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Ricky Gervais: Satire, Celebrity and the Muppets

The comedian and writer on the problem with celebrities, his new movie and his love of social satire

Comedian and writer Ricky Gervais likes to make fun of celebrities—and, sipping a latte during a recent interview, he is true to form. “They worry about what someone on Twitter says about them,” he says with a laugh. “You may as well walk around public toilets and look for graffiti about yourself, because it’s as relevant.”

Of course, he is no stranger to fame himself. As he talks in the lobby restaurant of the Loews Regency Hotel in New York, a waiter comes up every now and then to tell him how funny he is or to confess to being a fan. “I paid them to do that,” he says. “Clooney is next.” And there are some stars whom he admires. “Meeting Elmo was amazing!” he says of the “Sesame Street” character.

Mr. Gervais, 52, plays a villain named Dominic Badguy in the next Muppets movie, “Muppets Most Wanted,” to be released on March 21. He originally found fame co-writing and starring in the original “Office” television series, a British spoof on workplace culture, in the early 2000s. His more recent credits include co-writing and starring in the 2009 film “The Invention of Lying” and the series “Derek,” a comedy on Netflix (going into its second season) about an intellectually challenged man working at a retirement home.

Mr. Gervais didn’t become a Muppets fan by way of any children. He and his longtime girlfriend don’t have any, and he argues that too many people do. He jokes that parents who want children should have to apply for licenses before they do so. “You’ve got seven children?” he says, pretending to be a law-enforcement officer. “Why do you want another one?” Instead, he says he enjoys the Muppets because he’s still a child himself.

For this movie, he didn’t feel he had to change his approach for his younger audience. “Don’t patronize kids,” he says. “Use irony, use sarcasm, and they’ll get it.” It’s the same formula he uses in his adult humor. “I enjoy deconstructing human behavior,” he says. “That’s my favorite thing: social satire.”

Mr. Gervais says that he can’t help noticing people’s quirks, body language and reactions to social taboos. As his eyes dart back and forth to scan a crowd that clearly recognizes him, he says, “I don’t look for anything, but I see everything—it’s like the man with X-ray eyes, I can see every little foible and every little thing.” It isn’t always pleasant. “Honestly, once I latch onto a foible it drives me mad—it’s like a dripping tap.” He recently went to a movie theater, and his friends told him they had to move because a man nearby was sniffling every 10 seconds. They knew it would distract him. “It’s like I see someone and I go—shrooom!—into their world and I see their upbringing and I see what’s happened to them,” he explains. “Sometimes I want to go over and go, ‘You have an uncle that used to bully you, didn’t you?’ and they’ll go, ‘Yes, I did. You’re amazing, Ricky.’ ” (At least that’s how the conversation goes in his imagination.)

Mr. Gervais says that he doesn’t enjoy embarrassing people—but he doesn’t hesitate to share his own views, even if they make others uncomfortable. “I have truth Tourette’s,” he says with a grin. In 2011, Mr. Gervais made waves for roasting Hollywood stars at the Golden Globe Awards, but he thought the criticism was overblown. “You usually have to be a serial killer to get that many inches” in the press, he says, adding that “offense is taken, not given.” He went on to host the Golden Globes again in 2012.

These days he’s using his Twitter account, with over five million followers—”I’m not friends with all of them!”—to promote his views and projects. He sees it as a valuable marketing tool, but when he first signed on, he says it was more of a burden. When he hadn’t tweeted in a while, he’d think, “I’ve got to do something for the sake of it, like they were all sitting at home going, ‘He hasn’t tweeted’—five million of them like birds in a nest, thinking, ‘Mummy’s not coming back!’ They’re starving!”

Mr. Gervais was born in Berkshire, England, to a father who worked as a laborer and a designer mother, he says. Then he corrects himself: “She wasn’t really, but she used to make her own clothes because we were poor.” He says that he was never very ambitious growing up. “I was strangely, unjustifiably satisfied and confident, and knew it would all be OK. I always did what I wanted.”

While attending University College London, he started a band called Seona Dancing that never took off. By the time he reached his late 20s, he got a job as an office middle manager—an experience that became the basis for “The Office.” He moved on to work at a local radio station, and after writing scripts for the DJs, he got a call from Channel 4 to audition for a satirical alternative news show. They ended up offering him his own spoof chat show, “Meet Ricky Gervais.” Next he turned a boss-type character that he had created to entertain his friends into David Brent, the star of “The Office,” which made its debut in 2001.

Now he says he’s working harder than ever before. Along with working on “Derek,” he has recently extended his old “The Office” character’s life in an online series called “Learn Guitar with David Brent” and is planning to make a feature film with him. Mr. Gervais also performs around the world as a standup comedian.

"I sort of quite like the struggle now," he says. "I want to take some punches. I want battle scars." Then he stops himself to clarify: "obviously, metaphorical ones, because real ones would scare the s— out of me." He then imagines how his comments will come off in an article: "The most pretentious thing Ricky Gervais said was he liked battle scars," he pretends to read. "He did this while drinking a latte and getting annoyed at someone sniffling." He stops to ask another question. "Can you imagine me in the army? I’d wonder, ‘Why’s he sniffling so much? Corporal, corporal, he keeps sniffling so much!’ ‘Get in the trench!’ ‘Are there any spiders down there?’ "

Mr. Gervais likes his life just as it is. Because he became famous so late in life, he doesn’t think it has affected him. “I think it’s different being famous as Justin Bieber, ” he says. “I already had the necessary truths and values in order, and I knew what was right and what was wrong.” He still has the same friends, family and girlfriend.

"I’ve got a nicer house, and I travel comfortably, but that’s about it," he says. "I don’t do drugs, I don’t race cars, I don’t gamble, I don’t buy jewelry, and nothing I couldn’t do when I was poor have I started doing when I was rich," he adds. "I always acted like I was a famous cocky bastard."

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