Ricky Gervais’ fourth-floor office above a clothes store on Hampstead High Street is so sparse I wonder whether the comedian and actor is in the process of moving out. Clean, bare walls, no photographs, mirrors, magazines, clutter or clue to the global fame of its occupier – exactly how he likes it. Here, with zero distraction, comedic creativity flows and if Gervais’ artistic juices were visible, the place would be a mess, splattered with multicoloured explosions, but also darkness.
Ever since finding fame 18 years ago as David Brent in BBC Two’s PC-baiting mock documentary The Office, Gervais has stretched the boundaries of taste with humour many have labelled ‘offensive’. In Life’s Too Short he tackled disability and bigotry, based on Hollywood actor Warwick Davis’s experience of dwarfism, then in his 2013 series Derek the central character mocked people with learning difficulties. His latest stand-up tour Humanity took things to another level with jokes about AIDS, Hitler and dead babies, and his latest project After Life – the reason we’re meeting today – may be his most controversial TV work to date.
In the ‘dark comedy’, which took Gervais, 57, a year to write, he plays Tony, a widower who contemplates suicide before deciding to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes, a freedom he dubs a ‘super power’.
Heroin smoking, a drug overdose, prostitution, suicide attempts, depression and threatening a ten-year-old school bully with a hammer – they all feature. But in the end, Tony’s goodness and mental wellbeing prevail. It’s bleak but funny and, at times, so emotional that viewers will struggle to stifle tears, especially when Tony plays back video messages recorded by his wife, Lisa, from hospital before the inevitable.
‘I think it’s true in most relationships, the partner is the better part of you,’ says Gervais, whose long-term girlfriend is novelist Jane Fallon, 58. Their eight-bedroom £11m house is a stone’s throw from the office where we’re sitting being gently cooked by a whirring wall-heater.
‘Is that really hot?’ asks Gervais, suddenly leaping from his black leather chair to switch it off, but when the room temperature plummets, he’s too immersed in chatter to notice.
‘It’s certainly my greatest fear, and I think a lot of people’s, to lose your life partner and then what? Nothing,’ he continues. ‘I can’t imagine doing the admin. “What do you mean I’ve got to organise a funeral?” I don’t know how people do it. That’s why we don’t think about it much because it’s unthinkable.’
But think, we must, he insists. Gervais knows After Life will attract haters for ‘joking about every single contentious, taboo subject’, including grief, but he’s ‘fine’ with criticism because he believes in his right to free speech. In any case, conversation about awkward topics has benefits.
Taboo subjects are places where people don’t want to go, but if you expose them, talk about them and laugh about them, which I think is humanity’s greatest trick, to get us over bad things, it prepares you,’ he says.
Apparently, 30 million will watch After Life on Netflix across 190 countries ‘without him even trying’, so he cares not about analysing demographics. His obsessions are with being challenged and with innovation, which requires complete creative self-rule.
‘It’s a disservice to try to second guess people because you won’t really please anyone, whereas if you do it for yourself and it’s uncompromised and saying something important – sure, half the people will hate it, but the people who like it will like it more, and there’s a lot of people in the world,’ he says. ‘There’s a great phrase “to lead the orchestra, you’ve got to turn your back on the audience” and that’s so true.’
During his four years as host of the Golden Globe Awards, he got well into that groove (below). His audience of Hollywood luminaries, usually lavished in praise by presenters, were polarised by his barrage of jokes at their expense. During his second gig, in 2011, Robert De Niro laughed the whole way through while Robert Downey Jnr labelled the gags ‘mean-spirited’. Similar criticism came after the 2016 ceremony when he took on the likes of Ben Affleck, Charlie Sheen and Caitlyn Jenner, plus highlighted that NBC, the network host, weren’t up for a single gong. Gervais hasn’t presented it since, but there’s no hard feelings. A few nights before we meet, he caught snippets of the 2019 awards presented by Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh. His verdict?
‘Probably egotistically, I liked Andy Samberg when he said “We’re going to roast you Gervais-style” and then the joke was that it was just really kind,’ he says. ‘I liked being a sort of paradigm for what not to do! That was quite funny.’
Gervais denies intentionally going out to hurt people’s feelings. In preparation for the Golden Globes, he fastidiously analysed ‘every single word’ of his scripts, checking that humour only poked fun at ‘stupid’ behaviour and never things ‘people can’t help’ such as ‘colour or sexuality’.
He leans forward, rests his chin in his hands and ponders when I ask if he’s ever been confronted by an aggrieved celebrity.
‘Not to my face. Paul McCartney came back. I went “Alright?” He went “I loved it” and he hugged me,’ he says, alluding to the 2010 ceremony when he mocked the music legend’s ludicrously pricey divorce from Heather Mills.
Gervais once read an interview with Kim Cattrall where she accused him of being ageist after he said that her movie Sex and the City 2 could win an award for airbrushing.
‘Actually, it was the opposite,’ he hits back. ‘I was saying “Why would you pretend to be younger than you are? You don’t need to be airbrushed. It’s fine to be 50”.’
When was Gervais last personally offended? ‘Every day,’ he laments. ‘Not by jokes or words but animal cruelty, religious intolerance, stupidity. They really offend me.’
Unlike Good Morning Britain anchor Piers Morgan – who Gervais says has done ‘more for veganism than anyone’ by inadvertently giving the diet a bigger voice by persistently criticising it – he denies being a ‘provocateur for its own sake’ and only creates Twitter storms to highlight injustices that he truly cares about.
Last November, The Humane Society gave him an award for his commitment to imploring his 13.1m Twitter followers and 1.4m on Instagram to take a stand against trophy-hunting. He recently slammed the shooting of a family of baboons in Namibia and voiced disdain when Cecil the lion was killed for fun in Zimbabwe in 2015.
The Gervais in front of me today, feet propped up on the desk, face heavily stubbled, is more serious than I anticipated, so it’s a joy when the famous Brent cackle slips out without warning, such as when he’s talking about never method acting (‘I find it hard not to be thinking… about lunch!’), the people he’d never offer a cameo (‘I wouldn’t like Harvey Weinstein to do Extras now. They can’t be an abhorrent person’). And switching from biology to philosophy at University College London after realising a vocational degree was pointless because all he truly wanted to be was ‘a pop star’.
Gervais realised his music dream, albeit briefly. He and student pal Bill Macrae formed new romantics duo Seona Dancing in the final year of college, signed to London Records and released two flop singles. It taught him a lot.
'I wanted to be a rock god – I wanted to be David Bowie and Tears for Fears – and I should have wanted to be a musician,' reflects Gervais.
‘I didn’t make that mistake again, so when I came to do this, I didn’t want to be an actor or celebrity or comedian, I wanted to be a writer director.’
Gervais, who final-edits everything he works on, boasts a Teflon-strong self-belief, fired by trust based on experience, that set-backs spark new opportunities.
For eight years after his pop demise he worked as an events manager for UCL where he briefly ‘helped out’ Britpop band Suede. It wasn’t a waste of time because being in an office nine to five he collated all the material he needed to pen The Office with writing partner Stephen Merchant. Gervais was 39 when it launched – old and ‘wise’ enough to ‘fear’ fame and the inevitable loss of anonymity, which he believes tethered his feet to the ground when the show began winning every award under the sun after being televised in 90 countries.
‘I had a life before I was on telly, so I could look at it a bit more objectively,’ he explains. ‘When you come out of nowhere – like the first time we won the BAFTA – and people were ringing on the doorbell, it’s horrible. I never signed that deal with the devil. I never said to anyone “Please make me famous, then you can go through my bins”.
‘It’s madness that celebrities are looking for themselves in magazines and worrying about what people think. Look at the state of me. I mean, some people wouldn’t go out looking like this.’ He glances down at his attire – dark grey tracksuit bottoms, which he says he swiped from the set of Derek (‘these are Derek’s!’), a grey T-shirt and black trainers. Daytime casual meets nightwear.
‘I want to be comfortable,’ he says. ‘If someone paps me and I look like a tramp, good. I’m glad! People say “Why don’t you have your teeth done?” Get lost!’ During my research, I spot a couple of fans on his Instagram page raving about his wolf-like fangs. People love his teeth, I reassure him.
‘I do!’ he laughs. ‘Because I can open cans of drink with them!’
He’s drinking coffee today and it’s ‘gone right through him’, so when he darts to the loo I inspect the scribbled-on Post-It Notes on the wall behind his chair.
It’s the plot for the first two episodes of After Life series two. Initially, Gervais had no plans for a sequel but ‘fell in love’ with the story and, because he hopes others will too, pressed ahead.
In the final episode of series one, Tony attempts to rectify his bad behaviour with kind gestures for those he’s wronged.
‘The first thing I think of is “Was I nice enough to my mum?’” says Gervais when I ask who he’d like to make amends with. ‘Then you realise everyone goes through that and the answer’s probably “yes”. Then that question comes up: “Have you any regrets?” With time travel, I’d probably go back and make my mum not smoke because she died of lung cancer, but they don’t make sense, those questions.’
Eve Sophie House met Canadian labourer Lawrence Gervais during the Second World War and they married and had four children. Ricky was the youngest and growing up in Whitley, Reading, where it was ‘a fight to be heard’, he became ‘a show off’. Being the baby of the family had advantages. His sister Martha taught him to read by the age of three, so at school he was a ‘poster boy for the class’ before turning into ‘a little scientist from the age of five, doing experiments’. Later, he rebelled and got into trouble, ‘Never fighting or hurting a cat, but answering back, being cheeky’.
He sounds like the children he works with on Child Support, his American game show, which sees adults who answer questions incorrectly getting the chance to stay in the game if kids can get the answers right. He seems such a natural with youngsters, you wonder why he’s never taken the path of fatherhood.
‘I love kids. I just don’t want them myself,’ he says. ‘I don’t want the responsibility. I love playing with my nieces and nephews at Christmas, then I go “That’s enough, this one’s ill, this one’s puking”.’
He’s spoken before of having no desire to marry either. Surely in the 37 years he’s been with Jane (right) since meeting at UCL, he’s contemplated buying an engagement rock, just to see what she says?
‘No, because we are married,’ he replies and it’s the only time during the interview he prickles.
It’s a nonsense that you have to go through some sort of official ceremony and be married in the eyes of God. Neither of us believes in God. We’ve been married longer than most people who are married. It’s real. We share everything.’
In After Life, old camcorder footage shows Tony winding up Lisa – waking her up with a foghorn, drenching her with sea water on the beach – happier times documenting a playful relationship, which mirrors Gervais’ own. On Instagram, he posts photographs of Jane strolling alone, always captioned: ‘Jane on a lovely walk with all her friends’.
‘I played Reykjavik and we were invited to the president of Iceland’s house and we came in and he said, “I’ve got Jane some friends”,’ chuckles Gervais.
The payoff of living with a comedian worth a reported £50m is obvious. The couple own a second home in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where they escape to on Fridays. ‘We bought a house to be near a river and have a tennis court because you can’t in London, so it’s the most expensive tennis court in the world!’ They also have properties in New York and LA.
‘I’m more British in the States than I am here, on purpose. I never want to get that transatlantic accent,’ confesses Gervais, in a slightly Americanised drawl. ‘I’m never going to talk like those Brits who’ve lived in LA for way too long. I’m in and out. I haven’t picked up any symptoms of California.’
Including, he says, a propensity for therapy. In America, counselling is as commonplace as going to the hairdresser’s.
‘I think it might be my upbringing. It was “pull yourself together” when I was growing up,’ he explains. ‘Now famous people say “I do therapy” and they’ve brought things such as depression to the surface. I think I’ve moved with the times. I’m not stuck in the 1960s, going “There’s no such thing as depression”. I know there is.’
He denies personally being ‘burdened’ by mental illness and says aiming for joy is his primary objective in life. ‘Then you find what gives you that – friends, family, pets, wine and creativity,’ he smiles. ‘All those things give me happiness.’ Sometimes there’s just no time for controversy… which for Ricky Gervais must be a blessed relief.