Ricky Gervais Would Like to Nonapologize

Via Dave Itzkoff at the New York Times Magazine:

In a onetime mess hall on a decommissioned Royal Air Force base outside London, Ricky Gervais was directing the 4-foot-6 star of a low-budget re-enactment of “The Passion of the Christ” on how to play the Crucifixion for more laughs.

“You’re threatening them,” Gervais said to Dean Whatton, a dirtied-up actor dressed in a loincloth and a crown of thorns and playing the role of “Little Jesus.” Gervais was helping him with his line reading: “ ‘You waituntil Sunday. This is not a good Friday.’ ”

“Cool, cool,” Whatton replied from his cross — but in his next take he flubbed his dialogue and apologized for getting tongue-tied. Gervais forgave Little Jesus for the transgression. “That’s what happens when you’re crucified,” he shouted back at Whatton. “You’re all over the place.”

Gervais was filming his new comedy series, “Life’s Too Short,” created with his writing and directing partner, Stephen Merchant. The show stars Warwick Davis, a 3-foot-6 actor perhaps best known for playing Wicket the Ewok in “Return of the Jedi.” “Life’s Too Short,” which was shown on Britain’s BBC Two at the end of 2011 and will make its U.S. debut Feb. 19 on HBO, is framed as a documentary about Davis, and in the episode I watched being filmed, featured several comedic re-creations of films, cast with little people: “Brokeback Mountain” performed by two short actors in cowboy costumes, or a fastidious homage to Sharon Stone’s interrogation scene from “Basic Instinct,” played by an actress whose feet did not reach the ground as she sat in her chair.

Gervais’s first TV series, also created with Merchant, was the original, can-you-believe-it’s-10-years-old incarnation of “The Office,” a now-legendary BBC comedy. “The Office” com­mandeered a documentary-style format from American pioneers like Christopher Guest and Albert Brooks and mined laughs from a fictional workplace and its mundane employees, including Gervais, who played a relentlessly ingratiating manager named David Brent. When “The Office” became a worldwide hit — including the U.S. version of the show, which until recently starred Steve Carell — it gave Gervais the resources, the clout and the good will to do more or less whatever he wants for the rest of his career. So far the things he has chosen to do include a second comedy series, “Extras”; a podcast; a handful of not-widely-seen movies; several stand-up tours; and two outings as the host of the Golden Globe Awards, with a third tour of duty coming on Sunday, Jan. 15.

To many Americans, last year’s Golden Globes appearance by Gervais defined how they know him: as a self-styled provocateur who’s not afraid to shock and offend in the service of humor. It’s an image he embraces and even lovingly cultivates. In a photo shoot for Rolling Stone, he dressed as Jesus with the word “atheist” scrawled across his bare chest; on another magazine cover, echoing a famous image of Muhammad Ali, he dressed as Saint Sebastian.

In this sense, the Little Jesus scene was the perfect embodiment of his current comedic formula: loaded with potentially outrageous elements that will reliably offend some portion of its viewership, or at least titillate them with the idea that somewhere else, someone is being offended. As Gervais surveyed his diminutive actor playing Jesus on a scaled-down cross, he gave a loud laugh, cackling like a mad scientist whose plans were coming to fruition. Then he announced to the room, “We’ve got the billboard for Texas, haven’t we?”

Of all the surprising turns in Gervais’s career, perhaps the most surprising, at least superficially, is his return to hosting the Golden Globes this year. From the moment he said good night at the 2011 Golden Globes, it seemed unthinkable he’d be invited back. He previously opened the awards show in 2010, and took some flak from critics for a dialed-down routine that Gervais himself later acknowledged was “nice and cheeky.” In 2011, he showed a different kind of cheek. In a five-minute opening monologue, he took aim at such low-hanging targets as Charlie Sheen (“It’s going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking, or as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast”) and the “Sex and the City 2” movie (“I was sure the Golden Globe for special effects would go to the team that airbrushed that poster”). Later, he described the movie “I Love You Phillip Morris,” as being about “two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay — so the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists, then.” He closed out the program by declaring, “Thank you to God for making me an atheist.”

It was the sort of material (Charlie Sheen likes to party!) that would have barely rattled Medic­Alert bracelets at a Friars Club roast. But Gervais emerged with the reputation as someone who dared to tell the entertainment industry exactly how little he thought of it. During the telecast, a few presenters poked back at Gervais (“Aside from the fact that it’s been hugely meanspirited with mildly sinister undertones,” Robert Downey Jr. said, “I’d say the vibe of the show’s pretty good so far”), which some viewers took to mean they were offended by his act. Then, within days of the appearance, Gervais commenced a kind of nonapology apology tour, from “Piers Morgan Tonight” to “The View,” explaining why he felt he did not have to say he was sorry for any of his jokes and why no one was really as angry at him as it might have appeared on television.

Gervais and I sat down for lunch last spring at a cafe near Lincoln Center, right after his appearance on “The View.’ “I don’t care about winning them over,” he said, meaning the “View” hosts as well as detractors at large, “as long as I get a chance to explain what I mean. I don’t care about them not liking the joke, but they’ve got to understand it before they criticize it. They’ve got to know what my intention was.”

Dressed in a black T-shirt and bluejeans, Gervais, now 50, has slimmed down noticeably from his days on “The Office.” He said he had gotten his weight down to about 172 pounds with six hours of intensive exercise a week, and without having to surrender his nightly regimen of a bottle of wine and a plate of cheese. It is important to Gervais that he should get to do what he wants in all aspects of his life, and he recognizes this. At the start of our meal, the cafe was empty and quiet, but as it filled up with a robust lunchtime crowd, he complained that the noise was making it difficult for him to concentrate and asked if we could suspend our interview. After about 15 minutes of off-the-record chitchat, he became comfortable again, apologized for what he realized was a diva moment — “my neurosis, my need for control,” he explained — and said the interview could resume.

Gervais spoke at greatest length about his comedy, occasionally adopting the whispery, professorial tone of someone who is certain he is saying very profound things. “I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said of the Golden Globes. “If I had done something wrong, it’d have been terrible. If I have to go, ‘They’re right,’ that’s a terrible feeling.” He said the only reliable metric for success was his own satisfaction with his performance. “The only thing that matters is, did it turn out like I wanted it?”

If you’re chasing after positive reviews, demographic trends or a lucrative box office, Gervais said, “you’ve already failed.” But, he added, “if your only ambition is to get something off your chest and render it exactly as you wanted it, then you’re bulletproof.”

At one point, while directing a scene for “Life’s Too Short,” Gervais instructed Davis to “give us a huge Ollie down the lens, like, ‘This is mental’ ” — “Ollie” being Gervais’s code word for a classic slow burn delivered to a camera. It’s a reference to Oliver Hardy, the perennially put-upon, perpetually exasperated half of the slapstick duo Laurel and Hardy. Hardy is one of Gervais’s heroes, which says a lot about both Gervais’s sensibilities and his knowledge of comedy history. Growing up in Whitley, a homogeneous array of suburban row houses in Reading, a city about 40 miles west of London, Gervais steeped himself in comedy arcana. His list of personal icons began with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers and over the years grew to include Christopher Guest, the “This Is Spinal Tap” star and writer-director of “Best in Show,” “Waiting For Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind,” as well as dyspeptic stand-up comics like Garry Shandling and Larry David.

After a stint in the 1980s as one half of a pompadoured new-wave duo called Seona Dancing, Gervais ended up in radio, and while working at a London station called Xfm in the ’90s, he hired a vertiginously tall young man named Stephen Merchant to be his assistant. Merchant subsequently took a job at the BBC, and Gervais took a “voluntary redundancy” from Xfm. Later reunited at the BBC, the two men wrote comedy skits for radio shows and made a short film that would eventually become “The Office.”

So Gervais’s route to comedy stardom was quite different from, say, Louis C.K.’s or Jerry Seinfeld’s — road warriors who spent years honing their acts in thankless sets at dingy clubs before they became mainstays of stage and screen (and friends of Gervais, by the way). By contrast, Gervais achieved prominence as a stand-up only after his sitcoms were successful. This colors and reinforces his tendency to see himself as an uncompromising outsider, even as he is invited to host the Golden Globes.

Of the time when he and Merchant pitched “The Office” to BBC executives, Gervais told me that he told the BBC: “ ‘It’s either me in it, writing and directing, or not at all.’ After the meeting, Steve said, ‘Can I do the talking in future?’ ”

Jon Plowman, a veteran British comedy producer who was the BBC’s head of comedy entertainment at the time, recalls Gervais and Merchant as more excited than standoffish about the potential project. “In their heads it was already a hit in Britain and a hit in the U.S., and they were absolutely certain about it,” Plowman told me. “And that sort of thing is infectious, and you think, Well, hooray — if they believe it, then I’ll believe it. And maybe the actors will believe it, and maybe the viewers will believe it eventually.” Plowman added that he appointed a “slightly more experienced producer” to oversee Gervais and Merchant, “to make sure that they did know which end of the camera has the lens in it.”

The success of “The Office” allowed Gervais to connect personally with several of the comedians he looked up to, elevating him from an admirer to a peer. Larry David, the “Seinfeld” co-creator and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star, told me that when he first saw the British “Office,” he felt an instant rapport with Gervais. “It was one of the few things I would watch where I would think, Boy, I wish I thought of that.”

Christopher Guest also spoke admiringly of the affectionate strain of comedy he saw in “The Office” and its follow-up, “Extras.” In both his own movies and in Gervais’s television shows, Guest told me, there are “two things happening simultaneously, which can be confusing, perhaps. One is that these people have a much bigger sense of themselves than they should, because otherwise it’s not funny. They take themselves very seriously. But they’re also human beings, so you see the other part, the tragic part of that at the same time. In comedy you can’t have a story inhabited by people that are doing things well.” But Guest didn’t try to apply this standard to Gervais’s other identity as a stand-up comedian. “There are people who go after those things that are explosive,” he said. “I’m not really in the business of dealing with that, that’s not my issue. And Ricky, certainly, can push those buttons for people.”

Gervais’s stand-up act can be difficult to reconcile with his TV work. Attired in a black T-shirt, jeans or black pants and a headset microphone that recalls the aggressive seduction expert played by Tom Cruise in “Magnolia,” Gervais may variously riff on the first doctor who had to tell a patient he had AIDS, or the differences between Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” and a real-life autistic man he met (who, Gervais jokes, he promptly whisked off to a casino). His stand-up act possesses little of the sentimental heart of “The Office” or even of “Extras”; it can be ruthlessly funny, but also belligerent and a little bit paranoid. As a stand-up, Gervais seems to take a childlike glee in going directly at all the topics he’s been told to stay away from. At the end of a long rant in his 2010 HBO show, “Ricky Gervais: Out of England 2” he declared, “If I have offended anyone, and I’m sure I have, I don’t apologize.”

When I visited Gervais in the summer when he was filming “Life’s Too Short,” he was enmeshed in another pseudo controversy. Having appeared in a cameo on the season finale of the American “Office” a few weeks after Steve Carell left the series, Gervais wrote on his blog, “If you’re going to jump a shark, jump a big one.” He added: “I assume most people know I didn’t do the U.S. remake for the art. I did my version for the art. That’s why I stopped it after a few hours of telly.” The remarks were widely interpreted as Gervais insulting or dismissing the NBC series. In a follow-up post, Gervais wrote: “I simply said it’s different to the original which I created and made with different ambitions. What’s wrong with that?”

When I met with him, Gervais seemed not much concerned with the teapot tempest he stirred up. Relaxing in his trailer one afternoon, he told me he believed the intention of his commentary on “The Office” was clear: “You know when you joke about your hometown, and people go, ‘No, I come from there’? No, I’m in on this — me as well. I would never slag off the show. It’s like I was teasing my friends.”

Stooped inside his nearby trailer, the 6-foot-7 Merchant looked something like a marionette packed into a suitcase as he explained the different approaches that he and Gervais take to their stand-up acts. “He has an urge to push the boundaries and to provoke a response from the audience,” said Merchant, who helped Gervais with last year’s Golden Globes routine. “I would much more rather be part of the gang. I don’t want to laugh at the gang — I want the gang to not beat me up.”

Merchant, who is 37 and regards Gervais as the older brother he never had, spoke in a mostly genial tone, but his voice rose as he defended his collaborator, who he said has been victimized by a press that is always scanning his remarks for portions it can take out of context.

“If you come in with the agenda of ‘I don’t like this guy and I’m going to try and stitch him up,’ then Ricky’s stand-up, his interviews, everything he does — you’ll find a way of interpreting it that supports your view,” Merchant said. “He’s acerbic, he’s direct. And if you’re a fan of his, you can see it in a different way.”

“Life’s Too Short” feels in many ways like a mathematical average of the deadpan vérité style of “The Office” and the celebrity-skewering satire of “Extras.” On “Extras,” Gervais portrayed a struggling actor, often opposite cameos by real-life stars playing fatuous versions of themselves. On “Life’s Too Short,” Davis is the central character, buttressed by sequences in which Gervais and Merchant play heightened versions of themselves: British showbiz moguls to whom Davis turns for assistance or money.

Davis came up with the concept for the show and pitched it to Gervais and Merchant; like his character on “Life’s Too Short,” Davis runs a talent agency specializing in short actors. He told me that he had been approached several times about starring in a reality series, but did not want to expose his private family life. “What I did think is, Maybe I should produce the documentary,” he said. “Then at least I can control the boundaries.”

From this concept, Gervais and Merchant have spun a comically distorted world, in which Warwick Davis is a deluded, David Brent-like schemer who gets stuck crawling through pet doors and falling out of cars that are too big for him — and who also uses his talent agency to siphon off roles for himself and contrives to gain power in a little-person advocacy group. “It’s about a person, not necessarily somebody who’s short,” Davis said. “He’s a desperate man, and as he gets more desperate, he makes more mistakes.”

Far from feeling exploited by “Life’s Too Short,” Davis was proud that the series would be, he said, “one of the most mainstream things ever to show little people.”

The show is also another vehicle for celebrities to appear as themselves, in exaggerated “Extras” mode. And while they provide “Life’s Too Short” with familiar faces to edit into its promotional trailers, they additionally exist to remind viewers that Gervais has famous friends and is famous — and dangerous — himself. In one episode, Johnny Depp visits Gervais’s office to take him to task for his Golden Globes routine (“No one makes fun of Tim Allen on my watch and gets away with it,” Depp warns him). In another, the stone-faced Liam Neeson performs what he believes is a humorous improvisation about a man with AIDS. Told by Merchant that this is not an appropriate subject for comedy, Neeson, indicating Gervais, asks, “Well, how does he get away with it, then?” Merchant replies, “We don’t know.”

What emerges from moments like these is the core of Gervais’s relationship with Hollywood: he has become the entertainment industry’s favorite irreverent person, because he manages to be irreverent in such a deeply reverent way.

“Drama isn’t everyone getting along and agreeing with each other,” he told me. “That’s no drama at all. And when that happens, they” — meaning the media — “don’t like it. There’s nothing to them. Just like the Golden Globes, it was, ‘Everyone hates me.’ Well, Johnny Depp’s in this show. If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does.”

In early December, Gervais called me from the home he shares in Hampstead, London, with his longtime girlfriend, Jane Fallon, a novelist and former television producer, and their cat, Ollie. Gervais was drinking a glass of Champagne, and when I asked if he was celebrating anything, he replied, “Yeah, 6 o’clock.” He merrily added, “Happy 6 o’clock-mas.”

Since the summer, Gervais had become more active on a dormant Twitter account he set up in 2009, and upset a swath of his million or so followers with his frequent use of the word “mong,” a shortened form of the word “mongoloid.” Gervais argued that the word was also drug slang, as in “monged out,” and his point, he said, “was that words don’t have hatred built in — it’s how you use them, it’s about intent.” In any case, he said: “You can’t really explore it on Twitter because you only get the reaction. You don’t get the discussion.” A few days later, he got into an electronic slapfest with a Twitter user named @GodsWordIsLaw, who had called him a “vile creature” and accused him of tweeting “anti-Christian bigotry all day long.”

Of course, the more significant development was that, despite any apparent controversy or ill will, Gervais announced in November that he would be hosting the Golden Globes for “a third and definitely final time.” Among the factors that led to his return, he told me, were the increased television ratings that the broadcast has received in the years he has emceed, but what really excited him was the satisfaction of disproving anyone who suggested he’d never be allowed back. “Part of me,” he said, “was waiting for the call — ‘Yes, I’ll do it’ — so I could go: See?”

Besides, Gervais said he had heard that the Hollywood Foreign Press Agency was deciding between his returning “or no host at all.” “So basically, I beat no one,” he said with a laugh.

He offered to tell me a Mel Gibson joke he was working on for the show, but I said I wanted to be surprised. While once again promising controversy and offended celebrities, Gervais told me that no matter how the gig goes this year, it wouldn’t impact his career because it “isn’t part of what I do.”

“I do the Golden Globes like some people play golf on a Saturday,” he said. “It’s fun, but it can’t affect me because come Monday morning, I’ll be writing a new stand-up show or I’ll be writing a new TV show or I’ll be writing a new film. So it’s not exactly bravery.”

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