. Winslet recalls that she first met Gervais when she asked him to sign a photograph as a gift for her husband, Sam Mendes. “Ricky has no idea what a brilliant actor and writer he is,” she says. “I get more compliments for that Extras episode than I do for most things I’ve done.”
Today Gervais, 46, is one of the few British comedians whose appeal doesn’t drown halfway across the Atlantic. He acknowledges a few small but key differences between American and British humor: “I think that the English are probably a bit darker, and we enjoy losers more,” he says. But he emphasizes that regional differences matter more than national ones. “I can sell out 5,000-seaters in New York and L.A., and probably couldn’t do an art center in Kansas,” he says. While anticipating his U.S. tour dates (he’ll play the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York and the Kodak in L.A.), Gervais points out that it’s far easier to score with a stand-up routine than with a weekly sitcom. “Audiences are pretty easily pleased,” he says. “They want to laugh, and they have come out because they like you anyway.”
At the time of our interview Gervais is a few weeks away from the first day of shooting on his film debut, This Side of the Truth, which he cowrote and codirected with Matthew Robinson. Set in a world in which nobody knows how to lie, the story shows what happens when one man starts fibbing to get ahead. Gervais is not admitting to any major jitters. His main concern is the danger of being saddled with too much power. “You have to be careful what you say [on a set], because it will be done,” he explains. “You say, ‘Maybe we could get a big toadstool.’ Then you come in, and they’ve built you a big toadstool.”
By the end of our chat, Gervais has exposed a few more tiny chinks in his armor of self- possession: He’s admitted that he’s petrified of spiders and that there’s a certain musical chord, in a work by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, that makes him cry every time he hears it. He also hints that he perhaps has more in common with The Office’s David Brent—the deluded manager of a company going nowhere in Nowheresville—than he’s previously let on. “We’ve all got a bit of Brent in us, right?” he says. “We all want to be loved. We are all worried about, Oh, my God, what do people say about me behind my back?”
In his home office in Hampstead, there’s a cabinet loaded with the BAFTAs, Emmys and Golden Globes that Gervais has won over the years. “I built that specially for the awards,” Gervais admits, adding, with some embarrassment, that he’s now afraid they’ll topple over on the head of his dear Ollie. “My vanity will kill the cat,” he says, looking stricken. After we both stand and admire the statuettes, Gervais steps forward to check that they’re all pushed to the back of the cabinet. He’s serious, or at least half serious; it’s a small but unexpectedly poignant gesture that echoes the best of Gervais’s comedy, in which he always manages to find a truthful human element in any character or situation, no matter how absurd.
But make no mistake: Gervais plans to keep filling the shelves with awards for as long as they’re offered to him. Though he says that pleasing other people has never been his motive, he can’t help but relish all the accolades. “To be honest,” he says, padding across the room, “with The Office I got an A. I’m addicted to getting A’s now. I don’t hide that at all.”