"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.”