Ricky Gervais’ sitcom pilot last year was panned by the critics, but its first series starts tomorrow. Is he supremely confident or just arrogant? No, he’s doing it for himself.
YOU can guess that making people laugh and making money are pretty high up on most comedians’ priority lists. Not so for Ricky Gervais. “I do this for myself. I do it for the sheer pleasure of it and I always have. I did it ’cause I loved it when I was poor and I do it because I love it now I’m rich,’’ says the 51-year-old, with a cackle. “I don’t care if you watch, I don’t care if you don’t like it.’’
It’s an attitude that has earned Gervais, who shot to fame a decade ago with The Office, a reputation as a divisive character: some see him as the funniest man on television, while others recoil at what they see as a naked arrogance. The real Gervais lies somewhere between although, it has to be said, he has never been lacking in confidence. When he says that he isn’t bothered by what people make of his work, it rings true.
“You have to be a complete fascist in art. It’s not a democracy at all. You have to do your own thing … people don’t know what they want.’’ So when he sat down to write the pilot of Derek, a comedy drama about a man working in a care home, a full series of which starts tomorrow, he wasn’t worried about the reaction. That’s just as well because, although it received an audience of two million and has since been viewed by almost twice that many on 4OD, the critics were not kind.
The Radio Times said it was interesting but that the slapstick was “clangingly telegraphed’’. Tanya Gold in the Guardian described Gervais, who plays Derek, as a “self-serving hypocrite’’ who “feeds bigots their lines’’ against disabled people.
“I have never considered Derek to be disabled, I never understood it when they started trying to second guess,’’ says Gervais, who plays Derek with a shuffling walk and a facial tic. “Some are saying, ‘He is autistic’, ‘No, he’s got Down’s syndrome’, ‘No, he’s…’ If I say he is not meant to be, he is not meant to be, it’s as simple as that.’’
He says many other characters on TV have been more extreme than Derek and no-one tried to diagnose them with anything. “What’s Father Dougal [from Father Ted]?’’ he asks. “[Derek’s] smarter than him. What’s Mr Bean? What’s Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em?
“People often think my work is cynical. I am always aware that whenever I launch a new show I feel like I am landing at Normandy. I can hear the bullets, but you’ve still got to open the door.” In fact, he claims his programmes are less cynical than people think. “The Office was always about hope. Same with Extras. It looked like a biting satire against fame but it was about a group of friends, really. I like happy endings.”
He says Derek is the “kindest’’ programme he’s ever done: “It is sincere, it is down the line.’’ Although it appears to be a different writing path, it’s still him writing about what he knows about. With The Office he wrote about his life in an office, and when that shot him into stardom, he wrote about fame.
Now he’s writing about care homes, and his writing is well-informed. Marsha, his sister, works with children with learning disabilities, his sister-in-law helps in a care home for people with Alzheimer’s, and his nieces work in old people’s homes. The character, Hannah, played by Kerry Godliman, was inspired by the women in Gervais’s family. He admits there is a little bit of his sister and a bit of his mum, Eva, who died in 2001, before her son found fame.
Derek might confuse some people. Although there are enough jokes in it, thanks largely to Gervais’s friend Karl Pilkington getting all the good lines, there are several heart-rending scenes. “I got loads and loads of tweets about the pilot, saying, ‘Is it a comedy or a drama?’ And I said, ‘What’s your life?’ It’s about real life.’’
The internet buzz around the pilot was huge and Gervais, being a prolific tweeter, understands the importance of this. He embraces the idea of watching sitcoms online rather than on TV. All six episodes will go up on Netflix, which has 30 million subscribers, allowing Gervais to quickly go global. While he’s pleased to be on Channel 4 (“they gave me my first break’’) Gervais – who worked as a booker at the University of London Union before attracting the attention of television executives – knows he doesn’t need to rely on being commissioned for another series which, in turn, often relies on viewer ratings.
“Whether Channel 4 wants it or not, I will be doing another six episodes. I don’t need them, I’ve got four million twitter users. I can just put it on there.’’ Again, confidence is not in short supply. Self-doubt doesn’t get much of a look-in.
And for someone who doesn’t hold much store by what anyone says about him, it is perhaps no surprise that he has no qualms about taking a role in the new Muppets movie.
He will play the main non-Muppet in the movie, which is a sequel to 2011’s inspirationally-named box-office hit The Muppets – probably similar to the role played in that film by Jason Segel. “I love the fact we have to say, ‘lead human’. I know my place. I know Kermit’s in charge,’’ he says.
It’s a rare moment of democracy from a man who likes to do things his own way, but that’s because his priority is being fulfilled. “I am going to thoroughly enjoy it. I can’t believe my luck. It’s going to be two months of fun.”
Gervais’ comedy CV
Gervais co-wrote and starred in this series, first screened in 2001, playing David Brent, a middle manager with an unfortunate manner.
2005 sitcom starred co-writer Gervais as background artist Andy Millman.
THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW
An animated version of the audio podcasts of the same name, which featured Gervais in “pointless conversations.”
LIFE’S TOO SHORT
The 2010 sitcom starred actor Warwick Davis as a fictionalised version of himself.
Gervais plays Derek Noakes, a retirement home worker, who “loves animals, Rolf Harris, Jesus, Deal or No Deal, Million Pound Drop and Britain’s Got Talent – but his main hobby is autograph hunting”.