Profile: Ricky Gervais - The Golden shot

THE question on the lips of Hollywood's great and good and downright wicked, as they settle into their seats at the Beverly Hills Hilton for the Golden Globes, is who is Ricky Gervais going to skewer tonight? If comedians are the court jesters of today, then Gervais has dispensed with the pig's bladder and sharpened the stick into a stake.

At last year's event, for which he was host, the British comedian picked on Mel Gibson ("I like a drink as much as the next man... unless the next man is Mel Gibson"); Paul McCartney ("We actually came over on the same flight. I didn't speak to him because I was up front in first class. He was behind me in coach. Saving money. He spent an awful lot last year") and Angelina Jolie ("Actors aren't just loved here in Hollywood, they're loved the world over because they're recognisable. You can be in the Third World and you get a glimpse of a Hollywood star and it makes you feel better. You can be a little child, a little Asian child, with no possessions, no money - but you see a picture of Angelina Jolie and you think 'Mummy!'"). He also regaled the audience with details of his penis reduction, urged them to buy DVDs of The Office and at the end of the broadcast told viewers to switch over to his new show on HBO.

It would be incorrect to say there is no-one he won't poke, for he's made it clear that men of violence such as Mickey Rourke and Russell Crowe must be accorded a free pass less they decide to demonstrate their considerable pugilistic prowess in the Green Room afterwards.

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Despite mixed reviews from critics - "A big disappointment", Chicago Sun Times; "On fire", Radar Online - Gervais has been invited back as host and has been busily sharpening his barbs. There are two celebrities who, in Gervais's view, have already painted a bull's eye on their bodies.

The first is Charlie Sheen who had each coloured concentric ring painted by a separate porn star while he contented himself with industrial quantities of cocaine and premium whisky. The other candidate is, for a second year running, Mel Gibson, who insisted his bull's eye was painted on his back while he slept by the Jews (the depths of the actor's anti-semitism was revealed by Winona Ryder, who said he called her an "oven-dodger". She at first thought this a referral to her inadequacy in the field of home economics, before a friend explained its darker reference to her Jewish ethnicity). Gervais told The Ellen DeGeneres Show last week: "Charlie Sheen has obviously put his head above the parapet. Like last year Mel Gibson was a gift from the Comedy God. So, yeah, that'd be two people out of the audience."

Yet what is interesting is that while Gervais is more than capable of lobbing comedy hand grenades at others, he is exceptionally thin-skinned when subjected to criticism.In fact, it would appear that anyone who fails to greet his work in the correct manner - genuflection preferred but he'll tolerate a deep bow - is branded a "****". When Ian Hislop had the temerity to say he didn't like Extras on Newsnight Review, he was dismissed as an "ugly pug-faced" one.

So why does Gervais feel confident enough to say what he likes? Why isn't he fearful of offending those with the power to commission or can his future projects? The reason is a combination of current success and character. While the success of The Office, his comedy about David Brent, the manager of a paper company in Slough, was critical in Britain, where it earned comparisons to Fawlty Towers as a work of comic genius, the American version of the show, which has surpassed 150 episodes, is earning him millions of pounds. He doesn't need to work, so he only does projects he loves or genuinely believes in.

In an interview a few years ago, Gervais said he was taken by the quote "character is a gift a man gives to himself" and has lived by a strict professional code. As he felt his success to have come late in life - he was 40 when The Office debuted - and after failed attempts as a pop star (More To Lose from his band Seona Dancing charted at 117 in 1983), he decided not to squander that which he had so long desired. As a result, he doesn't do lucrative commercials for an easy payday and toils hard at raising the bar on all his projects. Rather than continue to milk The Office, he developed Extras with Stephen Merchant, his co-writer and director, in which he poured worries about his own attitude to fame and celebrity into the character of Andy Millman, a television extra who achieves his goal but only through selling out. In one of the final episodes Millman appears in Celebrity Big Brother, where he berates his fellow housemates for taking part: "What are we doing? Selling ourselves, selling everything."

Mark Lawson, the cultural critic, said the scene was autobiographical: "I think he worries about that all the time. I thought there was quite a degree of self-hatred or at least self-questioning in those sequences about what he should be doing."

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The youngest son of a French Canadian who met his wife during a Second World War blackout, Gervais had a happy childhood in Whitley. He studied biology at University College London, before switching to philosophy after two weeks. There he met his current girlfriend, Jane Fallon, in 1982 and discovered that he was bright enough to get by with little or no effort. The genesis of The Office, and his future career, came when he was working as head of speech at Xfm, a radio station in London, and hired Stephen Merchant as his assistant. His was the first CV Gervais looked at and gave him the job on condition that he did all the work, so Gervais could "lark about".

The Office began when Merchant had to make a short film while on a BBC production court.The idea of a fake fly-on-the-wall documentary with a sleazy boss captured Gervais's imagination, and for the first time he worked hard, stuck to his intentions against corporate interference and reaped the rewards. He takes comedy seriously: it's an extension of his love of science and philosophy, a means of intellectual inquiry where laughs are by-products; to his mind, the cheap and easy gag is worthless.

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"My quest for knowledge seemed to be a lost art by the age of about ten or 11. Then I knew I could get by without trying that hard - even at university. The Office was the first thing I tried my hardest at. It was like a revelation at 40. And now I realise that you shouldn't be proud of being smart; you shouldn't be proud of being lucky. You should be proud of trying your hardest. I'm pretty born again over that."

So when he takes to the stage tonight with the comedic equivalent of a sniper's rifle, his targets will be those who should try harder.