One line in David Brent: Life on the Road says a lot about Ricky Gervais's attitude to the world. The vain, insecure anti-hero of the mockumentary The Office, back on screen after an improbable 15 years, is now working as a rep for a bathroom-supplies company. On the eve of a tour with his band he invites the documentarians back. His most sympathetic colleague reckons that he will not be treated kindly by the film-makers. "It's worse because the world is worse now," she says, looking out at an office full of boors and bullies.
“There’s a thing I say in my stand-up now,” Gervais says. “We have just been through the best 50 years of history: 1965 to 2015. Everything got better: culture, freedom, medicine. Now it’s all getting worse. The only good thing to come out of Brexit is that young people finally realise that old people hate them. Ha ha.”
Gervais rubs a lot of people up the wrong way. Before The Office emerged, in 2001, he was known (if he was known at all) for a few appearances on The 11 O'Clock Show, the Channel 4 series that gave us Ali G, as a heightened, ignorant version of himself. Following the emergence of David Brent he forged an identity on chatshows that was also at a slight angle to the real man. Just look at how he plugs away about atheism and animal rights on Twitter. There's a sense that he rather enjoys being misunderstood.
“I think people often get the joke wrong and misunderstand my aims,” he says. “People decide what my ambition was and then decide that I have failed in that. Hang on: that wasn’t my ambition. People will complain about a joke to me and get the joke wrong. I’ll say, ‘Well, that joke really is offensive, but that’s not what I said.’”
The Golden Globes, previously the Oscar’s demented attic-bound relative, managed to reinvent themselves as a boozy comedy roast when they invited Gervais to host the show in 2010. He has been lured back on three occasions, and there has always been controversy. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs the event, always pretends to be shocked. He is always forgiven.
"The most recent 'controversy' – which means nothing – involved Caitlyn Jenner, " he says with less weariness than amusement.
This was the joke he made linking Jenner’s sex change and the car accident that resulted in a man’s death. “She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers,” he said. The intake of breath was audible.
“The joke is about stereotypes,” he says. “People are saying it’s transphobic. That’s like saying that making a joke about Bill Cosby’s behaviour would be racist. It would be about what he did.”
Gervais could hardly be easier to interview. Looking younger than his 55 years, trimmer than the man who first gave us Brent, he bounces about the room. If you've listened to the podcasts he did with his cowriter Stephen Merchant and his former producer Karl Pilkington – epic rambles on every subject – then you will already know that he relishes conversation. Yes, he cackles at his own jokes, but those jokes are better than most.
There is a stubborn contradiction in his attitude. He thinks the world a nastier, crueller place, but his humour can be utterly ruthless.
“We now get trolls who get their own columns and are invited on TV to be clickbait,” he says. “It is a harsher world. Timid people do fall by the wayside. It’s not a big political point. It’s a small point. It’s about fame and what people will now do to be famous.
“Some journalist once asked me what advice I’d give to anybody who wanted to be famous, and I said, ‘Kill a prostitute.’ What I meant was: f**k fame. Why is that important? Serial killers are famous. What you are famous for is something different.”
Gervais did not gain his own fame until relatively late in life. Raised on the outskirts of Reading, just west of London, in a working-class family, he studied philosophy at University College London and went on to become assistant entertainments officer at the University of London Union. It was there that he met Jane Fallon, his girlfriend, and they have remained together ever since.
Every second time he appears on a chatshow we get to see footage of him in the unsuccessful synth-pop band Seona Dancing. Just before The Office emerged he was working on The 11 O'Clock Show. But Gervais is keen to remind us that long years of total obscurity – some spent working in an office similar to that in The Office – separated these two nodes of only mild obscurity.
"Nobody knew about me. Nobody," he says, laughing. "There were six months of my career when I tried to be a pop star and failed. Those pictures only come out now on Graham Norton because I am a famous comedian. I was not famous by any stretch of the imagination until I was 39. I came at it with a wiser head on my shoulders. I didn't want to be lumped in with those people who will do anything to become famous."
The Office was a slow burner. The first episodes, broadcast in the depths of TV-unfriendly July, slipped under the radar, but those who watched passed on the word.
“It got the lowest focus-group scores ever, worse than women’s bowls,” he says. “They didn’t tell me until after the second series was commissioned. They stood by their guns then. Wouldn’t happen today.”
Gervais seems obsessively agitated about the current nature of celebrity culture. That makes sense. The Office arrived just as reality TV was taking over. While he was moving on to Extras, and watching the US version of The Office become a smash, legions of ordinary people were being lauded just for standing where cameras could see them.
I wonder if any of the accoutrements of celebrity cause him the slightest delight. He must have some little understanding of why fame remains a spur for so many.
“I don’t enjoy being recognised,” he says. “I wish I could turn that off. I don’t mind when people say they like the show. That’s great. I appreciate that. Do I enjoy the access? Would I have worked with David Bowie? I don’t get walked through an airport because I’m a writer. That’s because I am known.”
Gervais has remained visible and successful over the past decade, but the work has divided even fervent fans. His sitcom with Warwick Davis,
Life’s Too Short
, managed only one series and a special.
, his deeply peculiar comedy about a mentally disabled care worker, earned him an Emmy nomination and accusations of sentimentality. But he doesn’t seem to be smarting. “No, no. Whatever you do some people are going to be justified in loving it and justified in hating it.”
None of that criticism makes him wish he could escape from this blasted fame?
“The good way outweighs the bad,” he says. “There’s hardly any bad at all. Something is slightly wrong on the internet? Half the things that are written about you are wrong. Does that matter? No. Did it matter at the time? Yes. I am 5ft 8in, not 5ft 7in. That makes me furious at the time. But I don’t give a f**k unless they say I shag tortoises.”
Ricky Gervais is about 5ft 8in. He does not, to my knowledge, shag tortoises.
From Tony Hancock to David Brent: the disappointed anti-heroes of British comedy
Hancock’s Half Hour, 1954-
. The original metacomedy featuring a grumpier version of the star is Galton and Simpson’s monochrome classic.
Capt Mainwaring Dad's Army, 1968-77. George Mainwaring (played by Arthur Lowe) is a little more successful than the other candidates here – he is a bank manager, after all – but his delusions of military grandeur are unstoppable.
Basil Fawlty Fawlty Towers, 1975-79. Despite being played by the giant John Cleese, Basil Fawlty exemplifies the oppressed little man of British comedy: henpecked, frustrated, surrounded by people he thinks beneath him. It's a post-empire thing.
Alan Partridge Various shows, 1991-present. The frustration of Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is all the greater as he once had it all: a TV show on the BBC. Since then he has declined into ever greater obscurity. Still funny.
David Brent The Office, 2001-2. A taut knot of insecurity and ambition, David Brent is the boss almost everybody has had. The gesture with his tie says it all.
David Brent: Life on the Road is at cinemas nationwide. The accompanying album, by David Brent & Foregone Conclusion, is also out now