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Ricky Gervais interview: "I get no joy from seeing my fat face on the telly, although I don't think anyone believes me on that"

"THAT'S A F***ING TERRIBLE METAPHOR and I want to take it back immediately." I've just asked Ricky Gervais – a man whose comedy sits somewhere between social awkwardness and excruciating embarrassment – whether he worries about having a blind spot, about pushing the joke too far? In explaining that, no, he doesn't because the only person he's trying to please is himself, Gervais uses this analogy.

"Christopher Guest (of Spinal Tap fame] said to me once, 'What happens when we lose it and no-one tells us?' And I said it doesn't matter. Who cares? It's like worrying about getting Alzheimer's – who cares? Do you know what I mean?"

But before I answer, he's off on one, berating himself in a kind of high-speed Socratic dialogue with gags. "That's a terribly naive thing to say because there's a process – it's terrible for your family. I wish I hadn't used it now. I apologise to anyone who has anyone in their family who has Alzheimer's. It's the most shallow, ridiculous thing I've ever said and I've said a few. F*** me. 'Oh yeah, Rick, you doing a bad film is just like my dad having Alzheimer's. It's the worry of the world. What if Rick loses it? It's something on everyone's mind as they get old.' "

And there, in a nutshell, is Mr Ricky Gervais, self-proclaimed "king of comedy" – or was he kidding about that too? I mean it, I could stop right here because, captured in that duff analogy and resultant retraction, is the dichotomy and dilemma of Ricky Gervais. There's the man people like to think Ricky Gervais is – arrogant, self-obsessed, utterly lacking in humility – and the man I suspect Ricky Gervais really is – intellectual, philosophical about comedy and seriously funny.

It's partly his own fault. He first played the "arrogance card", as he calls it, to hide his embarrassment at award ceremonies where he hoovered up, well, an embarrassing number of awards. Then he got some laughs so he kept doing it. Then, most revealingly, someone took a pop at him for it and that sealed it.

"I wanted to do it even more because I was annoying someone," he says, serious-faced. "If people are annoyed by something on the telly, turn it off. If I don't like someone on the telly, I turn it off and don't let them ruin my day." His voice has gone up an octave by the time he finishes this sentence and the full stop is the Gervais laugh: part Scooby-Doo, part hyena, part baboon. You know the one.

Then there are the characters for which Gervais is best known. David Brent in The Office, Andy Millman in Extras, even Gervais doing stand-up – they're unintentionally, hilariously (or infuriatingly, depending on your sense of humour) arrogant. Gervais does it so well it's hard not to believe he's really like that.

He tells me it goes back to when he moved on from filling in for Ali G on the 11 O'Clock Show to presenting Meet Ricky Gervais, a kind of spoof chat show. He doesn't regret it exactly, but he does acknowledge he made a mistake. "I was playing the bigoted character – the homophobic racist who was funny for the wrong reasons," he says. "I shouldn't have used my own name. I know I got the wrong fans. By that, I mean the people who clap when I make an ironic joke about gypsies. Whoa, no no no, I'm the idiot."

It's taken a long time for the right people to understand, Gervais says, and still some don't. "You can't legislate against stupidity. There's only so many nods and winks you can give and then you're ruining the satire. I suppose, at first, it might have been easier for me to call myself Billy Bigot, but really, can't you get this? Isn't it enough that I'm making jokes about famine that you know it must be a joke?"

When he says it like this it makes sense but when he's in full flow, sometimes I don't know. Or maybe I know, but I don't always find it funny. Happily we're on safer ground today, talking about his new film, Ghost Town, a shiny Hollywood rom-com that gives Gervais his first leading man role, alongside Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear.

Bertram Pincus (Gervais) is a misanthropic, socially inept dentist who, after a near-death experience, develops the ability to see dead people. The film is funny and even poignant at moments. Gervais does his dyspeptic shtick with ease and there's a nod to Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit and a wink towards 1940s screwball comedy.

I tell him I liked the film; he says an earnest-sounding thanks, then explains why, after years of turning down movies, he said yes to this one. "The thing I like about it most is that it's a real Hollywood movie," he says flashing those pointy teeth. Gervais was offered films from the moment the first episode of The Office was shown back in 2001. "Ridiculous," he says, so he said no to everything other than working with Christopher Guest ("my hero"), with Ben Stiller on Night at the Museum and Robert De Niro in Stardust. They were cameo parts, not that well received, but they suited Gervais. He got Stiller and De Niro to appear in Extras as a result. The other offers were "awful, awful Britcoms" or films where he couldn't see why they needed him.

"I never regret saying no. I say no," – he's saying the word as though he's telling off a puppy, stress on the 'nnnn-o' – "until I get another knock. No to everything, forget it. I'm suspicious if I haven't had the idea. People come to me with the best idea in the world but I think, 'Well, I haven't had that idea so I don't know'."

Gervais says things like this as though that's how everyone feels, as though everyone is as sure of themselves as he is. I think he believes that. It's why his talk of trusting no-one more than himself, of pleasing only himself, sounds perfectly right to him and more than a little bit pompous to everyone else.

While he was shooting Ghost Town, he was picking up tips for his next film, which he has co-written and directed, as well as starred in. This Side of Truth, which has Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and current American darling Tina Fey in the cast, is about a world where a writer (Gervais) is the first person to lie. Once that's done, there's another cinematic project with his most constant collaborator, Stephen Merchant, called The Man From the Pru. Writing, directing, starring – does he have control issues?

"It's no more effort," he says, smiling. "When I'm acting I'm saying, 'Let's do it like this.'

"The writing's the fun bit, so for the same time you have all the input, it's your baby and you get paid three times for the same hours."

Money. It's another thing that fuels the anti-Gervais camp. As well as assuaging his control issues, the fact that he owns all of his work means he's made a lot of money. As The Office format has been sold to countries around the world, royalty cheques have made their way to Gervais. There's the multi-million-pound pad in Hampstead which he shares with long-term partner Jane Fallon, once a TV producer, now a bestselling novelist. And now an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York which Gervais describes as "the best city in the world". Not bad for the man who was 36 when he got his first job at a radio station, Xfm. Before that, he'd been the events manager at the student union of the University of London, where he'd studied philosophy.

Gervais's success leads his critics to whine about him having lost his common touch. He's got too much money, he's not ordinary anymore, he doesn't know what it's like to be just like us. Maybe that's why he's so popular in America. Here, we want to knock him for it, but it doesn't seem to worry Gervais much. He's got bigger concerns.

The phrase Gervais says most often is "Who cares?" It might sound flippant but it's not, because Gervais really is bothered about who does. His art – "I used to be ashamed to call it that but I'm not anymore" – is about connecting to people, about making them laugh but also about making them think.

And in that is the explanation of the misfit characters. "I like redemption," he says. "I never understood it, growing up. The prodigal son story? Never understood it, I worried about it. I phoned up Russell Brand recently and I was teasing him about it – 'why do you get a round of applause when you say you haven't taken heroin for a while? I've never taken heroin, where's my applause?'"

Redemption appeals because it's optimistic, it allows for hope. "The biggest arsehole in the world saying, 'I'm sorry' because the nice one has won," he says, describing the scenario he likes best. "Not only are they on the same side now, but the nice one's won. The nice one did some good in the world.

"That's the thing, I want to know my balance of good to bad is right. I'm an atheist but I want God to say, 'Well, let's take a look, oh you're way in the black – well done'. That's what I want."

An atheist comedian with religious fantasies and what sounds suspiciously like a moral code to me.

"It is. I mean, what else is there? I don't just want to be funny because it's not important enough. Anyone can be funny. Falling over is funny ... but then what?"

Gervais is interested in "comedy plus" – laughs for sure, but something more too.

"I get no joy from seeing my fat face on the telly. I didn't do it for the money, I certainly didn't do it for the fame, it's probably the worst bit of it, although I don't think anyone believes me on that.

"I do it because I love that feeling – I love that feeling of saying I've had an idea. I love it. That's what's fun for me. I think everyone needs to be creative. For me, it's coming up with funny things that will hopefully make people laugh – or, more importantly, make them think. That's the best, that's the ultimate."

Gervais has only been in show business for eight years ("it's hardly Tarby, is it?") but in that time he's picked up Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Emmys, British Comedy Awards. He's sold millions of DVDs and holds the world record for the most internet downloads for the podcast he makes with Merchant. His live tour, Fame, was the fastest-selling live tour in history and now he's a Hollywood leading man. You can see why he irritates some people.

In conversation, Gervais isn't annoying; he's funny and generous. He looks just as he does on screen. His hair may be a shade darker, his black suit and white T-shirt ensemble a kind of media-type uniform, but the laugh is as you hear it on screen, the incisors just as sharp.

At 47, he's barely changed since he first emerged into the limelight. It's another reason that you can't really imagine him as anyone other than Ricky Gervais. Even in the footage of him as a new romantic pop star wannabe (in his final year of university, Gervais was the lead singer in short-lived band, Seona Dancing) he looks like a slimmer Ricky Gervais mocking a new romantic pop star wannabe. His speech is the same. He sounds just like David Brent and Andy Millman and Bertram Pincus – slightly faltering with some long pauses to prompt laughs.

It makes me wonder about Ricky Gervais as a boy – was he just a younger, smaller version of who he is now? Gervais grew up in Reading, the youngest of four, in a "typical working-class family". His dad was a labourer and his mum a housewife. So was being funny part of family life?

"Yes, absolutely," he says. "It was the whole point of growing up, really. Outside the health of your family and a decent job of work, it was having a laugh that was important. You had to have a laugh. You weren't allowed to be a bore. They (his parents] didn't care what their kids turned out like so long as they weren't boring."

Another sketch illustrates:

"Is your kid in jail again?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"Is he still funny?"

"Oh yeah, he's still funny."

"Armed robbery, good on him, at least he's not boring, like that other one."

"What, the librarian?"

"Yeah."

And was he funny then like he is now?

"My fascination with character means that I've always been a people watcher. Even as a kid, I wondered why that man looked different. Growing up, it was impressions of teachers or impressions of other kids. As soon as I could deconstruct someone I was doing it."

Deconstruction, connection, creativity – Gervais is a serious funny man. "Oh, just don't make me sound pretentious," he says, sounding like a man who knows that, in the face of something more complicated, less easily packaged into soundbites, terms such as pretentiousness or arrogance will do.

They're not right, though. So what is?

He plumps for the term comedian to describe himself, even though in his head he's a writer/director. "Writer/director of what?" he asks. "It confuses people. So it's 'funny bloke'."

That will do.

• Ghost Town is out on 24 October.

 
 
 

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