Cherwell

Profile: Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais has never been one to shy away from debate. A five minute scroll through his Twitter account will, after working your way through innumerable selfies taken in the bath, reveal a clear attitude to issues of hunting, conservation and religion. It’s safe to say he hasn’t exactly kept his atheist world-view a secret over the years: lest we forget, @rickygervais is followed by around 5.6 million people.

Woe particularly betides anyone who disagrees with him. His proclivity for ripping apart the ill-thought-through tweets of such people is impressive, making it almost scary to broach such subjects. If he can do that in 140 characters, what damage could he do with less pressing restrictions?

Fortunately, though, Gervais is not the student journalist destroyer I had preconceived. In fact, he is happy to consider such matters, responding with sensitivity to his privileged position as someone whose views are easily and constantly accessible when I ask whether he sees himself as an activist.“I guess so.But if I am now, then I always was. It’s just that when I was at school or working in an office my comments weren’t beamed into 6 million mobile phones or picked up by the press.”

Coming across as someone aware and comfortable with his fame, Gervais uses his platform to voice opinions he has always had. I couldn’t go on now without mentioning religion more specifically, the chief catalyst for
his controversial rants. For him, it’s a case of being fair.“I’m trying to level the playing field a bit, I guess. On Twitter, you’re probably not going to convert anyone either way, and I don’t particularly want to.”

How does he go about this levelling process? “I say things that I believe to be true in every walk of life, as I believe that is not only my right but the right thing to do. My “message” is probably to those who are already atheist but feel that there is something wrong with them. I want them to be as proud of not believing in any god as those are who believe in one of the 3000 gods so far on offer.”

Regardless of personal opinion, Gervais must be viewed as someone who has considered things carefully, someone who knows where he stands. He is pensive and thoughtful, and I wonder if this is a reflection of his philosophy degree from UCL.

Comedy doesn’t jump out immediately as a subsequent career choice but he is quick to reconcile the two, establishing a connection that makes sense as soon as he mentions it. “I think something that philosophy has in common with constructing a joke from an observation is analysis. They both need to deal in truth to some extent. Comedy is always, at some level, undermining a societal norm so you have to know what the norm is to undermine it in a funny way, a way that makes a connection. It’s rather like Les Dawson playing the pianobadly: you have to know what it’s meant to sound like to find the wrong notes funny.”

Perhaps it is this attention to the very basis of comedy that has allowed his career to take him where it has. Few comedians can boast the utter ubiquity that Gervais has achieved: aside from the obvious TV and film appearances, he has written books, assisted in launching the careers of Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, and won Golden Globes, Emmys and BAFTAs. Is it even possible to have highlights amongst such success?

“I remember winning that first Golden Globe for best comedy performance in The Office with great affection. I guess because it was my first real foray into America. Being invited on to Sesame Street or The Simpsons maybe?Hosting The Golden Globes was pretty amazing too.”

The move from Britain to America strikes me as particularly important. Few would think of Ricky Gervais without first thinking of David Brent, of the seminal anthem ‘Free Love Freeway’, and of Brent’s Comic Relief moves that changed the contemporary dance scene forever.

And yet, some might argue that it was Steve Carell’s American remake that cemented the programme’s prominence in TV comedy history, giving it a voice amongst the masses on the other side of the Atlantic. I remark that Ricky has previously described a feeling that The American Office was not ‘his’ but he is unsentimental about losing something so close to his comedic identity. 

“I always knew that was the deal and I think that was the secret to its success. Initially, they asked me to play the lead character again and I didn’t see the point. I believed that my version of the show connected in
Britain because of the realism and the attention to detail. I had worked in a real office for 10 years and tried to put all my observations, unfiltered, on screen. The remake had to be made byAmericans for Americans.”

That’s not to say that he feels completely removed from the newer version’s inception, taking pains to remind me of his input. “To be honest, my involvement setting the whole thing up was a lot more than any other remake I’d ever heard of and I like to think that helped. However if you give permission for your work to be remade,you can’t be too precious. I look at it like doing a cover version of a song. If you record a Bowie song, he doesn’t keep turning up to the studio saying “I used sax there, not guitar.” He just receives his intellectual copyright money, like I do. Kerching!”

Are these the wordsof a man who has turned ‘Hollywood’? A one-time comedian who has moved on to larger things, and larger sums of money? Not at all: it’s evident from the way Gervais talks about his work that this is not the case. He seems almost star-struck when speaking of his time on the set of the Muppets sequel. 

“It was a joy. I had to keep remembering that there were human beings in the room to talk to as well. I found myself ignoring them and literally having normal conversations with my felt chums. It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘talk to the hand.’”

It’s irresistible at such a moment to ask the question quite obviously on everyone’s lips: what is everyone’s favourite green frog like behind the camera? Gervais is succinct.“Kermit is a gentleman.” Very much as I had expected.

Evidently, even Ricky Gervais can be struck by moments of awe at the places his career has taken him. And frankly, who wouldn’t be proud of having appeared on screen with Kermit the Frog, Homer Simpson, and David Bowie? Whilst it would be conceivable that appearing in such high profile productions would propel him away from his comedy roots, he is keen to underline his grounded nature when I point out the contrast between Hollywood megastar and British comedian. 

“There is a huge contrast yes, but in those Hollywood type of films I’m usually hired to provide abit of “me” as opposed to becoming a completely different person, à la Daniel Day Lewis.”

Obviously, we won’t be seeing the new method-acting Gervais, immersing himself in roles of American presidents or ruthless oil tycoons any time in the near future. He is still the inventor of David Brent, Flanimals and the bath-selfie, and that’s unlikely to change. “I usually take fun roles where I can ad lib: to all extents and purposes I am still Ricky Gervais, British Comedian.” The title suits him.