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The Nerve Interview: Ricky Gervais

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Ricky Gervais is the most powerful person in comedy. That’s not hyperbole; it’s official. Britain’s Radio Times (a widely read cross between TV Guide and Vanity Fair) bestowed the curious and unwieldy title on Gervais for his "legendary" and "peerless" work. In this case, his work is The Office, a mockumentary-style comedy set in a paper merchant’s HQ in the dreary commuter town of Slough. (Think of a less-glamorous New Rochelle in a perpetual drizzle.) “What Spinal Tap did for guitars,” Gervais says, “is what we’ve done for stationery.”

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Gervais co-wrote the award-winning series, and he stars as David Brent, an incompetent office manager who revels in his negative charisma and finds motivation in Desiree song lyrics. Although Gervais’ superb characterization doesn’t make for easy viewing, The Office will have you cringing through fits of laughter. The series’ cultural impact in Britain cannot be overstated: the sitcom has already been hailed as being in the same class as Fawlty Towers. (As with its forbear, only twelve episodes have been shot. After two Christmas specials which will air in the UK this December, Brent and his disenchanted underlings will be retired.) In the meantime, Gervais is confident that, unlike many British comedy exports, The Office will not be lost on an American audience. “The show is about annoying co-workers," he explains, "which is something everyone can relate to.” Maybe that’s why he took our call. — Grant Stoddard  

Um, yeah, so, I’m calling from Nerve. And I guess I’ll just get started.
So what is the website about generally? I’ve heard of it, but I’m not a big surfer. Is it a comedy website or an entertainment website?

It’s about sexuality, relationships, pop culture.
Right.


Not in a seedy way —
No? Okay.

Did you have a particular job that inspired The Office?
I worked in an office for about seven years. So the show was all about working in that office: people arbitrarily being thrown together, people being there longer than they thought they would, including myself. It’s all drawn from experience. And it wasn’t just about office life. It was much more about relationships and interactions.


Did you have an especially evil boss who was the model for David Brent?
Well, no, David Brent was a sketch character I developed called Seedy Boss. Brent was born first, and then the office came second. We decided to make it an ensemble piece, an observational comedy about a real office, as opposed to a backdrop for farce or convoluted plots. We just wanted it to be about missed opportunity; people in pipes, wasting their lives, clock watching. It’s quite sad and existential when you think about it.


It’s dark in a way that Americans don’t expect from a comedy. The opening credits are especially downbeat.
We wanted something that got you in the mood straight away. The intro was shot on film on a cold winter’s day. It’s quintessentially British. Although I think America will like the show — there’s a lot of American influence in the comedy. Spinal Tap is a direct influence on me. It was my favorite comedy film of all time.

Mine too.
Laurel and Hardy was a big influence too. You know, "Get me out of this place, I’m with this idiot." And later comedies like The Larry Sanders Show; which showed the dark side of florid characters. Previously in America there had been lot more heroes.

Have you seen Curb Your Enthusiam?
That’s my new favorite show. I’ve only seen the first season. That’s as far as the dark-side, watching-through-your-fingers comedy has gone yet, I think. The Office is difficult to watch, but I find that worse.

Are you a prick as a boss?
I don’t think so. No one respects me, but I know it.

Right.
I don’t think David Brent is that much of a prick. I think he’s all right. I think he wants a lot, but he doesn’t know how to get it. He’s sort of killing himself. I think his worst crime is that he’s confused popularity with respect.

The Office is being remade for America. How do you feel about U.S. adaptations of British comedies?
The only one I’ve actually seen is probably All in the Family. I hear about them over there, but we don’t get them back very often, do we? We’re involved with the American remake of The Office, on a peripheral sort of level. I understand that it has to be different, but it’s not good to force it.

Do you have any predictions about how a U.S. network will fuck it up?
Obviously the pressure’s on to make it broader. I think people worry that, you know, a farmhand in Texas won’t get it. I think if you concentrate on just making sure a joke is clear and gettable, you end up pleasing no one. But the show is about relationships, emotions, and doing the job of work — it’s not whether it’s set in an office or on an oil rig. Ultimately it’s about relationships, and decency over work, and living your life. There are universal subtexts that everyone is concerned with. People understand when someone’s annoying. People understand when they’re worried about a job. You don’t need to dumb it down; you just need to make it a little bit clearer.

A number of people say that you’ve saved British comedy. How do you feel about that?
They’ll be saying it about someone else in a year’s time. We haven’t saved British comedy. What was wrong with British comedy?

I don’t know.
There will always be cycles. Right now there’s loads of shit on, because the wrong people are in power. And there’s always going to be this new breed. They’re not necessarily going to replace me; I’ve never replaced anyone. I don’t think I’ve saved British comedy. I might have saved, 9:30 ’til 10 on BBC 2 on a Monday night, but Americans saved British comedy. Curb Your Enthusiam, Larry Sanders, The Simpsons — I couldn’t live without them.

It’s just funny when I talk to Americans, and my being English comes up, and they say, "Oh, I love British comedy," and they rattle off a bunch of stuff that I would never think about representing British comedy, like Benny Hill or Are You Being Served?
Well, that was British comedy for like ten years. It dominated. But for every Benny Hill and Are You Being Served, there was Monty Python.

Will there be a third season of The Office?
There will be two specials, but no new season.

Are you sure? Not for millions of dollars?
I don’t really do this for the money. I’m better off than I’ve ever been, or ever dreamed I would be, and I’m happy with that. I wouldn’t do it for a million dollars; I wouldn’t do it for ten thousand dollars.

Do you think the standard for British comedies is high because the quantity of episodes is lower? In America they do twenty-two shows a year; in Britain it’s five or six.
Exactly. I think we keep the quality up by keeping the quantity down. If we had six writers and six producers it’d be different. But we have to do it all ourselves. I think of it as a closed industry. It’s nice to have that control, and I think it shows.

I was thinking about other things you’ve adapted for America. Was it your idea to rename the band Suede "The London Suede"?
I wasn’t involved by then. I only managed Suede for two minutes. They changed their name in ’93 or ’94. I was there in ’92, for a year or so. But I went to see Suede last Monday.

Oh, how were they?
Good fun.

So has your success resulted in more sex?
(laughs) No, I’ve got a girlfriend. I don’t think anything’s changed. Although the money means I can get a bigger telly.

Season one of The Office is available on DVD as of October 7th. Season two premieres Sunday, October 12th at 9 p.m. ET, on BBC America.

   

©2003 Grant Stoddard and Nerve.com.

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