Ricky Gervais Interviewed: "I Like Annoying People"

From David Brent and The Golden Globes to his recent "Mong" Twitter controversy, Ricky Gervais' comedy has always been forthright and unapologetic. Here he reveals what really motivates him...
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From David Brent and The Golden Globes to his recent "Mong" Twitter controversy, Ricky Gervais' comedy has always been forthright and unapologetic. Here he reveals what really motivates him...

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I actually first met Ricky Gervais in 2000 when he was writing a little situation comedy script. A year later that series, The Office, was broadcast on BBC2 and the rest - as people who like talking about the past enjoy saying - is history.

Now, over 10 years later and after winning numerous awards including three Golden Globes, four Emmys and seven BAFTAs he has finished touring the country with his latest stand-up show; Science. And, on a few of the tour dates, I was fortunate enough to have supported him.

Recently, in the dressing room, before one of the shows, we had the following chat….

BENNETT: I’ve interviewed quite a few people over the years but I have never interviewed someone who has done so much. You’ve written and starred in multi-award winning sitcoms, you’ve hosted the Golden Globes, you’ve sung to Elmo, you’ve acted opposite Jennifer Garner, you’ve written and starred in The Simpsons. Did you really do all this just to make every other man in the world jealous?

RICKY laughs – his instantly recognisable contagious laugh.

BENNETT: Which of these things do you think really stands out?

RICKY: Probably winning the Golden Globes in 2004. That was when things visibly changed. I knew there was something weird about that; something strange and surreal. The Office had been a hit here – it came out in 2001 and it did okay. Then the figures went up for the second series. There was an anticipated Christmas Special to end the series. Then in January 2004, we went out {to the Golden Globes Awards} and we really thought we were just making up the numbers. We’d been to all the Awards in England and, we’d won them all. To the point where Steve {Merchant} stopped going up to accept them because he was embarrassed and he thought people would hate us.

Elmo was a real highlight for me though. I idolised Elmo. I couldn’t get enough of him. I was mesmerised by him.

BENNETT: Really, is that true?

RICKY: Yeah.

BENNETT: Is that because of the mentality in this country where we seem to prefer the underdog to the winner?

RICKY: Yes. But by then of course I liked annoying people. That’s how the arrogant thing started at the Award shows. When I first won the Comedy Award, I was really proud. It was my first attempt at something worthy of an award to be honest. But I went up and decided to play it like: “Yeah, good one, good decision”. I could have gone up there and gone; “This makes me feel so humble, I don’t deserve this”. But that’s like going “I do deserve it!” Some people didn’t quite get it. They thought; “Oh he really is arrogant” so I carried on doing it for the people it annoyed. So we won the Golden Globes, and that same week I made my debut acting appearance in Alias - which I’ve never watched as I can’t watch myself being serious – and then I was asked if I wanted to be in an episode of The Simpsons. That was a hell of a week!

BENNETT: Was there incredible pressure writing and performing in The Simpsons?

RICKY: No, because I’d already won. Being asked, I’d won. These people who say; “Oh, I didn’t like it” they weren’t asked. I was a critic once, I used to sit in front of the TV and say; “I could do better than that”. But you have to put your money where your mouth is. Or shut up.

BENNETT: Will you do any more?

RICKY: No, we talked about it, but to do it again would diminish doing it once. Elmo was a real highlight for me though. I idolised Elmo. I couldn’t get enough of him. I was mesmerised by him. I didn’t care that there was a middle-aged man with his hand controlling him…

BENNETT: Don’t spoil it for me!

RICKY: (LAUGHING) But I think the thing I’m proudest of, is trying my hardest with The Office.

BENNETT: You used to say you were lazy.

RICKY: I was the laziest person you’d ever meet. That was because I hadn’t found what I was good at.

BENNETT: Although you’re famous, you don’t seem to get much hassle by the Press.

RICKY: No, I don’t. I mean there are little things that annoy you when they get something slightly wrong. I’m not worried about someone’s opinion. I don’t care if someone writes every day ‘He’s the worst comedian in the world. He’s not funny. The Office wasn’t funny. Nothing he does is funny, I hate his fat face.’ It wouldn’t bother me at all. What they’re not allowed to do is say; ‘I went to a gig and it was not funny. Everyone walked out. ‘ Don’t lie. You’re allowed your opinion but don’t embellish. Don’t suggest something happened when it didn’t. I embrace people getting angry about my work just as much as I embrace people liking it. Because if you’re not causing that much of a stir, you’re not doing anything.

BENNETT: So which do you prefer more, writing, acting, directing, stand-up?

RICKY: Writing. I’m a writer. I only directed and produced initially to protect the writing. I’m getting more and more into stand-up now as I cherish it as an opportunity. The sheer privilege of having a platform. You can’t just go up there and do anodyne safe experiences. I don’t see the point of a comedian going up there and making jokes that the audience could make themselves.

I suppose my life has revolved around the Thames Valley!

BENNETT: I’d better change my set for tonight then!

RICKY (LAUGHING): With stand-up there’s no censorship no one can tell you what to say or do. It’s up to you. It’s a sin not to do exactly what you feel.

BENNETT: I remember years ago writing sketches for TV and thinking; “No, no that’s not the way it’s meant to be done.”

RICKY: Of course. I did that a couple of times and I said; “Never again.” That’s when I became a complete tyrant. That’s when I became a Fascist Dictator – artistically!

BENNETT: So you were born Reading.

RICKY: Yeah.

BENNETT: And you realise that if you’d been born around a hundred miles west you would have been Welsh. Is that a big regret?

RICKY (LAUGHING): Paddington to Swansea. That’s the train I used to get to Reading. Which of course stopped at Slough. I suppose my life has revolved around the Thames Valley!

BENNETT: Are audiences different around the country?

RICKY: I can’t really tell the difference to be honest. The biggest difference is the night of the week. You can tell Monday from a Saturday. I don’t really like the Saturday night gigs too much. I don’t like people being too exuberant at the beginning. I’ve never done comedy to cut through alcohol. I’ve never wanted to shout over a crowd. I hate the idea that a comedian has to win a room over. I want to do comedy where people have sat and experienced an hour of something interesting that someone’s got say, who’s worked on it for them, and that they’ll think about the next day. That’s why I do this.

BENNETT: Do you get nervous at the larger venues?

RICKY: I don’t get nervous.

BENNETT: Is that true?

RICKY: No, I don’t get nervous.

I was going to France and my mum said to me: “What do you want to go there for? There are parts of Reading you haven’t seen!”

BENNETT: How does Science differ to the other shows?

RICKY: I’m a better stand-up comedian than I’ve ever been. I like to acknowledge that I’m a famous person - which can get in the way. I’m not going to pretend I get annoyed on buses. I’m not going to pretend I get annoyed by waiters in Nando’s. I’m not going to pretend to rant about my landlord. I’m going to write about what I know. I certainly have changed and developed - but so you should.

BENNETT: I really enjoyed Cemetery Junction.

RICKY: The first film I’ve written and directed, with Stephen Merchant. We were offered films when The Office first came out but we resisted. I want films to be a life-changing experience. It’s about a group of 20-somethings a sort of coming-of-age film. Probably older than most coming-of-age films because they’re in a small town in the early 70’s. It’s not a backwater but if people think that society was the same in Reading and Swindon and Slough as it was in Carnaby Street they’re mistaken. It’s about that stifling mentality and ‘can you get away?’ There’s a line in it that my mum said to me when I was 18. I was going to France and she said to me: “What do you want to go there for? There are parts of Reading you haven’t seen!”

BENNETT: Talking about the past, if David Bowie asked you now to support him on tour with Seona Dancing (Ricky’s band from the 80’s) what would you say?

RICKY: Of course not! That would be horrendous!

BENNETT: Do you miss that?

RICKY: I love music. I love music more than I ever did. In fact I realise my mistake when I was in a band – I was trying to be a pop star and I should have been a singer/songwriter.

BENNETT: So, who are your comedy idols?

RICKY: Laurel and Hardy. Number 1. Hasn’t been surpassed.

BENNETT: Have you been to the museum?

RICKY: In Ulverston, no.

BENNETT: It’s fantastic. I took my children there who’d never heard of Laurel and Hardy. It has a tiny cinema there and they watched film after film and just laughed from beginning to end.

RICKY: Chris Guest (actor, writer and star of Spinal Tap) was saying that he played it to his youngest and when Ollie looked at the screen he just fell off his chair laughing.

BENNETT: So of whom are you a fan of on the current circuit?

RICKY: erm…

BENNETT COUGHS LOUDLY

RICKY (LAUGHING): I can’t say you, it’s too obvious! You’re my support!

BENNETT HANGS HIS HEAD

RICKY: Louis CK is the best stand up in the world.

BENNETT: I saw him in 1997 at the Comedy Store when I was doing an open-spot. He was just brilliant. So just to finish off, do you have any regrets.

RICKY: I used to think I should have started this earlier. But that’s not true actually I remember when the office won the awards I said; “Why didn’t I do this before?” and Jane (his long-term girlfriend) said; “Because it wouldn’t have been any good”. Of course. You are the product of all your experiences. A comedian has to be painfully aware of his inadequacies, his struggle. So no, no regrets…(HE SUDDENLY THINKS OF SOMETHING) I’ll tell you my regret. Yes. All the years where I didn’t think it was worth learning something – because it was too late.  Like there’s no point in learning the drums now, I’m 28. No it’s never too late! That’s what I regret. I wish I had cherished my opportunity in school and university more. To learn as opposed to just getting away with it. Bob Dylan said; “A man can consider himself a success if he wakes up in the morning goes to bed at night and in between did exactly what he wanted.” And that’s what I want to do. And that’s what I want to keep doing.

And do you know what, I’m pretty sure he will….

bennettarron.co.uk

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