"Derek," his new series for the streaming service, reveals a softer side of a man who hates people who believe in God, fears fame and says of his friendship with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld: "They tease me about being poor."
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"I’m not doing it for your amusement. I’m doing it for mine."
Ricky Gervais howls with laughter, an extended cackle that his friend Christopher Guest calls “the greatest laugh ever.” Gervais is amused by questions about his latest medium of choice, Twitter, which he uses to lob 140-character bombs at fans and detractors. Religion is a favored topic: “We shouldn’t even need the word ‘atheism.’ If people didn’t invent ridiculous imaginary gods, rational people wouldn’t have to deny them.” Later: “It’s almost as if the Bible was written by racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, sexually frustrated men, instead of a loving God. Weird.” And, more recently, “If God existed, religion wouldn’t.”
The prolific feed, with nearly 5 million followers, is as much a tool for plugging his work — including a new show, Derek, bowing Sept. 12 on Netflix — as it is for his own twisted take on market research. “How you know you’re doing something right is that as many people hate you as love you,” he says, acknowledging gleefully that his atheist rants provoke the most intense reactions. (To consider his musings blasphemous, he adds, he’d have to believe in God; he hasn’t since he abandoned Christianity at age 8.)
For more than a decade, Gervais, 52, has been finessing this image as the king of cringe comedy, mining humor from others’ discomfort for TV shows, films, stand-up and more. If Louis C.K. is the critics’ favorite comic, Kevin Hart the touring dynamo and Jay Leno the industry punching bag, Gervais has carved his niche as the semilovable wiseass in the corner. Says longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant, who got his start as Gervais’ assistant at a London radio station, “He’s your cheeky best friend who somehow gate-crashed the house of showbiz and put his feet up on the table.”
"Original," "fearless" and "smart" are descriptors often employed to characterize Gervais’ work, but they seem just as representative of his comedic philosophy. If asked, he’d add "outsider," likely the result of a career trajectory that didn’t involve working his way up through the clubs or failed sitcoms. Instead, Gervais catapulted onto the scene with his 2001 BBC creation, The Office, which he co-wrote, directed and starred in. At last count, the mockumentary, as brilliant as it was uncomfortable, has aired in more than 100 countries, with seven remakes including the since-ended U.S. iteration, making it easily the most successful adaptation of a British sitcom in 30 years. The show turned Gervais into a bona fide star, a multimillionaire and, most impressively, an icon within the comedian community. Says Larry David, “When I watch his work, I often go, ‘I wish I had thought of that.’
But when the door of his new, still-unfurnished apartment on New York’s Upper East Side opens on this late June afternoon, I can’t help but wonder whether the Ricky Gervais I’m meeting is the provocative prick from Twitter or the thoughtful goofball his friends describe. Will this be the man who famously introduced Robert Downey Jr. at the 2011 Golden Globes with a reference to the Betty Ford Center and described I Love You Phillip Morris as a film about “two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay — so the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists”? Or will Gervais be the sympathetic force on display in Derek, a series about caretakers in a retirement home that’s so gentle and sweet, critics didn’t know what to make of it when it aired on the U.K.’s Channel 4?
Over the course of an hour and a half, hints of both Gervaises emerge, with the man in his uniform jeans, dark shirt and sneakers as warm as he is biting. What becomes clear as he ping-pongs between comical and sincere is the consideration with which he formulates his material, noting that while the subjects he tackles range from uncomfortable (the uneasy comedy of The Office and, later, Extras,Life’s Too Short and An Idiot Abroad) to taboo (his unflinching stand-up, in which rape, murder and Hitler are fair game), they never are his target. “I want to take the audience to places it hasn’t been before, otherwise what’s the point?” he says. “I want to lead them through this terrible, scary land because then they’ll come out the other side and it was great. It was a rush. Their parachute opened, and they landed.”
Jerry Seinfeld, who with his wife regularly double dates with Gervais and his longtime girlfriend,Jane Fallon, suggests it’s that ability to take people outside of their comfort zone that sets Gervais apart. Seinfeld compares Gervais to a matador: “Those guys walk out, and they don’t do much. And the more still they stand, the more riveting it is,” he says. “You have a stadium full of people who are captivated. And it’s that same thing: ‘Look at the nerve of this guy.’ And not just that, look at his grace. We all know the pressure, so let’s see how eloquently they can dispose of this very dangerous position they’re in.”
When Derek hits Netflix, viewers inevitably will ask whether the matador has gone soft. The show tells the story of a middle-aged caretaker (written, directed and played by Gervais), who works in a nursing home, accompanied by his pal Dougie (played by longtime Gervais pal Karl Pilkington); a nurse named Hannah; and his “best friends in the world,” the home’s residents. It’s more drama than comedy, and Gervais is betting that his audience is ready for a kinder persona that eschews laughs for introspection and, in certain cases, tears, as it grapples with helplessness and death with a humanity not often seen in Gervais’ work.
He’s still sorting out whether this is an anomaly or a new direction. “As you get older, you start realizing that when you’re young, the most important thing is being popular. Then when you hit adolescence, it’s being clever. Then it’s being funny. And now it’s about kindness, and that trumps everything else,” he explains, noting that he’s left behind the veil of irony that defined his TV efforts including Office and the actors sendup Extras, which won him a best actor Emmy in 2007. There’s no gap between how viewers see Derek, a selfless, slow-witted misfit, and how Derek sees himself — a far cry from David Brent (Office) or Andy Millman (Extras), whose blind spots fueled the comedy.
Before it even aired in the U.K., Derek found itself at the center of controversy. Critics caught a glimpse of the titular character in the trailer and assumed the comedian had found his latest victim in the mentally handicapped. “Gervais mocks the easiest of targets, people with mental disabilities, those without the intellectual capacity to defend themselves,” wrote the Daily Mail. But Gervais denies that Derek is disabled, insisting that, unlike his past characters, this one’s only flaws — a peculiar look, shuffle and childlike naivete — are superficial on purpose.
"It’s so much closer to real life in that it’s serious with funny moments," says Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who will look to make as big of a splash with Gervais’ about-face as he has with originals House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange Is the New Black. Although it was Gervais who approached Sarandos about distributing the dramedy — he was turned on by Netflix’s immediacy, footprint and lack of creative interference — Sarandos raves about the series’ depth and confirms that he will air a second season. (HBO, which aired several of Gervais’ previous shows, passed on Derek, turned off, perhaps, by the tonal departure.) For a comic who suggests the Ten Commandments by which he abides are, No. 1 through No. 9, “Thou shalt not bore,” and No. 10, “Thou shalt have final edit,” Netflix seems an ideal fit.
"Some execs are great, and they save projects, but I don’t want that because I don’t want my projects to be saved. If I made it rubbish, I want it to be rubbish," says Gervais, acknowledging a disdain for such things as focus groups. He and Guest (Best in Show) like to tell a joke in which one Hollywood exec says, “What’d you think of that new movie?” And the other one replies: “I don’t know. I’m the only one who’s seen it.” As he peers out at his 12th-story view, Gervais attempts to defend his “control freak” tendencies that largely have prevented him from working within the studio and network system. “It’s not because I think what I do is perfect,” he says. “It’s because if I didn’t do it that way, I wouldn’t be doing it at all. Someone else would. It’s like getting a model kit, then getting someone else to build it for you. What’s the point? I want to make it.”
Sarandos reveals he’s had conversations with Gervais and his team (including WME and the U.K.’s United Agents) about other collaborations, too, though it’s not clear where the comic will find the time. In addition to Derek's second season, which he'll begin filming in November, he's preparing material for another stand-up tour and plans to sign a record deal for his Office character, whom he recently revived through his YouTube series Learn Guitar With David Brent. The installments began as a stunt for charity, but Gervais hopes they will be the basis for a movie about Brent trying to make it in the music industry. Nearer term, he’s rehearsing with a band for high-profile charity gigs at year’s end. Additionally, Gervais is in talks to direct, write and star in another film and has aspirations to play a villain (think the Riddler) in a superhero movie. One show that’s off-limits, though, is the Oscars. “It’s a thankless task, and it’s not right for me,” he says, joking that he did enough damage during his three years as Golden Globes emcee.
Although Gervais’ brand of comedy can venture into offensive places, as many suggested it did at the Globes — “It wasn’t a room full of wounded soldiers,” he quips of the star-studded audience he attacked — those close to Gervais insist he lacks the darkness that defines most comics. “Unlike the stereotype of the comedian who is crying on the inside and laughing on the outside, Ricky is laughing on the inside and laughing on the outside all of the time,” says Sarandos, one of many who shares tales of three-hour dinners in which Gervais has the table in hysterics.
Guest says he and Gervais had hoped to collaborate on a project, but after renting a hotel suite in New York for a week to brainstorm ideas, they found they had made little progress. “It was like 10-year-olds working and ordering room service. We did nothing at all except make each other laugh,” he says. When they’re not together, the two observational comics will take pictures of people on the street and e-mail them to each other. (Gervais says they’re often drawn to the sensible person being confused by the bizarre person: “If there’s a crazy person doing a jig, and we look over and see a businessman looking confused, that’s the picture.”) Gervais also sends shots of himself playing different characters to Guest, who sheepishly admits he has more pictures of his friend on his iPad than he does of his children.
When asked to describe what time with Seinfeld and David entails, Gervais says: “They tease me about being poor. They have me in the middle, and they throw money above my head for me to jump up and try to catch.” He waits a beat before confessing, through his famed cackle, that that couldn’t be further from the truth: “They’d both be horrified to hear I even joked about that.” Horrified, perhaps, but given Gervais’ humor, it’s hard to imagine anyone would be surprised.
Like many comics, Gervais developed his persona as a way to get noticed in a large family. Born the youngest of four to a laborer father and housewife mother in a working-class home 40 miles west of London, Gervais found that being funny got him attention. Although his parents since have died, he has remained close to his siblings, along with their children and grandchildren. “It’s like Honey Boo Boo during Christmas,” he jokes of the boisterous brood that has inspired the Flanimals children’s books he writes and the film adaptation in the works. “I open the door, and they come out of everywhere and go through my bag looking for money. I enjoy them, but then I get to go home.” Press Gervais on why he and Fallon haven’t married or had kids, and he deflects: “I see people walking around with 12 kids with no shoes. The question should be: Why are they allowed to have children?”
Gervais’ early adulthood was marked by a short-lived stint as one-half of a new wave pop group, Seona Dancing, followed by years in radio. “We lived in terrible places,” says Fallon, who met Gervais while they were studying at University College London. “There was one studio apartment above a dodgy sauna that had no heat, but it was the only place we could afford. I was focused on finding work, but Ricky was unsure about what he wanted to do.” It would be well over a decade before he and Merchant would launch The Office. By the time he became a star, Gervais already was 40.
"When the first check came through for The Office, it ruined it a bit. I thought, ‘I didn’t do it for that,’ ” he notes of his guilt, before snickering, “I got over it.” Those checks have grown larger, allowing the couple to split time between London and New York, but Gervais suggests their day-to-day lacks Hollywood glamour. Most evenings, he and Fallon are parked in front of the TV with a bottle of wine and their cat, Ollie, as they watch the Scandinavian versions of The Bridge and The Killing. (Other Gervais favorites: Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Wire.)
Although Gervais’ onstage persona would suggest otherwise, he insists he’s yet to fully come to terms with the effects of his own notoriety. Shuddering at the mere mention of the term “celebrity,” he disdains fame for its own sake, a topic that has informed much of his work, from Office to Extras toLife’s Too Short. “I didn’t want to be lumped into those people who are living their life like an open wound, anything to be famous,” he says, as repulsed by the “stars” as he is by the population that props them up. “It’s like they see no difference between Kim Kardashian and Robert De Niro. They’re people with money on red carpets or on their telly, and they don’t distinguish.”
Ask him what he’d like to be remembered for, and he’ll say only those projects for which he entirely was responsible. That leaves out acting gigs in films like Ghost Town and March 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted, in which Gervais, an avid fan of the franchise, stars opposite Tina Fey as a villain. “Ricky’s got this ability to straddle the line very seamlessly between acting in something and acting slightly outside of it,” says Muppets producer Todd Lieberman, revealing that Gervais will sing and dance in the film. “He’s kind of winking and nodding to you that he’s doing this thing that’s funny, but you’re in on the joke with him.” Adds Disney studio chairman Alan Horn: “It’s hard to find that elusive balance between being irreverent, a little cheeky and sardonic and still being warm and vulnerable, but there’s something about his delivery that does both.”
Though he’s not prepared to give up acting in other people’s movies, Gervais is at a point where it only makes sense if he can do so without it interfering with his day job, which he jokingly refers to as “downloading” his brain. He begins churning out ideas when he wakes up, usually around 9, often hitting fever pitch during his daily half-hour runs. And he suggests he’s platform-agnostic with regard to where they land, as happy to create videos for his YouTube channel as he is to launch TV shows. (He’s similarly agnostic when it comes to how they’re consumed: “I don’t care about bootlegging. I just want people to see what I do, and chances are I’ve been paid for it already,” he adds with a smirk.)
"I just want to get inside of people’s heads and make them think. There’s nothing better than hearing, ‘I listen to your podcast every night before I go to sleep,’ or ‘I’ve watched Derek 10 times, and I’ve cried every time.’ That’s better than any award I could get,” he says, as a grin washes over his face. Suddenly, Gervais the provocateur has re-emerged: “The next time I win one, I want to go: ‘This isn’t for my fans. This is for those that don’t like me. Eat that.’ ” He pauses again, pleased with the idea. “I’ve got to do that. That would be good, wouldn’t it? Yeah, I’ll do that.”
All About Ricky Gervais turned 3 today!
Ricky: If you could be any nationality, what would you be and why?
Karl: Um, probably Italian.
Ricky: Okay, why?
Karl: Well just, uh, yeah I like the idea of it. I like… Italians are all right.
Ricky: Where would you live? Rome?
Karl: Probably… I probably wouldn’t wanna be in… in the middle of Rome. It’s too much hassle.
Steve: Have you been to Rome?
Karl: Yeah. It’s nice to visit and stuff. It’s good. Lot of old stuff.
Steve: Why have you chosen Italy? I’m interested to know why, of all the countries, you’ve chosen Italy?
Karl: I was a latecomer to pasta.
AFTER comedy god Ricky Gervais revealed on Twitter his potential love for Bishop’s Stortford, we’ve come up with 10 things that might entice him to the town.
The 52-year-old award-winning star of TV’s The Office, Extras andDerek spoke of his latent feelings for Stortford in a tweet last week (August 1).
He wrote: “Do you ever wonder what places you haven’t been to are like? I think I’d love Bishop’s Stortford but I have no idea why.”
It came during an exchange on the social media site with Boring Tweeter, who mentioned Stortford in a tweet.
Gervais, who has more than 4.9 million followers on Twitter, asked: “Wow. Have you been to Bishop’s Stortford yourself? If so, what stood out for you?”
Boring Tweeter responded by extolling the virtues of the car park at the Rhodes arts complex – “Great access and clearly marked lines” – and the “cracking” Pizza Hut – “I saw a van parked outside there once. I think it may have been unloading.”
So here’s our 10 reasons for Ricky to give interesting and not-at-all-boring Stortford a shot …
1. As an admirer of such archives as the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick and the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, Ricky could visit Bishop’s Stortford Museum, which is on the site of the former family home of the town’s most famous son, the ardent colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who was the first ever chairman of diamond company De Beers and the founder of Rhodesia.
2. Bishop’s Stortford is the only town in England recognised by the Department for Transport as being interesting enough to warrant narrowing a motorway. The M11 from London to Cambridge is three lanes in both directions until junction 8, the turn-off for Stortford, where both carriageways are then reduced to two lanes.
3. Stortford has a castle mound. No castle. Just a mound. Soon after local government reorganisation in 1974, East Herts District Council discovered Waytemore Castle had been built without planning permission. A retrospective planning application by the Normans was defeated and the castle was ordered to be pulled down. The mound is out of bounds all year round, except on carnival day, when you can climb the 59 steps to the top and see all the way across the Causeway car park to Waitrose.
4. Stortford is the only town in the world that has failed to sustain a McDonald’s, a KFC and a Pizza Hut, all of which have quit town centre premises in recent years.
5. Like London, Paris, New York, Budapest and many other fine cities around the world, Stortford has a river running through it. Unlike London, Paris, New York, Budapest and many other fine cities around the world, visitors to Stortford wouldn’t know it because it lies hidden as a result of town planners insisting on creating a Grand Canyon effect by allowing high-rise apartment developments along its banks.
6. Stortford was home to the first ever Holland & Barrett store. Hence the abundance of nettles.
7. Glenn Godfrey, lead singer in 1980s New Wave synthpop trio Heaven 17, used to go out with a girl from Stortford and was seen walking along North Street once. Talking of celebs, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from Open All Hours used to live up Windhill. Russell Brand used to go to school here, too. Jamie Oliver’s been seen in the Sainsbury’s at Thorley Park.
8. Stortford has a multi-storey car park. Well, we say “multi” … it’s got two floors.
9. Stortford has a fine yet dwindling collection of pubs, including the Boar’s Head (popular with kerb-crawling fans of the Rev Spooner), the Tanner’s Arms (hang on … that one’s shut), the George (no, that’s a Prezzo now), the Robin Hood (erm … Indian restaurant) and the Half Moon (yep, that’s still going), which has a brilliant room out the back which would be ideal for a low-key David Brent gig (ask Gemma behind the bar about hire rates).
10. The town’s newspaper, the Herts & Essex Observer, continues to be produced from the same premises where it was first published in 1861, when Queen Victoria was on the throne and Abraham Lincoln was US President. Different news team though … on the whole.
I’m loving having a YouTube channel to dick around on. I know I’ve always dicked around, whether on radio, TV or at the Golden Globes, but with this it’s actually expected of me.
I discovered that this is the best thing about Twitter too. Just playing; mucking about for the hell of it. Although, I could technically count that as work. Dicking about should be tax-deductible for me.
Let me explain. Scientific studies of creativity have basically concluded that it can’t be taught, as it is a “facility” rather than a learned skill. Putting it very crudely, creativity is the ability to play. And, to be able to turn that facility on and off when necessary. This makes perfect sense to me. Everything I’ve ever written, created or discovered artistically has come out of playing.
Stephen Nachmanovitch said that, “Creative work is play. It is free speculation using materials of one’s chosen form.” Basically mucking about with the stuff you have in front of you. Experimenting with it, seeing what happens, and keeping the stuff you like I guess. In fact Scott Adams said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
You have to let yourself go to be creative. Children possess this quality but then seem to lose it as they are told, “it’s not the done thing”. Pablo Picasso summed it up well; “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”.
The answer is simple. Never grow up. I don’t mean don’t become an adult with responsibility and the weight of the world on your shoulders. I simply mean if you’re writing or directing give yourself enough time to play. Play the fool. Goad. Shock. Laugh. Trip over something that isn’t there. Try something. And never be afraid to fail. That failure is useful too. It’s just another building block.
Fame can curb your playful streak in the same way as adulthood, as it is another form of societal pressure. This is dangerous as comedy at some level always has an element of undermining normality. The reason fame can stifle this is because reputation suddenly matters more. Now, it’s not just some idiot annoying everyone in the pub, it’s that idiot Ricky Gervais. I didn’t care about strangers thinking I was an idiot before because they didn’t know me. Now, they think they do. But, I’ve realised something. As important as reputation is in this case, it’s still only what strangers think is true about you. Character is who you really are. Only close friends really know you and that’s all that counts in the end.
It doesn’t mean you’re not more careful though. Tiny things can get taken out of context and you’re often on your guard with this in mind. There seems to be a real us and them battle with artists and critics. An artist moaning about critics is like a fisherman moaning about waves. Tough. They’re there. They’re there because artists are there. And in some cases vice versa. I think that’s because there’s limited space for successful creators.
It’s no lie that some critics have never tried or have failed at the thing they now offer “advice” on, but that doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t right sometimes. Some great ones are right a lot of the time. And yes there are some great critics. Sure, there are shitty critics. But fuck me there are shitty artists too. There are artists so shitty they couldn’t even be critics (that’s a joke by the way). You could say, “what’s the point in critics?” Good question. I’d like to answer “no point at all” to be honest. But actually I think there is a point to them, and it’s this — they simply add to the debate. Just like chatting with friends, just like this little thing I’m writing now.
The point of art is to make a connection. If people talk about it, it’s succeeded in a way. People have assumed that, because I don’t listen to critics, or take studio notes or whatever, that I think I’m perfect and have never made any mistakes. This could not be further from the truth. Making the mistakes is the point, is the fun, is the important bit. But they have to be my own. The writer Rita Mae Brown said, “Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.” The only difficult bit about this is getting final edit. So much creativity is stifled by people who “know better”, or by fear of failure, and before you know it, your goals have been twisted and you’ve forgotten what you set out to do.
I know many journalists in interviews have considered me combative, defensive and pedantic. They’d be right. But I bet they’ve never been misquoted. It’s infuriating. And I’m careful in interviews because that’s the last bit of influence I have on the result. They have the power of the edit. With Twitter I’m much more laid back because my side of the story is out there in black and white too. There’s a lovely equality about it.
Everyone is famous on Twitter. Everyone has their platform. There are downsides to this and sometimes the internet seems like everyone is just emptying a drawer out of the window, but that’s freedom of speech. You can’t censor things based on quality. Nor should you. To each his own. I’ve been critical of this sort of non-regulation in the past and I think I described forums and chat rooms as graffiti. Well maybe Twitter is just another big toilet wall, but there’s as much clean space and spray paint as you’ll ever need. What are you going to do with it? Create something or destroy someone else’s picture?
So, The Muppet Movie is unbelievable fun. No surprise there. What is a surprise, is how you bond with puppets. I actually find myself thinking about them and laughing at something they’ve said. Like it was their idea to say it?
I know you shouldn’t have favourites, but I love Pepe & Constantine. I’ve said too much.
Derek continues to pick up devoted fans. Thank you. There’s a real cult nature to it. I don’t mean in a scary “I take half their salary” way. I just mean, people are quoting it and starting their own fan sites and stuff. It’s a nice feeling.
I’m picking up a vibe similar to half-way through the first series of The Office. Although the ratings are slightly better actually. The Office got an average of 1.5m for the first series, which is about what Derek is getting on the night. But because of 4OD (Channel 4’s catch-up service) its episode average doubles that over the week.
TV habits are changing. Which is why Netflix is perfect for a show like Derek. For anything slightly fringe or culty or a just a bit different, word of mouth is everything.
One of the most frequently asked questions is “Is it scripted?” The answer is “Yes”. A lot of people thought The Office was improvised too. This is a testament to the wonderful naturalist acting from the cast. Karl has surprised a lot of people. He’s also caused the conspiracy theorists to raise their heads again, saying ‘We knew it. An Idiot Abroad is scripted too then.” Haha.
Here is a picture of Karl & David learning their lines.
Here’s a sneak peek of Episode 3 (By the way, the frog in this clip actually belongs to Karl. He was showing Jane and me round his new house and I spotted it in the garden. I said “We’re using that in Derek.” And we did.)
As I am currently filming the new Muppet Movie I am unable to do any chat shows or radio interviews to publicise my new show, Derek. It starts on Channel 4 in the UK on Wednesday the 30th of January and airs later this year around the rest of the world on Netflix.
Luckily, we conducted an interview on set with the main cast and transcribed it into the following blog which The Huffington Post will now publish to its hundreds of millions of wonderful, intelligent, comedy-loving readers.
I should start by saying it’s very difficult to talk with any certainty of mutual understanding about a series which hasn’t aired yet, but I’d like to give a couple of pointers. Here goes.
Is Derek a comedy or a drama? I get asked that a lot. Even after people have seen it.
I say, “What do you think it is?”
They say, “Well I laughed a lot but I cried as well. I’m just not sure if it was a drama with funny bits or a comedy with sad bits.”
I usually then say, “Derek is whatever you think real life is. Is your life a drama with funny bits or a comedy with sad bits?”
The answer doesn’t matter really. What matters is if you enjoy it… for whatever reason. Because it made you laugh, because it made you cry, because it made you think or even because it made you angry. Ha ha.
As long as it made you “something”.
For me, personally, it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever created or worked on. I love Derek more than any other character. In fact, I wish I were more like him.
I wish everyone was. It’s a show about kindness. It’s funny and sweet and deals with the real issues of everyday life. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. The performance that Kerry Godliman gives as Hannah may be the finest piece of character acting I’ve seen. And Karl Pilkington as Dougie makes me laugh every second he is on screen. Kev played by David Earl is a lovable train wreck. You wont know whether to hug him or take him to the vet to have him put down. The uncaring outside world popping in and out will boil your blood and the residents will break your heart.
Q: What inspired you to write Derek?
A: Everything comes from character. The Office came from David Brent, and Extras came from Andy Millman, and this comes from the character of Derek.
Q: Is his care home a world that you know well?
A: Yes. Half my family are care workers. My sister works with kids with learning difficulties. My sister-in-law works in a care home for people with Alzheimer’s. And four or five of my nieces work in old people’s homes. I always write about what I know. I worked in an office for 10 years, and so I wrote about it in The Office. For the last few years I’ve been working in the media and dealing with fame, and so I wrote about that in Extras. Cab drivers always say to me that there’s a great comedy to be written about cabs. They’re right. But they should write it, not me, because I don’t work in a cab and they do. It’s irresistible to want to talk about what you do.
Q: Where does the character of Derek come from?
A: He was originally a satirical stand-up device. He sees things very differently from the rest of us. He can say funny things because he does it will innocence and sincerity. He is like us when we were eight. He is like us before we discovered lying and competition and selfishness and started to shut up when we were excited in case it looked uncool. He has everything sorted.
Q: What are Derek’s key qualities?
A: At one point, Kev says, “In the past, I lied, cheated and took the shortcut. But if it wasn’t for Derek, I’d be dead.” Derek is scruffy and people dismiss him. But he has taken the only shortcut that works: kindness. He is pretty perfect because he possesses the only thing that matters, which is kindness.
Q: Is kindness one of the predominant ideas behind this show?
A: Absolutely. If there is a theme, it’s kindness. Kindness trumps everything. And that’s why the main characters have to be outsiders and losers. They all have to be deficient in everything except doing the right thing. They’re still better people than you if you’re not kind. Derek is so non judgmental but he sees through bullshit too. He only has one agenda- “What’s the right thing to do?” And he doesn’t even know it’s an agenda. He’s just “good” and nothing takes his eye of the ball. He sums it up in episode 6 when he says “I don’t think it matters if there is a god or not. I’ve met people who believe in God that are good and that are bad. And I’ve met people who don’t believe in God that are good and that are bad. So, just be good. I’m good. Not cos I think I’ll go to heaven but because when I do something bad, I feel bad. And when I do something good, I feel good.”
Q: Can you please explain the situation of this comedy to us?
A: In any sitcom, there have to be two ingredients. The first is that the characters have to be trapped, either literally or psychologically. Look at Porridge or Bilko or Steptoe and Son. The other ingredient is that the characters have to be a family, either literally like The Royle Family or Only Fools and Horses, or metaphorically, as in Dad’s Army. They have to be fighting outside forces together. In Bilko, for instance, they have the attitude that, “We’re all in this together. It’s us against the world.” While in Only Fools, they are joining forces to fight the economy.
Q: So what are the characters in Derek struggling against?
A: They’re fighting the outside world. They often say, “No one cares”. So I have a lot of uncaring intruders coming into the care home. A council man comes in and he clearly doesn’t care. And sons and daughters drop off their parents, and immediately start looking at their watches. They are all outsiders who don’t care. They are a stark contrast to the people who work in the care home.
Q: What is the family at the heart of this show?
A: The residents and the care workers are one big family. Dougie is the dad, Hannah is the mum, Derek is the good son and Kev is the disappointing son.
Q: Did some reviewers’ knee-jerk criticism of the pilot annoy you?
A: Yes. People criticised the show before the pilot, but that was because they hadn’t seen it. Everything I have done has polarised people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I hope that watching Derek might help viewers reassess their attitude to older people.
Q: Do you think Derek is a great role model?
A: Definitely. Superheroes fight evil, and in Derek I wanted to create a superhero who leads by example. He’s terrified by spiders, but he would never harm one. He says, “I could never hurt a living thing.” He is the same with people. He’s so sweet - out of the mouth of babes.
Q: Should we all aspire to be like Derek then?
A: Absolutely. He is the best person I know. He’s better than all of us. He’s funny and sweet and kind and sincere and helpful and enthusiastic and honest, and that trumps everything he isn’t. I love Derek!
Q: How did Ricky recruit you to play the role of Dougie?
A: We were out having something to eat and he said to me, “I’m doing this new series called Derek. Do you fancy being in it?” He’s always saying that – he got me to do a couple of lines in Extras. I replied, “It’s nice of you to ask, but you know I’m not an actor. Why don’t you get someone who knows how to do it?” I felt guilty about the idea of taking the job from a proper actor. But Ricky persisted, telling me, “All you have got to do is be yourself”. I thought, “I can do that!”
Q: Please outline your character for us.
A: Dougie is me if I hadn’t had any luck. Although he hasn’t been very lucky, he always tries his best. Deep down he still knows that life is basically rubbish, but we can’t do anything about it.
Q: How does he regard his job at the nursing home?
A: As much as he moans about his job, part of him likes it. It gives him a sense of worth. Like a lot of people, the highlight of his week is Friday when he gets paid. But despite his complaints, Dougie knows he has to keep working. In fact, he thinks that everyone should work. He hates scroungers and people who come to the nursing home hoping to benefit from their relatives’ wills. He’s always complaining about Britain’s Got Talent and people who don’t want to work for a living and just look for an easy life.
Q: How did people react to the pilot of Derek?
A: My dad is a pretty good critic – he is not afraid to tell me if he thinks something I’m in is bad. But he really liked the pilot. The show messes with your emotions – it makes you laugh and cry – and there is not much around like that.
Q: What is your take on Ricky as a director?
A: He’s incredible. It’s amazing how he knows exactly what he wants in every scene. He is able to explain what you’re doing wrong, and you just get on with it. It’s over before you realise you’ve done it. It never gets to the point of him screaming and shouting. When he says to me at the end of a scene, “That’s all right”, I think, “I got away with it again!”
Q: What do you think of Ricky as an actor?
A: Ricky is a brilliant actor. I find it odd watching him act because I know him so well. Even though I know what is coming in every scene, he still does things that leave me with a lump in my throat. I know it’s only acting, but it still gets a great reaction. Whenever he does that, I always think, “I can’t do that. I’m going to get found out here!”
Q: Do you think Derek can help change society’s view of older people?
A: It’s a nice thought that after watching this viewers might be more pleasant to old people all of a sudden. It’s probably not going to happen. But if this show makes one or two people change their view of older people, that wouldn’t be at all bad.
Q: Does this mean a new career for you as an actor?
A: No. This is not a new line of work from me. I’m not looking to become an actor. I still don’t feel like a proper actor. Kerry is a proper actress. When you’re doing a scene with her, you’re looking over your shoulder and thinking, “Blimey, she’s really good”. The hardest part is remembering the lines and trying not to laugh. Ricky is determined to make me laugh all the time – that must drive the crew mad!
Q: Have you got a lot out of this job?
A: Yes. I’ve learnt a lot, and it’s been a great experience. Ricky has been great. From the start, he’s told me, “You can do it. What are you worried about?” I suppose I can’t believe my luck. I’ve got no qualifications, but I’ve been given this great opportunity and I want to make the most of it. I suppose Ricky didn’t go to drama school, either. In the end, if you can convincingly be that person onscreen, what does it matter?
Q: Finally, have you enjoyed working on Derek?
A: Yes. I’m a bit rubbish at knowing when something is good. But if it goes out and I can say, “I wasn’t as bad as I thought I would be”, then I’ll be happy. Until then, I’ll be thinking, “I shouldn’t be here!”
Q: Please describe your character to us.
A: Hannah is the manager of the care home. She is very passionate and devoted to her job. She’s a very loving person who doesn’t want to judge at all. That’s quite a rare trait. It’s sometimes difficult to manage not to be judgmental. But Hannah just doesn’t judge people at all, and that makes her a very good carer. It also makes Kev’s presence manageable!
Q: Are there any similarities between you and Hannah?
A: I’d like to be more like Hannah. It’s nice to play her because she is so kind and non-judgmental. Those are characteristics I’m working on in myself!
Q: How would you characterise Hannah’s relationship with Derek?
A: They are friends who go back many years and have always enjoyed working together. She adores Derek. They have a very lovely friendship, and she thinks he’s a great bloke. Her affection for him is really sweet. What she adores above all else is his selflessness, and she wishes more people would be like him. She has developed this affection for him that he values enormously. They depend on each other - Hannah doesn’t have anything outside work. She feels Derek is one of the kindest people she has ever met. There is an absence of that in society, and he should be celebrated.
Q: Could it ever develop into a romance?
A: No. It’s a platonic marriage. His understanding of that is not the same as yours or mine, and she could never reciprocate it. But it remains a very sweet relationship.
Q: Is there another love in her life?
A: Hannah is a bit unlucky in love. She fancies Tom and fantasises about a relationship with him, but that doesn’t exist beyond her imagination. It doesn’t ever quite get going – sometimes things just don’t have the wind behind them. She’s not enormously confident and gets frustrated.
Q: Do you think it’s a good thing that this show does not always deliver happy endings?
A: Yes. I love the fact that Ricky says things are not always going to turn out how you’d hope. That’s true of a lot of relationships. It’s not due to a lack of will, but sometimes it simply feels like pushing a boulder uphill. Tom and Hannah are very scared of jumping into a relationship, making a horrible mistake and hurting each other. You could have shot them running across Broadstairs beach and leaping into each other’s arms like a glossy, traditional love story. But this show isn’t like that.
Q: How have you found it working with Ricky?
A: It’s been brilliant. He works really fast, so it can go by in the blink of an eye. But there are still tons of opportunities to try out new ideas. Overall, though, we don’t take the mick because it’s so precisely written. Ricky arrived with the characters really well formed – they were very well fleshed out from the beginning. But we are still able to do loads of improvising. Ricky is so creative – it’s a pleasure being able to enjoy his whole world.
Q: What has it been like working on the care home set [in fact, a disused RAF base in Uxbridge]?
A: It’s been great. Broad Hill Residential Care Home for the Elderly is a lovely world, and now it has started feel like my world. It felt very warm and magical and cosy. As the shoot has gone on, this has felt more and more like a real creative bubble. It’s a very nourishing environment. You feel the benevolence and love and affection between the carers and the residents. There’s a lot of tenderness and respect there. That’s been great.
Q: Have you enjoyed working with Karl?
A: Yes, it’s been really good fun. I didn’t know him before, but he is the most unpretentious person I’ve ever met. I don’t know how he has remained so unaffected.
Q: Do you think this series could help to overturn a few stereotypes about older people?
A: Yes, I think it could help audiences view older people differently and be more respectful towards them. I don’t think we’re very respectful towards the elderly at the moment. We’re scared of old age. But people forget that old people were once young. Sometimes you hear youngsters say, “You mustn’t swear in front of that old man,” but the old man replies, “swearing was not invented just 20 years ago, you know. I wasn’t always old.” It’s about keeping a young mind. We’re obsessed with youth in this country, so it is great to see a show like this that celebrates older people.
Q: You also have a very successful career as a stand-up comedian, don’t you?
A: Yes, it’s great because it means I always have something to fall back on. It makes me more relaxed when I’m acting, because I know if I have a quiet period, I can always go back to stand up. They’re both forms of performance, but very different worlds.
Q: You are recording an episode of Live at the Apollo soon. How will you prepare for that?
A: I’ll sit on a tiny box in the foetal position for a day, dribbling [laughs]. No, I’m sure I’ll have a mild panic attack and then just get on with it. I have played the Hammersmith Apollo before, when I supported Micky Flanagan, and it’s a lovely room. Sometimes bigger crowds are nicer than smaller ones, because the laughs spread out across the venue. It can be tremendous fun. It’s a great thing to do.
Q: Finally, do you see a long future for Derek?
A: Absolutely. It’s not just about Derek and Hannah. It’s about all the residents. So many lovely characters reside at the nursing home, and they all have amazing stories. It could go anywhere. There are endless tales still to be told.
Q: You still occasionally work as a gardener. What made you switch to acting?
A: Ricky gave me an opportunity, and you have to give it a go, don’t you? In my head, I’m still a gardener. So when you’re offered a job in a sitcom, you think, “I’ll give it a crack, and then I’ll go back to the gardening!”
Q: We need to talk about Kevin.
A: Kev is a bullsh*itter. He’s lazy, but quite confident. He’s like a dog that no one strokes. He just sits in the corner and wants to be fondled, but just gets ignored. I wouldn’t want to send my own parents to a place where someone like Kev worked! But he also has a softer side, and he looks out for Derek.
Q: Please tell us more.
A: Kev is also pretty seedy. I do a stand-up character called Brian, and he can be seen as quite sleazy. In his writing, Ricky has taken it to the next level with Kev. He is properly dirty! It’s great fun talking about rude bits 24/7.
Q: Are there any similarities between you and Kev?
A: No, not now. But he does remind me of myself in my 20s, when I did virtually nothing, and came up with all these excuses. Then something clicked, and I realised that time was running out. I thought, “I’d best get on with it now”, and I did.
Q: Did you do any research into the character?
A: No. Ricky asked me to do a bit of research, but I’m afraid I forgot! The character talks about a lot of dirty things, but don’t worry, I didn’t go on any unsuitable sites. I just imagine things!
Q: What is Kev’s relationship with Dougie like?
A: Kev and Dougie argue all the time, but they’re still like brothers. If someone is giving Dougie hard time, Kev will step in because it feels like the brotherly thing to do. They get on each other’s nerves, but they will always defend each other.
Q: What are Ricky’s strengths as a writer?
A: You just have to look at his past work. The Office is quite good – in fact, its pretty much perfection! Extras is great, too – I don’t want to go on because Ricky will get a big head! He is simply very good at his job.
Q: How have you found it being directed by Ricky?
A: He’s a brilliant director. I have mainly worked as a stand-up in the past, and I don’t necessarily see myself as an actor. But he gives me a lot of room to play, and he doesn’t mind if I mess things up from time to time. There’s no pressure to nail it on the first take. Sometimes I might laugh instead of being serious, and Ricky will just make that part of the show. I can’t imagine what it would be like to work with a stressful director. I think I would walk off and a huff and go home! But we have such a lot of fun making this – and that’s all down to Ricky’s great skill as a director.
Q: Do you think a nursing home is a good setting for a comedy?
A: Definitely. In fact, I can’t believe there has never been a sitcom written about a nursing home before. It seems like the perfect situation. All the residents have these great stories. They’re so interesting. They have lived the most amazing lives. They are also incredibly young at heart. One day I had to come in here and tell a lot of jokes from my stand-up set, and one 91-year-old resident in particular really loved it. Often older people are forgotten about. I hope this might help some people change their mind about the elderly.
Q: Do you feel there is potential for more series of Derek?
A: Absolutely. I think there would be lots of new places to take these characters. It would certainly be good fun to go deeper inside Kev’s head and see more of what he thinks about. And the friendship between Derek, Dougie and Kev could definitely be expanded.
Q: Finally, what have you learned from doing this job?
A: The fact that you have to overcome your own fear. It’s very easy to say no to lots of things. But I’ve discovered that you have to have a crack at things. You may fail at first, but then you realise that you’re not dead and just have another go. I love acting. When you get it right, it’s great fun. It’s just playing. It also beats digging a ditch, which is what I do with the rest of my life. It’s a lot easier than that, I can tell you.