The king of deadpan
First came David Brent, then Andy Millman; now Ricky Gervais has brought a third version of himself to life in the Hollywood comedy Ghost Town. No other actor has drawn so much humour from an exasperated sigh. He talks to Donald Clarke
THERE'S a tired cliché that appears at the top of too many interviews with comic actors. You know how it goes. Having listened to a collection of theatrical anecdotes in various funny voices, the journalist begins to wonder if the interviewee may have been overpowered by his own imagination. "Will the real Arnie Chuckle please stand up?" the headline pretends to ask.
You don't get that with Ricky Gervais. Indeed, following the success of The Office- one of the rare sitcoms to change the entertainment landscape - some pundits expressed surprise that the creator of David Brent, the series' antihero, shared so many of the deluded area manager's tics and intonations. Ricky came across like a much smarter, considerably more self-aware version of Brent. Andy Millman, the angry protagonist of Extras, the triumphant follow-up to The Office, had even more in common with Gervais. Now, in the superb romantic comedy Ghost World, we are offered a third variation on the character.
"The moment I read it, I knew it was funny," Gervais says of the script. "And immediately I knew the character was me. I had read all these scripts and thought: anyone could play this character. But this one was me."
Now, none of the above is meant as criticism. Woody Allen, Bob Hope and Jack Benny never strayed too far from their stock character either. Not every comedian wants to be Peter Sellers. In truth, the dangers of hyperbole noted, I would go so far as to say that Gervais's turn in Ghost Town- his debut as a movie leading man - confirms him as a comic performer of some genius. No other actor has drawn so much humour from an exasperated sigh or a glance to heaven.
David Koep's film casts Ricky as a misanthropic dentist who, after suffering a bungled colonoscopy, acquires the ability to commune with the ghosts who stalk the streets of New York City. A romance with Téa Leoni's glamorous Egyptologist results.
"There is a rom-com out every week and they are all dreadful," he bellows. "They are all the same film. If you did a graph, they'd all have the same peaks and troughs. You know exactly what is going to happen. Dare I say it, this is a throwback to The Apartmentand It's a Wonderful Life. I mean Shirley MacLaine tries to commits suicide in The Apartment. They dared to show man at his lowest ebb."
Ricky Gervais proves to be pretty much as you'd expect him to be. He's wildly enthusiastic, unstoppably chatty and endlessly analytical. It is, however, easy to understand how he has sometimes been misrepresented as a bit of a boor. A strain of irony runs through his sparkling conversation that doesn't always translate comfortably into newsprint.
"I was interviewed by this journalist who rubbed me up the wrong way," he says. "You know when you meet somebody sniffy who doesn't want to do the job? So, she asked me what advice I would have for anybody who wanted to become famous. I said: 'Murder a prostitute'. The point was that you shouldn't want to be famous just to be famous. Somehow infamy and fame have got muddled up today."
If it were plastered across a tabloid, that quote could, of course, make Gervais sound like a dangerous lunatic. But, when viewed in its proper context, the remark gets at an obsession that has driven a great deal of his recent work. In the Extras Christmas special, Andy Millman, an actor who goes on to write an idiotic sitcom, ends up accepting an invitation to appear on Celebrity Big Brother. The show proves to be as much fun as a day trip to the Seventh Circle of Hell.
"I think maybe at first I got it wrong after becoming famous," he says.
"I kept saying: I don't want to be lumped in with those people who are famous for being famous. There is a difference between being famous as a winner of Big Brotherand for being Robert De Niro. But I said it so often people thought I protested too much. 'Oh he says he doesn't care about money, but that's just because he's rich.' But I really don't." As he goes on, he exhibits an almost puritanical distaste for those who achieve fame without putting in the hours. He admits, however, that, when at secondary school in Reading, he was prepared to coast a little and rely on his undoubted wits.
"Now it's the opposite. I don't want to win the pools. I want to work. I now realise that it's working for the money that offers the real rewards. That's something I learnt from my parents. I don't want it to be easy."
Ricky Gervais certainly had to spend a great deal of time toiling in the fields before becoming properly famous.
Born in 1961, he studied biology at University College, London, where he started a romance with the perennially loyal Jane Fallon. In the years that followed, he briefly sang with an unsuccessful pop group and - even more briefly - managed glam revisionists Suede. While Jane set out on an ultimately successful career as a TV producer, Ricky took a job as entertainments officer at his old university and, a decade later, was hired as head of speech at Xfm Radio. Gervais claims that he was happy being an ents officer, happy being something-or-other on the wireless and that he is happy now. I believe him.
"In the early days, I did wonder sometimes. I think I actually got the forms for teacher training actually," he says. "I was on the dole for a good while as Jane was working her way up."
Jane eventually became a producer on the hugely successful This Life. Was she always supportive? "Always. Always. Of course, I had a job by then. My family were supportive too. I never borrowed money from them. That was important. We wanted to live in the centre of London, so we may have been paying high rents, but we'd made our beds and we were happy to lie in them. But, even when we had no money and had only rice to eat, I knew it would eventually be all right. Now I look back and realise I had no basis for that. But I knew it would be all right."
Sure enough, the Xfm job put him in contact with Steve Merchant, who worked as his assistant, and, before long, the two men found themselves jabbering on air. Ricky eventually secured a slot on C4's fitful The 11 O'Clock Showand, subsequently, embarked on his own misunderstood quasi-satirical talk show.
"You know, I've been waiting for the backlash over the last few years," he says. "There was a piece I read in The Guardianthat said The Officewas overrated and so on. I took a deep breath and realised I didn't care what he thought. That was a relief. Mind you, they got the backlash in first with The 11 O'Clock Show.After the reactions to that, I was ready for anything."
Despite being kicked all around the review pages for his early TV appearances, Ricky managed to talk the BBC into commissioning The Office. Seven years later, that series' qualities seem entirely undiminished. Like Fawlty Towersand Dad's Army, the show, co-written with Merchant, features a socially uncertain man cursed with an amount of power, which, though paltry, is still more than he can comfortably handle.
"I think I knew it was good from the beginning," he says. "I knew the impression I did of this smarmy boss was good. I knew it was funny. From the beginning, we were going to spend as long as it took on the script. In comedy, 80 per cent of it is there in the initial idea. The remaining 20 per cent is the really hard work. The key was we had this series of rules: no exposition, no characters talking to themselves, just no overacting."
There are, of course, people who, for understandable reasons, will never warm to Gervais's comedy. Some critics recoil from the undercurrent of cruelty in his writing and detect a self-satisfaction in his public appearances.
Yet it's hard to deny that he has managed his recent career quite effectively. Whereas, say, John Cleese never satisfactorily followed up on Fawlty Towers, Gervais has gone on to deliver the fine Extras on TV, to write the hit book Flanimals for kids, to extemporise his extraordinary podcasts on the internet, to sell out several tours of stand-up comedy and to knock out decent cameos in films such as Stardust and For Your Consideration. His television interviews with such comedy heroes as Larry David and Christopher Guest were, admittedly, excruciatingly sycophantic, but that's still a pretty decent hit rate.
Next year, his debut film as director, This Side of the Truth, will arrive in our cinemas.
"We just did a test screening and they really enjoyed it," he says. "The most common word that kept coming up was 'original'. That really delighted me."
How will he cope if his extraordinary run comes to an end? What if the critics hate the film? "I know the press can't hurt me now," he says. "I remember one review of The Office Christmas Specialthat compared it unfavourably to Dickens. What? You're saying I'm not as good as the greatest storyteller ever. Boo! Boo! I think I can live with that. Ha ha ha!"
Ricky's favourite pastime
Of all Gervais's creations, the oddest and the most durable has been the podcast he generates with co-writer Steve Merchant and the inimitable, indescribable Karl Pilkington.
"It's the favourite thing I do," Ricky says. "I never watch The Officeagain. But I do listen to the podcast all the time. I just want to hear Karl's voice when he comes up with an extraordinary idea for the first time."
Originally a fellow employee at Xfm Radio, the bald, monotonic, befuddled Pilkington has a talent for misunderstanding the world in endlessly creative ways. While listening to his Monkey News bulletins or descriptions of his attempts to do the washing-up without using thumbs, one can't help but wonder if "Karl" is a comic creation.
He's definitely real. But he's smart. He knows he's 'Karl'.
"But he is 'Karl' even when he's not being 'Karl'. If you know what I mean." Erm? Almost.
"He knows what he says sounds eccentric and that he will never convince me of his crazy ideas, but that doesn't mean he doesn't believe what he's saying. The way his brain pinballs around is amazing. I will explain a news story to him, but I know that, by tomorrow, his own mad interpretation of the story will be all he remembers. He's a genius."
The Ricky Gervais Showis available on iTunes or www.rickygervais.com. Karl Pilkington's latest book, Karlology, is currently on sale.