Q & A: Ricky Gervais Talks the Golden Globes, The Office and Stand-Up!

Ricky Gervais is back as the host of the Golden Globes this Sunday and when he was asked why NBC brought him back, he said, “I assume they are desperate.”

He talked to a group of us on a conference call about the Golden Globes, The Office, his stand-up comedy and more. I usually edit the interviews so they aren’t too long but this one was special. He was candid and I think, truly inspiring when he talked about his career.

The Golden Globes air on NBC, Sunday January 16 at 8pmET / 5pmPT.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download from iTunes.

I love how a lot of the Americans didn’t get the reference during your last hosting gig to Extras when you made the comment to Kate Winslet about the Holocaust. I’m hoping you’re going to have some more stuff like that coming up.

Ricky Gervais: Do you mean references that no one understands? I’ve got loads of those.

Yes, that will insult like a bunch of people.

Ricky Gervais: Without them knowing it. Yes, that was an episode of Extras where Kate Winslet played a twisted version of herself of course and she was only doing a Holocaust movie to win an Oscar. And it came true which was I honestly couldn’t believe my luck when that happened.

A funny thing happened actually at the – it was the Globes before that and Tom Hanks was telling me that he was on his way to work and he was listening to the radio and he must’ve just tuned in and they were playing a clip from the Extras that Kate Winslet was in. And she was saying, “Yes. I mean, you know, do we need another Holocaust movie?”

He thought it was an interview. He didn’t realize. He hadn’t seen the show. So he thought Kate Winslet was on the radio saying she’d only done a Holocaust film to win an Oscar. And he went around telling everyone, “What is she thinking? What is she thinking?” And then his producer said, “Tom, that must’ve been a clip from the show.” And then he went, “All right. Okay.” And he’d spent the whole day going around telling people that Kate Winslet had lost her mind.

I don’t think I was too bad. I don’t think I went far enough. I think people know me now and they know – I think comedy comes from a good or a bad place. And I think however cheeky or out there or, you know, taboo subjects and dark places I take them, I think they know it comes from a good place with me. The last thing I want to do is genuinely offend anyone. I couldn’t live with myself.

So I want the victims of the joke to like it as well. I don’t see any victory in going out and being awful and shocking. That’s too easy. I mean it’s 5 o’clock on network TV. You don’t have to – I mean, people couldn’t believe I went out with a beer. So if that’s still shocking in this day and age, there is no victory in just being shocking.

I think you’ve got to be interesting and engaging and, you know, I try and do it with a twinkle in my eye and a smile on my face. So hopefully I can go even further this year and still not be chased out of the country.

How did you feel that things went last year hosting the Globes? Were there things you learned from that that you’ll apply this year?

Ricky Gervais: Yes. That’s why I’m doing it again. I had such a great time but like anything you do for the first time you go, “Oh, let me do it again. I can do it better. I can do it better.” Do you know what I mean? It’s like the first time I had a go at golf I wanted to go around again because I said, “No, I can do it now. I can do it now.” So, yes, I want to give it one more go.

I also sort of gave myself this weird restriction that I wrote it like a few days before in about an hour all my – all the lines, right. And if you noticed, that all the lines are about the people that are about to come out. And I’ve realized I can reference anyone in the room. I can look down and just go, right; I can go for anyone here. So I probably made it a little bit harder for myself than I could have.

So I’m going to have even more fun with it, probably go a bit further, push the boundaries a little bit more. I think you always should. And I, you know, what’s the worst that could happen? I didn’t expect to be invited back a second time and I certainly – and I won’t do it a third. So I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve got nothing to lose. So, yes, I’m going to go for it.

In addition to doing the Golden Globes a second time you also have a second stand-up special airing this month and I’m wondering how did you – did you approach that with a specific aim as well?

Ricky Gervais: Well I don’t know. I suppose you always – I’ve carried the same sensibilities with me all my life. But you evolve. I suppose I deal with trying to say something challenging and interesting. You know, I think a comedian’s job isn’t just to make people laugh, it’s to make them think. I’m not a lover of broad comedy.

But I also feel a responsibility, you know, I’m playing venues where people come out and there are tens of thousands and they’ve traveled a long way and they’ve got a babysitter and they’ve found a car parking space and paid $70 or whatever and I think that I better have something special to say. So I always try and be different. As I say I always try to be quite challenging. I mean I want people to laugh and I want to gasp as well. I get as big a buzz from gasp as I do a belly laugh. But I think I do stuff that I’m proud of as well.

And there’s six billion people in the world. So if you do something for you that’s a nice single vision and not like anything else, there’s enough people to go, “That was great. I haven’t seen that before.” That’s, you know, I think I want to people’s favorite comedian as opposed to in a mob. I wanted The Office to people’s favorite sitcom as opposed to, you know, watched by loads of people and their tenth favorite.

So you always feel that, you know, I think that’s true of all art that originality is the most important thing and I think that makes – that will find a connection. The point of art is to make a connection with someone else, another human being that you may never meet or whatever, but I think the size of that connection with the individual is important. And I think you do that by being true to yourself. And if you’re true to yourself you are different to everyone else and I think you won’t be homogenized and watered down and, you know, like ten other acts.

And now I can’t wait for my next stand-up because I can go, “No, I know where I went wrong there. I can be even better this time.” And I think you should. It’s like, you know, every day I become conscious for the first time. I know how to improve. I know what excites me now. Every day is a new day and you want to improve. It’s like, you know, you can rub out the blackboard and start again. I mean those things still exist, right, but you can say, “Right, today I ‘m going to do my best work ever from now on.” And I say that every day.

Some comedians don’t like it if they tell a joke where the audience is either hushed or have a mixed reaction. But when you tell one that’s just gets a little bit of a gasp, we see like a smile on your face. Do you genuinely enjoy it? Do you anticipate when you do one that the audience is going to have a mixed reaction to? Do you realize they’re going to do that ahead of time?

Ricky Gervais: Yes. Because I think comedy and drama are different branches of the same tree. You know, it doesn’t matter whether you’re watching a horror film or hearing a joke, it’s the surprise that’s the good bit. It’s the bit you didn’t expect.

Some of my favorite things, they’re not belly laughs. They’re just watching with a warm feeling. You know, The Office wasn’t just a comedy, it wasn’t (knock) about comedy. We purposely – we took out some jokes. We took out some big events. We took out some great plotlines because it interfered with the reality or it interfered with the romance or it interfered with the existential mood of the piece.

You know, you’ve got to take the whole package and something you put in takes away something else, something that you take away makes something stronger. And so it’s my choices that count as a writer and a director. No one else’s. So it’s all or nothing. People can’t cherry-pick. They’re not allowed to cherry-pick, not in art, you know. You can do that with a menu but you can’t do it in art. You take it all.

And if people say, “Oh, I wish you’d done this.” I say, “Well you make it yourself. You do your own show. You do your own show and you can have it exactly as you want it because that’s how my shows turn out, exactly as I want them.”

And comedy is a release. Let’s not forget that. Comedy is a release. That’s why we do it because it’s obviously it’s the industry built out of humor and the reason we have humor is to get through. You know, the reason we have humor in our evolution is to get us through adversity.

And it’s no coincidence that some of the most depressed people have the best sense of humor and create the best comedy. And I say it in the special we use it as a sword and a shield and as a medicine and all these reasons. And I love taking people on an emotional journey and it doesn’t matter if it’s a film, a TV show or a piece of stand-up. It’s to take people on a journey they hadn’t been on before. And that’s important.

And I want it to resonate as well. You can see a stand-up and he does a thousand brilliant puns, great. You’ll laugh for an hour. You’ll be looking at your watch after about half an hour and you won’t remember one of them. But if someone comes out there and he tells you a story, someone shambles out on stage and tells you a story then there’s nothing can compete with that.

Whatever happens with innovation in entertainment, you know, there’s going to be something that makes Avatar look like Steamboat Willy one day. But I’ll tell you, whatever that is, it will never compete with one human being telling another human being what an awful day they’ve had. It won’t.

The Office, the American version, has a lot of changes coming up this season as Steve Carell exits the show and I was hoping maybe you could comment a little bit about what viewers might expect as the season wraps up.

Ricky Gervais: Well I won’t give anything away about the show but I think viewers can expect if The Office carries on it could be as good. And there’s a lot of talk about who’s going to replace Steve Carell. You should never think like that. You shouldn’t think who’s replacing Steve Carell. Steve Carell is an actor. You should think who’s creating – who’s replacing Michael Scott.

You know, you’ve got to suspend your disbelief. It’s meant to be a fake documentary and it’s all about the story. Even though we talk about what’s going on behind the scenes and we know Steve Carell is an actor and he’s not really working in a paper merchant in Scranton, it’s what’s good for the show that counts. And so the replacement should be a credible replacement within the story, within the piece of work, not is he going to be a big a star.

Because when we did The Office, we were all unknowns which was perfect for the show. It wouldn’t have worked if we were famous people. And of course now we’re famous as are all of them from the American Office but I think you’ve got to do the show the service. It mustn’t be about the politics and the business and, you know, what people write about it. It’s got to stand alone one day.

You’ve got to discover this in a thousand years in a cave and put it on a player and enjoy it for what it is, not know anything about what was happening behind the scenes or on the day. And I just think there’s too much of this peaking behind the curtain and everyone worrying about what everyone gets paid or where they’re going to – you know, it just, you know, you should love it for the work. And that should be a surprise. So I’m not saying anything.

Where do you think the line is of something so horrendous that you would never work again?

Ricky Gervais: You have these dark thoughts and you go, “Well why did that come into my brain?” But as I said before there is a constant fight in my head with what will go down well and what won’t. But as I said it comes from a good or a bad place and if people know where you’re coming from and what the target really is, you know, you can get away with murder, queue O.J. Simpson joke.

I don’t use it as a platform to, you know, get political or get my own back on the world. I’m hosting a party. You know, it’s a televised industry party. So you’ve got to keep it light. But as I say that’s not to say you can go out there and just do awfully flat, broad, anodyne, homogenized, reworked material. I think you can be original and push the boundaries a little bit and still come in line with taste and decency. That’s my plan.

But you can’t win because, you know, everyone has got their own little cause. Everyone has got what they find offensive. You know, in my stand-up specials you get letters saying, “I love the show although I was a little bit disappointed with the reference to, I don’t know, the Holocaust,” you know.

And I want to go, “But you like the jokes about children with cancer. You liked the jokes about AIDS, African famine, disability. So you knew I was joking then but when it comes onto your thing because it’s so personal you can’t see that – you can’t treat it with the same distance, the same level of irony. You know, you can’t realize that that’s also satirical.”

But you can’t win. So in your heart of hearts you’ve got to know you meant it in good faith and you have to be able to justify it. I have a simple rule. If I can’t justify why a joke’s okay, I don’t do it. I don’t go out there – I’m not one of these comedians that go – (comedy is) your conscience taking a day off.

My conscience never takes a day off. I can justify everything I do and I can stand up and I could argue the point on a right-to-reply show. I could actually say why this joke was okay to do. And I’ll never lose that because I don’t want to go home and go, “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that. That’s really awful. Why would I say that?” So, you know, everything’s considered.

One of the shows getting a lot of awards the latest sort of take The Office style are Modern Family. What do you think of shows that have sort of adopted that style of mockumentary that have succeeded?

Ricky Gervais: Well I mean any show that people say was influence by your work is honestly flattering. On the other side is there – you know, I didn’t invent that genre. You know, I stood on the shoulders of giants. And The Office wasn’t the first fake documentary. It wasn’t the first sitcom without a laughter track. It wasn’t the first sitcom to cast unknowns. It wasn’t the first sitcom to have flawed characters. It wasn’t the first sitcom to look at the minutiae of life but it was the first to probably have all of them in one sitcom.

Ricky-Gervais-as-David-BrentAnd so I don’t know if we invented anything but we just – we – I suppose the realism I don’t think anything had been such a slave to the realism as us and we probably cheated less than real documentaries. But we wanted to resonate. And also we had the luxury of knowing we were going to stop. So we put everything into it. It was very dense, our version of The Office. You know, it’s meaty. It’s made of lead. There’s a lot in it.

But you can’t keep that. We couldn’t have done 100 episodes with that – with the intensity – I mean we – because we wrote it we did it all ourselves as well. But it’s nice that we’re even getting the credit for creating a recognizable style or genre. Someone said today that we reinvented the sitcom which I’m very happy with that rumor going around. Yes.

But again, it’s a double-edge sword because I remember when The Office came out one journalist said, “This is as good as Chekhov.” And I thought, “Oh, no. Well now we’re in real trouble.” And sure enough the next year when the special went on television one journalist said, “This is sub-Dickens.” I’m like, “Really? Like we’re not as good as Dickens. No we’re not. They were surprised this sitcom isn’t as good as the greatest storyteller over the last 300 years.” It’s like you can’t win.

So you have to take the rough with the smooth. For every five-star review, anything I’ve ever got it got a one-star review too and everything in between. For everyone who thinks the sitcom is the greatest most important sitcom of all time, there’s someone who thinks it’s the worst sitcom they’ve ever seen and they want to gouge their eyes out rather than watch it. For everyone thinks that I’m a funny man, some people want to run me over in a tractor.

So and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Like I say, I’ll take the laugh or the gasp. Both is good to me because I caused a reaction and that’s what I’m trying to do.

Now that Steve Carell is leaving, what are your thoughts about working with Steve, working in the American version of The Office and working on American television?

Ricky Gervais: Well, you know, I came to America the first time in 2004 to the Golden Globes and there we’d done our little version of this English sitcom which we were so proud of. We couldn’t have been prouder of it because, you know, personally I had never tried my hardest at anything in my life as writing The Office.

And it’s like I had a revelation at 39, 40 that this is the greatest feeling in the world to do something you’ve tried your hardest at and it turned out exactly as you wanted. And I sound like some sort of strange born-again artist, right, but that’s the way I felt. I couldn’t believe it.

And so to come to America and then win the Golden Globes and then to be asked to do a remake was ridiculous. I didn’t even think about it at the time because I thought, “Well nothing’s going to come of this.” That’s me being British. That’s how we think. Nothing will come of this. And then we cast Steve Carell who by the way I must say joking aside, I always joke about him, I always tease him, I hope people know that I think he is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met genuinely. There’s no one like him. He’s untouched by Hollywood. He’s untouched by his fame, his (cachet). He’s just a lovely family man who loves comedy and the work and he’s done an amazing job above and beyond the call of duty.

We never knew the remake was going to be this successful. I mean it’s the first successful British remake of a sitcom for 30-odd years, Sanford and Son or All in the Family or something. And they made it happen, that team made it happen. So honestly I don’t think anyone has a bad word to say about Steve Carell. And it’s a great ensemble cast. They’ve kept the level up for, you know, 100-odd episodes. It’s a success story commercially and in terms of an art form.

And there’s difference in this one. It had to be. It’s not so steeped in that the realism, it’s slightly broader. It hasn’t got that existential quality. It’s sort lighter. You know, people are better at their jobs and more fun and all that but that’s true. That’s the difference between English and Americans really. It has to be that way. It really shows the difference between our two nations I think that the English and the American Office.

Americans are told they can be the next President of the United States. British people are told, “It won’t happen to you.” And it did happen to me. And so it’s strange that I’ve come full circle. So looking back it’s been ridiculous. It’s been like a dream. I’m going to wake up and I’m still – I’m 36 still working in my old job. I’m still working in the office where I got the idea from and I’m going to wake up and go, “I just had the best 12-year dream I’ve ever had.”

Looking back at the history of your career, everything you’ve done from the British Office to the new animated series to Extras, can you even pinpoint just one moment where you would say, “This is the defining moment. I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Ricky Gervais: Defining moment, it’s difficult. I mean you’d have to say – I’d have to say meeting Stephen Merchant. If this was a film – if this was a biopic it would be – you know when they do like and it’s like “Hey son, what’s your name?” My name’s Clay, Cassius, sir.” You know what I mean. They go, “My name is actually Dundee and I think you’ve got a great (lefter).” It would have to be meeting Stephen Merchant.

But then how far back do you go, you know? I worked in an office. It would have to be people watching. I grew up in a funny family. I grew up in a family where humor was the most important thing. If you paid your way, then you know having a laugh. If it’s career, it’s clearly making The Office. If it’s – I don’t know what else to base it on.

The only answer is there’s whatever specific question it was related to there’d be a different specific answer. I mean I think if you take for granted you are a product of your entire upbringing from being born to friends to education and through obviously I think a defining moment was meeting and working with Steve. The Office was the breakthrough. Career highs would be things like winning the Golden Globes in 2004.

And that was a strange week because let me tell you this is what happened, okay. So as I said before we went over there and I didn’t even think that we should go. I thought we got a long way to go and lose. And people said, “You’re mad. It’s an experience. It will be great.” So we won the Globes. I did – my first acting job I had written for myself on Alias because J.J. Abrams was a fan. I haven’t watched it. I have never watched the episode. It was me being cool. I can’t watch that. I dread it. It sends a chill down my spine, me trying to be cool. But I hear it’s okay.

And then I was called for an audience for Matt Groening and Al Jean and the Simpsons lot that their favorite show was The Office which is weird because they created the best show ever. And they said, “Do you want to write one and being one?” Yes. And that was the same week we started working on the American Office. That was one week in January 2004. So if you are to pinpoint a week, it would be that. It would be January – the last week of January 2004.

But, you know, everything is joined to something else. Everything inextricably mixed. There’s no defining moment really. It’s just, you know, luck and keeping a cool head. I think it happening to me relatively late in life was important, you know. All these things, knowing why you’re doing it every day, knowing that you’re lucky and privileged but then really working hard.

And, you know, my dad was a laborer all his life. He used to get up at 5:30 every morning five or six days a week until he was 70 and he never complained. I live a strange rarified life. The least I can do is try my hardest and take it seriously.

I think sometimes I come across as smug and pompous and, you know, just taking comedy too seriously but it’s the only way I can do it to get through. I know it doesn’t matter. I know none of this matters. We’re all going to be dead soon. But there are some people that hate their job and they hate everything they do and they do it because they’ve got to feed a kid or – and the least I can do is try my hardest and something and know that I’m going to be proud of everything I do and have a legacy.

I felt guilty the first time when I did The Office. It was as I say a revelation. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t have been prouder of it, okay. And then it was success and I was still just proud of The Office but I was glad it was a success and then the first checks started coming in and it was (silly) money and it ruined it a little bit because I thought, “Oh, I didn’t do it for that.” And people don’t understand that. They don’t understand that.

I did a corporate gig in the early days because it was the same – for doing 40 minutes was the same as my dad’s wages for a year and I did it because I felt guilty and I thought it was irresponsible not to. And then I thought, “No, it’s not. Just do things you’re proud of. Just do things you can stand by. You’re not here to collect money or awards. You’re here to just fill your time with stuff that you like before you die.” And so that’s why I do it.

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