In the last decade, he has made the leap from quirky comedy genius to Hollywood actor, arena-filling stand-up act and, according to some, massive egomaniac. His latest sitcom—the gentle, understated “Derek”—has really got the critics frothing. Is Ricky Gervais getting a raw deal?
Author Chris Wright Illustration Tom Cocotos
Despite all the conflicting opinions about Ricky Gervais (he’s very much a love-him-or-hate-him figure), nobody would dispute the fact that the man is an absolute genius when it comes to making people cringe.
“The Office,” the show he co-created back in the early 2000s, gave us David Brent, the most toe-curling character in television history—played with unctuous aplomb by Gervais. His follow-up sitcoms, “Extras” and “Life’s Too Short,” were equally mortifying. Then there were his no-holds-barred stints as host of the Golden Globes, which had half of Hollywood squirming.
Gervais’ latest show, “Derek”—which debuted last month on Netflix—has added a new dimension to the discomfort. An oddly moving comedy set in an old folks’ home, “Derek” sees Gervais in the role of a kind-hearted idiot who, according to some critics, makes a mockery of people with disabilities (a claim he flatly denies).
But the comedian’s image problems don’t end there. Gervais has also taken hits for what some perceive as a growing arrogance, a drastic Hollywood-style weight loss and celebrity schmoozing. As one particularly savage feature put it: “Gervais might now be in the self-congratulation business for real, someone starting to enjoy his own mean streak just a little too much.”
Gervais spoke to Hemispheres from his home in London. He was actually nice.
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Hemispheres: Hold on, sorry, I want to check my recorder—the blank tape is a recurring nightmare of mine.
Ricky Gervais: I did an interview once with a journalist; it was like an hour, and he called me afterwards horrified. He’d had his bag stolen and wanted to know if we could do it again.
Hemispheres: Did you?
Gervais: I did, but he spent another hour going, “And you said something like,” trying to re-create my answers. It was awkward.
Hemispheres: I’m glad you used that word, because I wanted to say that you’re responsible for the most awkward television moment I’ve ever sat through.
Gervais: You’re going to have to narrow it down.
Hemispheres: The CNN interview with Piers Morgan; he was trying to be edgy and ended up threatening to spank you.
Gervais: Oh. I remember looking directly into the camera when he said that.
Hemispheres: I actually wondered if you had orchestrated that. You do specialize in creating moments of discomfort.
Gervais: There’s a reason for that. Because I’m a white, privileged, middle-aged male, terrible things don’t happen to me. I’m not being shot at in a war zone. I’m not in a country where the infant mortality rate is one in three. The worst thing that happens in a safe, liberal society is we get embarrassed.
Hemispheres: Even so, you seem to be unusually fascinated by mortification.
Gervais: I don’t actually get embarrassed for myself. But if I see someone else embarrassed, I want the world to swallow me up. Do you know what I mean? You see someone fall over in the street, it could be an old lady with shopping bags, and she doesn’t check to see if she’s broken a bone.
Hemispheres: She just gets right back up as if nothing happened.
Gervais: Yes! And you’re watching through your fingers.
Hemispheres: You’ve latched onto that impulse in a way that nobody else has.
Gervais: For me, trying to be something you’re not is the worst thing. That was a big theme in “The Office.” David Brent trying to be the center of attention, to be the best dancer, to be good at football, flirting badly—it was excruciating.
Hemispheres: I think of David Brent as being one of the truly great TV characters. Same thing goes for Tony Soprano. Maybe because they should be despicable, but you find yourself rooting for them.
Gervais: They were both vulnerable.
Hemispheres: And a bit fat.
Gervais: Yes. But if Tony Soprano didn’t have angst, you wouldn’t have cared about him. Even though he was a murderer, we felt his pain. With David Brent, he wanted to be this man who was very professorial about racism and sexism, but he didn’t quite have it right. And deep down you knew that he just wanted to be loved. He wasn’t a bad person.
Hemispheres: This approach to comedy—dwelling on uncomfortable moments—is that something that came to you one day, or is it just the way you look at the world?
Gervais: When I was six, seven, I’d comment on how granddad ate his food. I’d point out that it was slightly different. I was fascinated with difference, and with the impact that had on other people. If I saw a weirdo in the street, a drunk tramp dancing crazily, the first thing I did was look at the businessman looking confused, and that’s what made me laugh. The normal person across the road looking at the tramp.
Hemispheres: Funny you should say that, because I was watching Golden Globes clips today, and it was a lot more fun when the camera moved to the audience—Angelina Jolie wincing at something you’d just said.
Gervais: I can see all that when I’m up there, and that’s what I love. I embrace the gasps as much as the laughter. You know the gasps are going to come, and you have to sort of conduct that. They have to go through all those emotions.
Hemispheres: But you got flak for that. Some people thought you took it too far.
Gervais: That’s my comedy. You take people to an uncomfortable place, and you guide them through it. You guide them out to the other side, into the sunshine. That’s what humor is for—it gets us through bad stuff. It’s an anesthetic, and it works.
Hemispheres: It’s easy to look at your characters as life’s losers. But I also think you get at fears we all have about our own flaws, our pettiness and lack of self-awareness.
Gervais: That’s right. But I do want life’s losers. There’s nothing remotely interesting or funny about winners.
Hemispheres: Which brings us to to “Derek.” Knowing what they know about you, people hear you’re playing somebody who has, I don’t know, a mental deficiency, and they assume you’re having a laugh at his expense. You’ve been criticized for this.
Gervais: I don’t think he does have a deficiency. I’ve heard all these things, people asking if he has Down syndrome, is he autistic, and I never intended that. Derek is not the brightest crayon in the box, but neither is Mr. Bean. He’s an odd little character, but he’s so sweet and innocent. He’s very different from anything I’ve ever done.
Hemispheres: The show is very understated; the comedy is muted. I’ll be honest: The first time I saw it I didn’t like it.
Gervais: Honestly, that excites me. Because everything I’ve ever loved I didn’t like at first.
Hemispheres: It did grow on me. It’s very touching. There was an episode that had me in tears. I just thought it was so well done.
Gervais: Well, thank you very much, cheers. To hear someone say that means so much to me. I think it’s because with “Derek” there’s less of a barrier between what’s onscreen and what I feel when I’m doing it. There is no veil of irony.
Hemispheres: That’ll surprise some people. You’re not known for your sensitive side.
Gervais: Yeah, that gets confusing. Onstage, I play an arrogant showbiz pseudo-intellectual bore who comes down on the wrong side of every issue. People want to be able to know who you are, and they don’t, and it frustrates them.
Hemispheres: You’ve had trouble with the media lately. There’s a lot of: “Ricky Gervais has gotten too big for his boots.” You do interviews and people goad you, try to get you to act like that. There have been times when I felt a bit sorry for you.
Gervais: I think you’ve got to realize that as many people are going to dislike you as like you. So the more famous you get, the more people dislike you. It’s the way of the world. I can’t complain.
Hemispheres: It’s a cliché, but that really is a very English thing, isn’t it, that build-them-up-and-knock-them-down mentality.
Gervais: It’s true. We’re suspicious about success. America is much more positive.
Hemispheres: The tendency to celebrate failure is also a big part of English humor, and your own humor. Does this mean your comedy doesn’t work so well in the U.S.?
Gervais: No. The idea that Americans don’t get irony is a ridiculous myth.
Hemispheres: But look what happened with the American version of “The Office.” It was a different show.
Gervais: It was a different show because it was more positive. If you’re doing a fake documentary about a workplace in England and America, one’s going to be about a dreary place where people are looking at their watches and wishing their lives away, and the other is going to be a group of people who still have this idea that they might make it one day. So the show had to reflect that.
Hemispheres: What do you think Americans will make of “Derek”?
Gervais: I just have to make sure people watch it, and to make the point that, as much as I deal in pathos and cynicism, that’s not what I’m about. All of my things have happy endings in one way or another. My characters always triumph, even if it’s only in a tiny way. I am an optimist; I think everything will be OK.
Hemispheres: You’ve worked with lots of celebrities over the years. Has there been anyone, and you don’t have to name names, who was just horrible?
Gervais: Yep. I can’t tell you who, but it was quite shocking. And you’d hardly count them as an A-lister, either.
Hemispheres: OK, moving on…. Who was it?
Gervais: No. I’ll tell you one day, when we’re good friends.
Hemispheres: I’m going to hold you to that. I’ll camp outside your door: “Are we friends yet? How about now?”
Hemispheres: I should let you go.
Gervais: I’m in no hurry. It’s Friday night and I’m on my second glass of champagne. I’ve just seen that the cat has vomited on the carpet, which is good.
Hemispheres: My advice is to hold off on cleaning it up until you’ve gotten sick too, then you can kill two birds with one stone.
Gervais: There you go. There’s a lovely end to your interview.
CHRIS WRIGHT can currently be found wandering a leafy north London neighborhood with a thermos of coffee and an autograph book.