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[originally published in Smoke magazine]

ricky gervais: making art of the awkward
[cover feature]

“I’m in it for the creative process,” explains British actor, screenwriter, and auteur of the uncomfortable Ricky Gervais. “If I had to give up one thing, it would be everything but the creative process. I can do without the red carpet and the fame and eating in fine restaurants—as long as I’m allowed to do exactly what I want. And I realized that pretty early in life actually. Just head straight to it. Just do what you want.”

Gervais has made a career creating characters that “just head straight to it,” though more often than not, their frankness returns cringe and chaos rather than the accolades Gervais has grown accustomed to these past few years. From The Office’s hilariously tactless corporate higher-ups to Extras’ PR-agent-imploding celebrity cameos to his new film The Invention of Lying, which features a world where no one has ever told a fib, Gervais has built a tidy little empire out of small ideas that lead to big laughs.

Born in Reading, England, the 48-year-old comedian first gained widespread recognition with his BBC mockumentary-style examination of all things socially awkward, The Office. In addition to creating the show, Gervais took on the role of David Brent (who would be adapted into Steve Carell’s Michael Scott for the U.S. version), the friend-deficient regional manager of a medium-sized paper company in a medium-sized town who is more interested in being the office comedian than running a company. Famously, the somewhat experimental format of the show bombed with focus groups, but the BBC decided to go with it anyway and it quickly found an audience at home and even gathered a cult following Stateside. While simple in its scope, The Office was a revolutionary break from the sitcom format: trading stars and laugh tracks for a study in body language and explorations of “the beauty of stupidity.” The show was a naturalistic look at the white collar workplace, that strange universe wheremost people spend the majority of their workweek traversing a regulation-infested minefield of carpet and cubicles interacting with people whose names they would never know in the off-hour world. Not to mention the annual Christmas parties. The Office managed to strike a chord with cubicle-dwellers around the world, spawning remakes in Quebec, France, Germany, Chile; talk of an Office popping up for Russian market; and of course, a giant hit here in the U.S., which Gervais executive produces.

“The only remake we’re involved in to any extent is the American one,” says Gervais. “For the other ones we just give permission and keep an eye on them. The American one is the only one we have any creative input. And that was the most substantial in the first few months, and now there’s over 100 episodes. I think it took ‘til episode 40 for us to direct one because we wanted to get its own legs, its own life. And it was definitely the right decision. And I couldn’t be prouder for them. There’s only one other I would want to be involved in—there’s talk of an Indian remake. I might take an Executive Producer credit on that because there’s a billion people in India. So I imagine the ratings will be good.”

Gervais followed The Office with an HBO show Extras, which chronicled the exploits of a couple of under-employed actors who navigate show business while interacting with actual movie stars playing egomaniacal caricatures of themselves. In an early—and as it turns out, strangely prophetic—episode, Kate Winslet, playing herself playing a nun on the set of a Holocaust drama states “It’s like, how many [Holocaust dramas] there been? We get it. It was grim. Move on. No, I’m doing it because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, [you’re] guaranteed an Oscar. I’ve been nominated four times—never won. Schindler’s bloody List. The Pianist. Oscars coming out of their ass!” Winslet, would, this past year,win her first Oscar for her role in The Reader—a Holocaust drama. When Winslet won a Golden Globe for the same role a few months prior, Gervais took the podium not long after and quipped “Well done, Winslet. I told you, do a Holocaust movie, the awards will come, didn’t I?”

More recently, Ricky has made transition from mocking Hollywood to joining its ranks (though he claims that he tries to avoid that physical town of tinsel as much as possible). He made his Hollywood debut with a supporting role in the Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum (a role he reprised in this summer’s sequel). The sci-fi family comedy shouldn’t be confused with the auteured work Gervais expresses his admiration for, as his participation was more of a payback for friend Ben Stiller who guest appeared on Extras. He made his first starring role in a feature in the 2008 film Ghost Town. At the time of this interview Gervais was in Hampsted, in the midst of pre-production on Cemetery Junction, a film he wrote and directed with Stephen Merchant, a longtime collaborator and Office and Extras co-creator.

He also just put the final touches on his full-length directorial debut, The Invention of Lying, which will be released by Warner Brothers this fall. It’s a conceptual film (and yet a “more traditional comedy” than his TV work) about a parallel universe where no one ever lies, until one man in modern times discovers that what comes out of your mouth isn’t necessarily what has to be reality. It’s a film “in the vein of Sleeper meets Groundhog Day,” he comments before proudly pointing out that it also happens to have the “comedy cast of the decade. It’s got Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Christopher Guest, Jeffrey Campbell, John Hodgman, Jennifer Garner,and myself.” You will also find performances by Patrick Stewart, Jason Bateman, Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, and Louis C.K.

“Working with Ricky was survival of the funniest,” co-star Jennifer Garner told Smoke. “He is like a brilliant five-year-old and the fact that we finished an entire movie is a bit of a miracle. Ricky cannot keep a straight face for five minutes. If anyone in a scene does something surprising or extra funny he loses it immediately.”

Gervais’ loose, experimental-friendly approach to comedy works well with the relatively cheaper medium of TV. When making the transition from the small screen to multiplexes (not to mention all that Hollywood money banking on him), Ricky has still managed to maintain his creative swagger. “Always put me in charge,” he proudly boasts. “Make the buck stop with me. And don’t give me any notes. I don’t want to hear notes. I don’t want anyone’s opinion. I’ll nod and thank them for it. The BBC and HBO let me alone completely. So, I’ve been very lucky and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t want to be part of a committee. I don’t want to homogenize it and make the same film that everyone else has made. I want to live and die by the sword. I want to have no one to blame.”

Gervais was already in his late-30s when he found his way into the spotlight—practically geriatric in an era where a YouTube account and a liberation from the shackles of shame can catapult anyone to instantaneous (if not fleeting) comedy fame. Has this delayed stardom created a funnier Ricky Gervais? “I’m not exactly sure you get funnier when you get older, but certainly people find you funnier,” he comments. “No one wants to see a young, terribly handsome bloke doing things well—it’s not remotely funny. I want to see someone talk about what a crap day they had.”

And it’s the truly empathetic way those crap days are portrayed by Gervais that is one of the keys to his appeal. For both glitterati and staplerati, awkward and awful moments are something we all deal with, but the important thing is to enjoy the good times in-between. And for those spare times, Gervais makes sure to find time to relax with a cigar, though “rarely more than two a week,” he says. “It sort of spoils it. I really want it to be a special treat. I could never be one of these guys that always has a cigar in his mouth.” When asked what he prefers, he answers “Well, I’m in England, so I can get Cubans,” which he follows with a kindly, Yank-mocking laugh.

As far as particular smokable favorites, “I like great big fat ones. Though sometimes I cut it because I hate to waste it. If you’ve ever tried to re-light one—it tastes horrible. So, I try to get the short, fat ones. I’m always afraid to just throw away a couple of inches. But I love Montecristos, I love Romeo y Julietas. Just recently, I’ve been learning the proper way to light it and warm them—it really makes all the difference. Just the way you light it and the way you prepare it, it’s so much more enjoyable.”

While Gervais claims to despise quite a bit about the limelight (even calling himself somewhat “phobic” towards it), even he has to admit some of the fringe benefits are not so bad. “I’ve got a bar with about 10 bottles of vintage whiskey from around the world. When you win an award, you usually get a bottle of champagne, a bottle of whiskey, some Cuban cigars. So, I’ve acquired quite a bit.” With three Golden Globes, four Emmys, and a Peabody, among many others, he’s had more than ample opportunity to fill his bar and humidor with comedy-begotten goodies. Of course, he still enjoys the second-best part of cigar smoking: the rummaging at your local store for new goods. “My local store has an absolutely amazing walk-in humidor. I like trying new ones. Also, when looking for a present, they’re always the standard gift for a guy.”

With three films scheduled for release over the next year, Gervais is starting to come to terms with the fact that he just might be a star. Show business success inevitably invites attention, and for many in the industry, fame is the prize for success. For Gervais, much of the time it’s the unwanted stepchild you adopt when you marry the supermodel. “I always despised celebrity and fame. I always had that cynicism. I just think some people are defined by fame; they don’t work without it. It’s like they don’t exist if they’re not waiving to a camera or doing something or showing off,” he says, noting “it’s all going to go away someday. Have something to fall back on. And do some work you’re proud of.’”

It hasn’t even been a full decade since Gervais came to international light, and he already sports a fairly corpulent resume of TV and film work (as well as the Guinness Book of World Records-authenticated “world’smost downloaded Podcast” as part of a series released through The Guardian’s web site). Both The Office and Extras, despite phenomenal success, only lasted a couple of seasons each—by design. This model is a far cry from the days of family sitcoms like Happy Days which ran for 11 seasons and inspired the phrase “jump the shark” as a metaphor for when a good show continues to run despite no longer being good and no longer having anything worthwhile to say. “We stopped at the top of our game. We always knew we’d stop early, which people can’t understand. But the reason is I want to take full control and not run out of ideas. I’d rather go on to another idea. I’ve got a backlog of ideas. I want to try them all and give them 100%. When you do everything from coming up with the idea up to worrying about the font on the back of the DVD, it’s exhausting,” he says. “But I don’t want to walk away and just give it away to writers. You know, remakes are for that. With them, I give my advice, I give my support, but I can walk away—not from the checks.” He pauses for a fit of cherubic laughter. “I always welcome the checks.”