Even when he’s not trying particularly hard, Ricky Gervais still manages to be one of the funniest people on the planet. At last month’s Golden Globes ceremony, Gervais didn’t deliver the choreographed song-and-dance theatrics expected of most award show hosts. Instead, he wandered onstage and told a few off-color jokes that seemed like an afterthought at best, as if he’d written them on the limo ride over to the theater. It should’ve been the least memorable Golden Globes ever, but rarely has somebody inspired so much controversy and “I can’t believe he said that” outrage from so little screen time. The next day, there was more debate about whether Gervais did or didn’t tell Mel Gibson in advance that he was going to mock his alcoholism than who actually left with a Globe statuette.
Gervais continues to show off his comedic effortlessness tonight at nine p.m. Eastern Time, when HBO premieres The Ricky Gervais Show,a cartoon based on the popular podcast of the same name, in which Gervais and longtime cohorts Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington sit around a table and talk. Yes, you read that correctly. Gervais recorded conversations with his friends and then those conversations were animated by HBO, the same network that gave us The Sopranos, Big Love, Mr. Show, and 95 percent of everything awesome on TV. And in all likelihood, The Ricky Gervais Show is going to be an instant classic, the most beloved and critically praised show on television (cable or otherwise) this year. And in case you missed this part, it’s a cartoon about three English guys sitting in a room and making each other laugh. If anybody but Ricky Gervais had said, “Hey, here’s an idea. Me and my pals say some funny things when we’re together. That should be a show. And why don’t we animate it at great expense?,” they would be immediately fired from show business.
When I called Gervais for our interview, he initially seemed a little distracted. He answered all of my questions, but with the resigned sigh of somebody who couldn’t care less. But when out conversation drifted from contractual obligation to random silliness, he started laughing giddily, with a hyena-like cackle that’s weirdly infectious. He even offered me a rare exclusive—probably the biggest scoop of my journalism career—sharing the details of his ambitious creative plots for 2010. It would’ve been especially sweet if any of it was… well, you’ll see.
Eric Spitznagel: Your cartoon doppelganger looks vaguely like Fred Flintstone. Was that by design?
Ricky Gervais: We went a little retro with the cartoon. I think he’s a cross between Fred Flintstone and Barney. He’s probably even more realistic than the actual flesh-and-blood version of me. The idea was to make the animation feel cozy and familiar. Because some of the things we talk about in this show are kinda out there. I don’t know if you’ve heard all of the podcasts, but we talk about everything from life and death to disabilities and the Holocaust. There’s nothing we won’t talk about. I didn’t want people to be intimidated by that, or think we’re trying to be deliberately shocking. It’s just three guys sitting around talking. Despite some of the subject matter, we hope it’s sweet and engaging.
Why make a cartoon based on a podcast? Were you just looking for a way to get paid by HBO without actually writing anything new?
Well that’s certainly an exciting aspect of it. I quite like the idea of getting money for old work. But honestly, I am curious to see whether we pulled it off, and if other people will like it as much as I do. Not that it makes much of a difference. I’ve only ever tried to please myself. When Steve (Merchant) and I originally did these podcasts, it was just about the fun of sitting in a room with Karl Pilkington. It was a pure labor of love. The fact that the world is going to hear Karl’s idiotic ramblings is just a bonus.
Karl Pilkington started as a producer on your podcast. What’s the secret to his comedy magic?
He’s an idiot. (Laughs.) He’s got childlike qualities. He says things that are so bizarre, but you forgive him right away because you know he doesn’t understand. On one of our podcasts, he actually said that he thought Anne Frank was just avoiding rent. (Laughs.) Isn’t that remarkable? It’s like we’ve made a new Simpsons but this time Homer Simpson is real.
Is this going to turn into a Simpsons-esque cottage industry? Can we expect a deluge of t-shirts adorned with Karl quotables?
I certainly hope so.
What’s the Karl equivalent of “Don’t Have a Cow?”
Well, “Knowledge is hassle” springs to mind. That’s a lovely quote. Also, “What were those things in Gremlins called?” That’s a good one. There was a podcast where we talked about the Nativity and the Three Wise Men who brought gifts for Jesus, and Karl said, “Were those gifts for his birthday or Christmas?” (Laughs.) Which is genius, isn’t it? Another time we were talking about Noah’s Ark and I said, “Karl, think about it. Two of every species on one boat. That’s every part of the food chain. Why didn’t the lion eat the antelope, or the spider eat the fly?” And Karl said, “In a crisis you all pull together.” (Laughs.) What a brilliant idea. So basically every animal was just like, “Okay, we can do this. We’ll just all eat cabbage for forty days.”
Have you ever wondered if it’s just an act? Maybe Karl’s only pretending to be lovably eccentric.
People ask me that all the time. But if it’s just an act, he keeps it up 24-7. And let’s not forget, none of this is scripted. Karl doesn’t know what Steve or I are going to ask him in advance. So he couldn’t be planning what he’s going to say. He’s not playing a character. The podcasts aren’t scripted or manipulated in any way. You’re literally eavesdropping on a conversation.
You’ve said that your ultimate goal for this show is to transform Karl into a celebrity.
That’s right, yeah. Because he’ll hate it. This is my driving force. It’s not about the money anymore. I have enough money. I don’t need to be any more famous. I just want Karl Pilkington to walk down the street and have strangers say to him, “You have a head like a fucking orange.” Then my job will be done here. I feel like this is Quantum Leap, and as soon as somebody says to Karl “You have a head like a fucking orange,” then I can go back. (Laughs wildly.)
Now that the dust has settled on the Golden Globes, how do you think you did as a host?
I had fun with it. The reactions were interesting. Some people thought I went over the top and I was too nasty and cutting edge, and other people thought I wasn’t nasty or cutting edge enough. There was one journalist who said, “I noticed that Ricky had a go at Mel Gibson’s drinking but not his anti-Semitism.” Yeah, because the Globes would be a nice platform for that discussion, wouldn’t it? (Laughs.) “Before we present an award to Glee, here’s a joke about how Mel Gibson distrusts Jews.” You know what I mean? It’s just absurd. But you can’t please everybody.
Do you care about pleasing everybody?
Not in the slightest. When you do the kind of comedy I do, you just have to assume that half the people will always miss the joke. There will be as many people who hate you as like you. There are people who hate The Office and don’t know why it’s called a comedy, or they despise my stand-up and think I’m an awful, homophobic, racist jerk. They don’t get that it’s satire. But you mustn’t worry about that. Otherwise you’d just water down everything to be as safe and anodyne as possible. I embrace the fact that as many people hate me as like me. That’s what’s fun about it.
We’ve heard rumblings that David Brent will be making a guest appearance on an upcoming episode of The Office. Is this even remotely true?
I’m glad this came up. The whole thing started when I was at the TCA and somebody asked me, “Would you ever like to appear on the American Office?” And I was like, “You know what? I was thinking about this the other day. I would like to do that, yeah.” When we first started talking about remaking The Office, I tried to keep out of it. They asked me if I wanted to play the main character or even direct it, and I was like, “No, that’s just pointless. It’s got to be made by Americans for Americans.” But now they’ve done like a hundred episodes and the show’s got it’s own identity. So I was like, “Yeah, I’ve written an episode and I’d love to write another one maybe. And who knows, it might be fun to include David Brent. We’ll see.” Afterwards, I said to Steve [Carell] that the headline tomorrow would be “David Brent Definitely Appearing In The Office.” And it was! (Laughs.)
What I’m getting from this is, you’re sending us subliminal clues that we should expect a big David Brent storyline in The Office season finale. Am I reading you correctly?
Absolutely you are. In fact, feel free to write about a whole storyline that you’ve just entirely made up. You can say that you’ve seen the last episode, and Michael Scott pulls off his mask at the end and shows that he’s really Ricky Gervais.
Ricky Gervais or David Brent?
No, it’s me, Ricky Gervais. There’s no such person as Steve Carell. And I was in Evan Almighty as well. All of Steve’s films, it was all me in a mask. It’s very Charlie Kaufman-esque, don’t you think?
So in this episode of The Office, you’re basically breaking down the fourth wall. You’re revealing that Steve Carell, the actor who plays Michael Scott, is just the fictional creation of Ricky Gervais, who plays a fictional character named David Brent. That’s so meta-meta-meta-something.
(Laughs.) It’s so weird on so many levels. David Brent is mixed in with Michael Scott who’s Steve Carell who’s really Ricky Gervais. It’s TV eating itself and then vomiting it up.
Does this somehow tie into the Jim and Pam pregnancy? Are we going to find out that their baby was actually fathered by David Brent?
Exactly! The baby’s going to have my face. And then we have the obvious spin-off, Office Babies. It’s a show where it’s just a load of babies crawling around, with voice-overs by all the actors from the adult version. It’s sort of like Look Who’s Talking, but set in an office. We’re actually making that show for NBC and it comes out in April. It’ll follow 30 Rock. It’s called Office Babies, and it’s definitely happening. (Laughs.)
Aren’t babies a death sentence for even the best sitcoms?
Well, it’s not something that would’ve worked with the British show, because it was so finite. It would’ve been weird and overpowering. But when you’ve done a hundred or so episodes, you need to move on and explore all realms. Otherwise, you’re just repeating yourself. The writers know what they’re doing. As for whether audiences like it or not, I guess we’ll see. But again, you shouldn’t worry about that. Not everyone is going to like everything you do. You just have to trust your instincts.
And your instincts tell you to milk every last drop of profitability from the Office franchise and make a spin-off called Office Babies?
Oh, that’s definitely happening. I’m filming it now. It’s just loads of babies. And you know what the terrible thing is? We’re not even paying them. (Laughs.) What we did is, we pretended to do a promotional thing where parents can come and meet famous people from The Office. So they leave their babies with us, and while they’re distracted getting autographs, we shoot the entire series. It’s just babies crawling over copiers and stuff, and then we overdub the footage. There are no actor fees. At least not until the second season, when it becomes a hit. Then they’ll be asking for a pay raise, you can be sure. But that’s when we’ll write them out. (Laughs.)
How angry would you be if I pretended to misunderstand you and reported on Office Babies as a real thing, without any irony whatsoever?
I insist on it. I think you should give this interview a title like “Ricky Gervais Reveals All About Office Babies Spin-Off: ‘It’s Definitely Happening.’”
Consider it done.
And after that we’re going to do Caveman Office, which is just a lot of grunting with subtitles. And then there’s Victorian Office. We’ll have a new Office for every period in history. We’re never going to run out of ideas. NBC really doesn’t need to have any other programming. They should just go ahead and change the network’s name from NBC to Office-TV. And that is definitely happening.
There’s a sort of if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em brilliance to this idea. If the media is just going to repeat misinformation about you, do you prefer to be in on the joke?
It seems to be more fun that way, don’t you think? On The Wire, which is the greatest TV show of all time, there was this fictional newspaper called The Sun, and they had a weird sense of journalistic integrity. Their writers were always checking out every story, calling and asking things like “Did this really happen? Was that a quote?” I wish that existed in the real world. But if it did, the British press would shut down. They’d go, “Aw, fuck it! We’ve got to be honest now? Just forget it!” (Laughs.)
Now you’re making me feel a little guilty. How can I write about Office Babies as pseudo-fact if I know you’re silently judging me?
Oh don’t worry, I’m definitely going to do Office Babies. I’m not being ironic anymore. I think it’s an amazing idea. I think the baby based on me should have a little goatee drawn on his face, like with a sharpie marker. Rainn Wilson’s baby needs to have the glasses and the center part in his hair. This could be the greatest show ever broadcast on TV.
It’s kinda surprising that nobody’s pitched this to NBC yet.
I’m sure somebody has. And I’m sure NBC has already bought the idea and the script is just sitting in a file cabinet somewhere. It’s one of those things where I’d go, “That’s fucking ridiculous, I’d never do that,” and then there’s a writers’ strike and I’ll go, “Where’s that script?” It wouldn’t even hurt us if there’s an actors’ strike. That’s the real genius of it. We don’t have to pay babies, because they’re not actors. (Wild laughter.)
I’m starting to think you enjoy how cheap it’d be to shoot this series more than the idea itself.
I’ve always thought that the next time there’s an actors’ strike, they should just replace every actor on every TV show with a dog. Wouldn’t that be great? (Laughs.) Can you imagine how hilarious 24 would be with a dog playing Kiefer Sutherland’s part, driving around in cars and trying to defuse bombs? (Wild laughter.) TV shows without any actors. What a wonderful world that would be.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com