Back in 2001, Ricky Gervais unveiled the original cringe comedy masterpiece The Office, playing "seedy boss" David Brent, who was a friend first, boss second, and entertainer third. It was an instantly unforgettable character, equal parts delusional, pathetic and pitiable, and one that launched Gervais' career.
Over fifteen years later—after putting out other well-regarded TV shows (including Extras & Derek), along with several standup tours, radio programs, and animated shows; launching the career of Karl Pilkington; writing and directing movies (The Invention Of Lying, Cemetery Junction, Special Correspondents); and hosting the Golden Globes several times to many celebrities' chagrin—the prolific English comedian returned to the character of Brent for a film, David Brent: Life On The Road, which explores what life is like for the middle manager as he attempts to follow his dream of becoming a rock star.
The real Gervais is currently traveling the world performing his standup comedy tour "Humanity," his first standup show in seven years. He'll play Madison Square Garden on October 25th, followed by three shows at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles between Oct. 28th and Nov 1st (get ticket information here). He also has a new pilot for Sirius radio (Ricky Gervais is Deadly Sirius), in which he mixes his irreverent sense of humor with serious discussions about politics, science, religion and more.
Last week (before the chaos at the Charlottesville white nationalist rally and protest), we got the chance to talk with the outspoken Gervais about some of his favorite topics: how Donald Trump is similar to David Brent; why free speech is so important to him; his love/hate relationship with Twitter and social media ("Two idiots pop out a genius on Twitter"); his renewed love for standup; and the many other projects he has in the pipeline. It was a far more serious conversation than we expected going in, but that's because it's a reflection of the (slightly) more serious Gervais of 2017.
You've had some experience playing delusional men. What's it been like watching a Ricky Gervais character become president of America? Well, it's funny you say that because I had started writing the [David Brent] movie before everything really happened. It was just becoming a reality when the movie came out. I did see parallels that had always been there. I think the biggest one is that Trump has got more in common with David Brent than he has with Lincoln or JFK.
He is a man-baby narcissist who wants to be loved and be famous and he's a reality television show host. Fame is the new big profession, fame is the new thing that's worth it. Fame is everything. He's the most famous candidate. He's already famous and it wasn't enough for him. And I know there's people that say, "Well, hold on. He's more than a reality show host. He's a business man." Was he?
He had this, he lost money. He didn't come over on a boat with a few dollars and build an empire. He was handed an empire and he made his life worse. [laughs]
He is a bit like Brent. If he wasn't born into such privilege, what would he be doing? The big difference between him and David Brent is that Brent is a bit of a loser. That's why Brent has our sympathy more, because he's struggling. He's against the odds. Whereas, Trump was handed the winning ticket from birth, you know?
Right. And that's a big difference. It's sort of the only difference really. Obviously, Brent isn't spiteful, he's quite a nice bloke. He's sort of wounded and his life didn't turn out quite like he thought, but he's not an ambitious man. He's not doing any harm, because he doesn't have any power. Maybe if he had power he would be a tyrant. Like they say, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I don't want to believe that. You can make it without stepping on people's toes and bulldozing over them. You can be ethical.
Even on the stage, I've played a bit of a persona, and the persona I played was a much brasher, more arrogant, less aware, less educated version of me. I come out there with all this bluster like some sort of right-wing [idiot] and get it wrong. I've done jokes like: "Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 and he went straight. He didn't re-offend. Which makes me think he's going straight, which shows you prison does work." It was crap comments like that and things like, "Stephen Hawking, they say that he's a genius, but he's not. He's pretentious. Born in Kent and talks in that fake American accent." I was coming down the wrong side.
Then when I was doing it and [Trump] happened, I was thinking, "Hold on though. Am I gonna get the wrong laugh? Am I gonna get the wrong round of applause? Is half the audience gonna be agreeing with me and not get the irony?" That worried me a bit, but the good thing about people knowing me for 15 years, they get it now. They know me like a friend. They know when I'm being ironic, so that sort of saves me.
I also don't get too overtly political in my standup, or anything, clearly. I know not to, just because I think comedy is an intellectual pursuit and I think that if you start rallying, if you start just stating your set of beliefs, then it loses something comedic. It relies on the people agreeing with you or not. I don't like it when the other side does it. I don't like it when I see a racist comedian go up and say, "What are we gonna do about all these immigrants?" and they get a round the applause. I think, "Well that's not a joke. That's just your biased opinion." Getting a round of applause from your like-minded rabble. And I don't want to be in that position so there's a certain fairness, I think, to everything I do.
People know my stance, probably, from Twitter and interviews. I am myself sometimes and I do state my opinions, but not in a comedy routine and not in my character. There always has to be some sort of layer to it. I don't have characters that just come out and say what they're thinking or (have) a sort of a hidden agenda. There's at least a level of satire or irony to it I think and I do go after both sides.
It's funny because before this happened at the Golden Globes, my [thing] was pretending to have a go at the liberal elite. It seems odd to me that now they really are a true enemy. It's like half of America really thinks that these few actors [starts laughing] are the real threat to American society. The problem now is that people care about what side they're on more than looking at the particular argument.
They look at the argument and they don't know anything about the argument. They go, "What side are you on first? I want to know ..." There are bits of the left I agree with and there are bits of the right that I agree with. Why can't I walk between these two sides? Why does politics have to be a set menu? I want to pick and choose like I do with all morality. There's lots of issues that are confusing for people. They want to vote for a side as opposed to making their own decision. It's complicated. It's bloody complicated. And that's the problem now.
With your newest standup set, "Humanity," I've read some reviews which said it's your most personal yet. I'm wondering whether in the face of things like Trump, Brexit and the flourishing of political extremism, is your reaction to lean more towards sincerity? Do you feel like you've shifted the way you approach standup since you last toured? No, because...free speech is one of the most important things to me, but I think it gets confusing when it comes to offense. Because for one, just because you have the right to say anything, it doesn't mean you have to. We don't go up to people in the street and say, "You fat pig," because what happens, you know?
Well, some people might... Well they might do that, but they're sort of psychopaths. But that doesn't mean that I don't have the right to make jokes about obesity. Because that's the thing. There's bigger issues in comedy at the moment where people don't understand the difference between criticizing an idea and criticizing the person. This big discussion that it's like you shouldn't criticize dogma or religion because the people who follow that religion have their feelings hurt.
If you insult mass, I don't get upset. What they do is they try and give ideas human rights to shut you down. They try to put a face to an idea. They try to personify an idea so they can say, "No, you can't make fun of that idea because you're hurting all these people's feelings." Well, that's their problem. I'm criticizing an idea.
It's too much of that. It's too much either side. But no harm in discussing the very big subjects. Criticizing things and ridiculing bad ideas is what got us medicine that works. It's what got us out of the Dark Ages, and I think it's ludicrous that people afford this special privilege to religion.
I get it on Twitter, but it's been happening over the last 10 to 15 years, it's just sort of a symptom of it. It's that we've always had this, "My opinion is worth as much as your opinion." Now I think it's like twisting that to, "My opinion is worth as much as your facts," which just isn't true. People treat these things like, "I believe the Earth is 6,000 years old." I want to say that, "Well I believe that you're a fucking idiot then." You can't have a view on the age of the Earth. You can have your own opinions, but you can't have your own facts. Believing something doesn't make it true.
Particularly with comedy. Just because you're offended doesn't mean you're right. People are offended by equality. People are offended by same-sex marriage, so what? Someone telling me they're offended is meaningless to me. I'll say, "And? Where's your argument?" It's like you're telling me your favorite color is blue. I have no answer to it. Fine. Now what? Someone says, "I'm offended," I say, "I'm offended you're offended. Now what?" It's nothing.
It's a mechanism to shut you down, because people can't cope with their own emotions. They expect other people to never saying anything that offends them. Well, no fuck that. Freedom of speech works. Best idea wins, the truth will out.
Do you think that this is something that has been exacerbated by social media, public platforms where fringe people's voices are rising to a level that they never would have 20 years ago? I know you use Twitter a lot, but do you ever feel burnt out by it? It definitely has, and what we're seeing in the last couple of years is a reaction to that. People were tired of being told what they could and couldn't say, so an underground monster was formed. Pushing the views underground don't help (us). In principle, I'm a fan of political correctness. I do think racism is wrong, sexism is wrong, and misogyny is wrong and all that, and I think that our point here on Earth is to minimize pain and suffering and all those things, and maximize freedom and tolerance.
But the clue is political correctness, not actual correctness, political correctness, and when it goes too far, when it's distorted is when people use it to close down ideas and to close down things that they don't want to hear. It's nonsense.
Twitter did start that. Because even in terms of complaints and offense, 10 years ago if you were offended by something you saw on TV, you had to get out a pen and paper and you had to compose a letter and you had to start out with "Dear Sir" and then you go, "Ah, fuck, I can't be bothered." But now you can fire off a tweet in your anger and in your misconceptions, [even if] you haven't read the article. You're just having a bad day and it can get picked up, and if you're a famous person you get picked up by the press. And that's when the tribal thing started happening because Twitter [came with] this message that it's better to be popular than right.
Two idiots pop out a genius on Twitter. It's all about likes and following and blocks and that's where you get this echo chamber. So when you're turning on notifications of what we think and believe, it is like reading every toilet wall in the world at once. If you did that you'd go mad, and now you can do it in the palm of your hand on a computer many times more powerful than the one that put the man on the moon. [laughs] It's like this is what most people use their personal computer for.
I think the bigger question is societal, because sociability is changing. We have a whole generation now of kids that have only known texting and tweeting. It's like they don't really have to look at another person in the eye. They can be anyone they want to be.
They're growing up with this technology as a normalized, baseline level, and they're growing up expecting this to be a part of their lives from the start. Whereas the rest of us had to learn it and sort of integrate it into our lives as it went along and as it developed. We're all kinda playing catch-up, while they were born with a phone in their hand. Exactly. I use it as another tool of communication, but they use it as communication. As the one mode of communication, and that's a worry, but, as I say, I'm an optimist. I think it will all be okay. I think we need to reflect. Society is a blip. We're the same piece of hardware as we were about 15,000 years ago.
There is a lot of stupidity and blindness and there are a lot of lies. Global warming—there's a lot of people that oppose that, but they oppose it with an ulterior motive. The people that oppose it are the ones that are making money out of fossil fuels and all of the other stuff. But I still think that if the Earth is going to be destroyed by a meteor coming towards us, if six billion people were to start praying to their various gods, a few scientists would work out how to get Bruce Willis up there and stop that. I think that that few will always save the many. As long as there is science, as long as there is freedom somewhere, I think humanity will be saved.
I don't even know if we can say Trump does or doesn't believe in global warming because I don't think he's given it enough thought to really have a concrete opinion, but he's certainly not supporting it with legislation, and he's doing what he can to destabilize various global accords. What sort of danger does this pose? You're saying the majority of us can't live our lives worrying about these things, that a select few will save us, but what if more people like Trump are suddenly thrust into these positions of power? It's annoying. It's annoying that he's a pin-up boy for a lot of people who think they're disenfranchised and think they have had it bad. But again, most of the people that are shouting "Build that wall" and "Drain the swamp" and "Make America great again," they think they've been hard done by all these years.
Well, you know what, the problem when you've had privilege all your life, equality suddenly feels like oppression. Most of these people are just spoiled and the reason they don't want equality is that they've been handed a better deal. It's like anything. It's just a turbo version of what we've always had. He is like a cartoon business man from Dickens.
Or Mr. Burns. Exactly. But I don't know. All he's doing is he's doing the same tricks that all people in power have been doing for 2,000 years. He's looking down from his tower and he's saying to one lot of the poor that, "That lot of poor over there, it's their fault you're poor." That's what he's doing, so you've got like these poor people arguing amongst each other as opposed to them going, "Hold on. Look, he's got all the money." Why don't they get together and change it? How can you convince people that it was someone else's fault and not the eight percent that own 90% of the wealth, whatever the figure is.
He's no different to anyone else, he's just a turbo version of it. It's just he's been more direct. Never before has someone said, "I could shoot someone off the cabinet," and get a round of applause. He's basically saying, "I'll do whatever I want, yeah? We'll show 'em, won't we? I'll do what I want." They're going, "Yeah!"
You know it really is odd. It's odd that they go for it because it's a big fuck you to the other side that they think that they're the oppressor. It's nebulous liberal elite that don't really exist. It's odd. And it works the other way as well: not everyone that voted for Trump is a fascist. That's just ridiculous. We got the liberal elite versus the alt-right and most people are going between the sides and there's a lot of middle ground.
It's just madness that if you show any compassion you're the liberal elite who wants everyone to be turned gay. [laughs] Well, the left will all be gay soon! They're gonna ban Christmas and make us all gay! You've got that on the one side, and then on the other side everyone's Hitler. [laughs more] Everyone's Hitler! It's just ... it's crazy. Let's calm down and start again.
What you're talking about in a way is this empathy gap, that people can't really hear each other or place themselves in other people's shoes. That's a hard thing to bridge. There are still 13 countries that execute atheists. I mean, wow. You don't have to look far to still see true madness in the world. But overall, the world is probably a better place. I think we still lived through the best 50 years of humanity for everything, the peak of society, for freedoms and tolerance and medicine and communication. It's still better than the 50 years before it and I think you got to treat it like shares. If you look at any one week of shares, you get a completely different picture than if you look at a year or 50 years, and I think overall, I'd still rather be born in 1961 than in 1861. It's still better overall. The fact that we can discuss it. One of your first questions was how has this affected comedy. Now, if two guys are sitting down and discussing how the most powerful man in the world is affecting comedy, it can't be that bad. [laughs]
That's probably true. You had said last year during the campaign that you were amused by Trump's speeches. Are you still able to find humor in the things that are coming out? Or are things too serious now? I don't see where it can end because I don't know what he can do now to turn his core fans against him. I don't know what we can do. He got elected after he defended abusing women. Ten years ago that would've been the end of any candidate and any one of the thousand things he's done would've been a scandal 25 years ago, and now it isn't. Because he says, "It didn't happen, what you're gonna do about it?"
People sort of look and go, "Well, I don't know. What are we gonna do about it?" I see him seeing out his term. I see him even getting reelected if he wants to because there's enough people to go, "We won." Politics seems to be about winning now. It's odd.
Like after Brexit, people were saying, "We won." I go, "What do you mean you won? You voted. You have one vote and you voted and more people voted like you than others. What do you mean you won? You don't know if you've won yet. We've all lost." It's odd. I don't know what it is. There's a rise of selfishness and vindictiveness. I don't know what can be done.
I mean, I get my hopes up. I watch Fox and I get depressed and then I watch MSNBC and I get false hope. [laughs] It's like I don't know what happened, but I think he's being curbed enough. What's really happened at the moment? He's tried to stop Obamacare and now they voted against doing his thing, so what's really happened? It's the same with Brexit. Everyone's shouting, "Hey, Brexit, Brexit!" Brexit hasn't happened yet. Brexit is not gonna happen like they're hoping it would, it's not gonna be a full-Brexit, or it's gonna be slightly worse and it's gonna be fireworks.
People expect this vote to be, "And they all lived happily ever after." Well, it doesn't. That's why I don't like movies that end with a kiss. That's why I like The Apartment, which ends with, "Shut up and deal" because we don't know what's gonna happen next. There's a lot of early celebrating. We just don't know yet. We don't even know if it's gonna be good or bad in the long run. This could be a wake-up call. This could be a good thing.
How long has he been in power? What is it about 200 days. What's that in history? It's nothing. It's a blink of an eye. It's a fucking dream. It's absolutely nothing. We don't know where it's gonna go, what it's gonna be. We could be laughing about this in a year. Or the Earth could be a desert. [laughs] We don't know which one.
It certainly feels longer and longer, just because of the constant drip of information from the news cycle, everything like that. Yeah. The only thing he cares about at the moment is trying to destroy Obama's legacy. He's a narcissist and it hurts his feelings. He went after Obamacare because it was called Obamacare, but if it wasn't, if people didn't call it that, it wouldn't have mattered so much to him. He's trying to rewrite history.
He trying to destroy this legacy of this man. He ran because Obama insulted him. That's why he ran. [laughs] That was when he decided to run when Obama teased him at [the White House Correspondents Dinner]. He got after him about having a passport.
And he didn't want this job. He didn't want to be president of the United States. He wanted a win. It's a game of Monopoly to him. Why would he want to be president of the United States? He hasn't got the freedom he had before. He ran his own business. After a few days, didn't he say something like, "This is a harder job than I thought?"
Yeah, very early on.[laughs] Who thinks that being the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, is not a hard job? I know it's a hard job because presidents go gray in their second term. You look at a photo of a president at the inauguration and then the photo of him two years later, and they're always gray. They've always gone gray. [laughs]
I think he just paid attention to all the golfing he thought was going on. He saw someone else have one, and he wanted one, and he's always had everything he wanted. He always had anything he wanted in life. And the last thing that he wants now that he's never had is love. And I think he'll probably do anything to get it. I don't know what he can do to get it.
To a certain extent that's probably why he thrives when he's in front of his base, when he goes and makes these incomprehensible speeches, but everyone is cheering for him at every weird reference that he makes. Of course. Of course it is. That's why he tweets. He wants more Twitter followers than Obama had. This is a man who trolls actors on Twitter. Can you imagine?
No. Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln calling someone a loser?
Or complaining about celebrity relationships or whatever.[laughs] Exactly, or watching SNL.
Although who knows, maybe Lincoln was making fun of John Wilkes Booth and calling his wife a dog, and that's what really set him off. Yeah, and down the road there was a house where all the actors got together and teased him. I think it's a blip. He's one man. He is a poster boy for a bit of a movement, but I don't know, I guess they'll find someone else. I don't know how much has changed.
What's really changed in 10 years? Outside of technology, what's changed? People still want the same things. The same people get the same things. The same people are in power. The same people are rich. The same people are poor. The same people hate. The same people are compassionate. Nothing changes. Nothing changes.
It's a great Who lyric. It's "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." It's never been, "We won't get fooled again." Yeah, you will. You will. You will get fooled again. We know you will get fooled again.
But I'm an optimist. I just think overall there's always gonna be enough people who are compassionate enough to care about the forgotten and the disenfranchised, the genuinely forgotten and the genuinely disenfranchised, and some people that will follow logic and follow the evidence more than they follow mumbo-jumbo and faith.
I think overall the proof is in the pudding. It works or it doesn't. It works or it doesn't and you got to look in a non-emotional way. You have to look at these things like a wake-up call. Forest fires are actually good for the Earth and that's counterintuitive, but they are.
And the other thing is I really think that it's made more people interested in politics. I wasn't interested in politics two years ago. I never talked about it and now I talk about it all the time.
The TCAs are happening right now, and I just read that NBC is now talking about wanting to reboot The Office. Is that something you've talked about or are interested in? I read that. I don't know if that's true. They don't have to consult me because I've done the deal. They could've carried on before. I don't know if it's true. I don't know if it's a good idea or a bad idea. It depends on how good the show is. I probably found about it at the same time as you, which I think was on Twitter.
I know you have a new radio pilot for Sirius—do you still talk to Karl [Pilkington]? Are you guys still friends, would you work together again?Yeah, but it wouldn't work now. It was like a little funny experiment seeing him learn the ways of the world, and now he's too worldly-wise and he's sort of semi-retired. It was bad enough trying to get him to do it in the first place, but now he's got a house. I don't think he'll come out of it.
[The Sirius show] is gonna be me talking about the things that we've talked about, really. It's all gonna be about what's the point of life, what's the reason, what are we doing here. Luckily, I think all those things are the reason for living. It's things like music and art and comedy and science and learning and all the nonsense that comes with it.
I'm gonna do the occasional radio show, scattered radio guests like Richard Dawkins to talk about that, get people on the line and be interactive and throw more fun [at the wall]. I'm going on this tour. I'm going to New York, then LA and then I'll record the show somewhere, probably London. Hopefully that'll be on Netflix next year, I also started working on my next piece, which is gonna be a sort of comedy-drama [for Netflix].
A movie or a TV show? TV show. Like a half-hour, but it's got more of a story arc than a traditional sitcom. Not that I've done a traditional one, but...a new show, let's call it. I want to do another standup tour. I love standup so much, It's my third love now. It was like the third thing I did, and because I've had seven years off I think I'm good at it now, and I think I've reached that age where I do talk about anything, and I've just loved it so much. So I want to do another one almost straight away.
It sounds like you're gonna be plenty busy, so does that mean no more award show hosting gigs for you? Well, I would like to do that one day because it's just fun. I think people really like that it was just fun. I think it shocked them the first time I did it. Then they realized that I was just telling jokes. So I would like to do that again, it takes quite a nice discipline as well, because it's jokes that I can't use in anything else. I like that they only work for that occasion on that night about those people. I like that as a little sort of academic discipline. Yeah, more of that.
Basically, the next five years for me is finishing this world tour, doing another world tour, doing a sitcom, and getting back on the radio. That's it really.
Do you prefer having lots of projects up ahead like this, where you know where you're headed? Yeah, because I like doing more than one thing. I've got that sort of brain. I can't do one thing at once. I have to split from one to the other. I need lots of things to keep me going. I've got a short attention span and a lot of passion and I put everything into it.