‘Fame means nothing to me,’ says Ricky Gervais, bluntly. ‘Murderers are famous. I’ve never been impressed by anyone for being on the telly. There’s no value to it. The value is what you’re famous for – doing something you love, or are proud of, or that brings a bit of joy into the world.’
Of all the fascinating contradictions that make up this 55-year-old comedian, actor, writer and director, his relationship with success is perhaps the most intriguing. Here is a man, let’s not forget, who once wrote an entire stand-up tour, Fame, designed to take a wrecking ball to the cult of celebrity, only for it to become the fastest-selling live show in British history.
Over the past 15 years, Gervais has parlayed the success of The Office – the peerless mockumentary about a Slough paper company he created with Stephen Merchant – into the sort of career other British comedians can only dream of. The full list of his achievements would fill several sides of Wernham Hogg’s best A4, but highlights include seven BAFTAs, three Golden Globes and two Emmys, his own HBO series, writing and starring in The Simpsons, roles in Hollywood films alongside everyone from Robert De Niro to Kermit the Frog and a place in Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. Not bad for the self-styled ‘little fat bloke from Reading’.
He’s also written, directed and produced four feature films of his own, the latest of which sees him returning to the character that started it all. In David Brent: Life on the Road, we catch up with The Office’s eternally deluded manager – now reduced to selling lavatory products – as he prepares to take one last shot at glory by embarking on a tour with his band, Foregone Conclusion.
Though uproariously funny – at times crossing the line into outright farce – the film also returns to Gervais’ pet subject of fame, and the growing sense that people only feel validated if they’re achieving some sort of recognition. Which, Weekend ventures, is a fascinating position for one of the most famous men in the world to take.
‘I feared fame,’ he insists. ‘Luckily I came to it later in life. I wasn’t famous until I was 39, so I knew who I was, and didn’t go crazy or let it go to my head.’
But if, after the 15 years or so he spent toiling away in offices, he hadn’t eventually got the chance to scratch his creative itch, surely he’d have gone as crazy as Brent?
‘Well I always had my little creative outlets,’ he says. ‘I never thought, “Oh my god, what a waste of talent!” Like everyone, I started 50 novels then realised it was too hard. I was a failed musician [he released two flop singles with early 80s new wave outfit Seona Dancing]. I wrote jokes. But yes, it’s true they all go into the ether if you’re just doing it to the guy on the opposite desk or in the pub. A great idea isn’t an idea unless you put it into practice.’
Though a monster in many ways, David Brent is very much the tragic hero of Life on the Road, and the sight of him being bullied by the self-satisfied young hipsters who surround him is genuinely painful to watch. ‘That’s the big difference between this and The Office,’ agrees Gervais. ‘When he was the boss at Wernham Hogg he stuck out as a bit of a prat. But now he’s actually one of the nicer people in the room. He’s 55, he’s a bit of a ghost. It’s quite sad.’
Life on the Road is not just a mockumentary, it’s a mockrockumentary, soundtracked by such self-penned Brent classics as Slough (“You know just where you’re headin’, it’s equidistant ’tween London and Readin’”) Native American (“soar like an eagle, sit like a pelican”) and the self-explanatory Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds. There’s an accompanying album, and even a songbook, complete with chords. For all its absurdity, is there some sense here of Gervais satisfying the frustrated rocker in him?
‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘Cos it’s still using my skillset to do something well. In this case, cringey songs. It’s funny, though, people say: “Oh, is this you living vicariously through David Brent?” But when Brent was a rep, they didn’t say, “Is this you wanting to be a rep?” Or when I did [Hollywood comedy] Ghost Town – “Is this you wanting to be a dentist?”’
He breaks into one of his trademark cackles. As anyone who’s listened to his record-breaking podcasts with Merchant and Karl Pilkington will know, Gervais is a hopeless giggler. In person, his infectious enthusiasm is a world away from the vain, preening, slightly prickly alter-ego he often rolls out in interviews, which has led some to confuse the act with the real thing.
‘I don’t care about that,’ he insists. ‘With my stand-up, it’s even more ambiguous, ’cos I slip between saying things I actually mean and playing this right-wing, confused pub bore. But I think smart people know the difference.’
But how much of the real Gervais – the youngest son of a French-Canadian builder’s labourer who met his English mother during a wartime blackout – are we seeing, for example, when he’s subjecting his A-list audience to a near-the-knuckle roasting while hosting The Golden Globes? He appears fearless. Is he fearless?
‘I’m fearless in the sense I don’t care what people think of the jokes, or the backlash, because I’m confident they work, and I can justify them,’ he says. ‘And I’m confident I won’t get in trouble, because I’ve lawyered them – everything’s true.
‘But I’m putting on a swagger. I’m not really that person who comes out with a whisky and pretends to be part of the Rat Pack, that’s a bit of an act.’
What about the oft-repeated accusation that, since making it big in America, he’s become sniffy about British comedy? ‘No, that’s not true,’ he says. ‘I’ve definitely got the British sense of humour – that irony, that sarcasm, that downbeat underdog thing.’
He reels off a list of his comedy touchstones, ranging from Larry David, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy (‘Though they were 50/50, as Stan was English’) to Reginald Perrin, Tony Hancock and Fawlty Towers. And to that roll call of all-time greats, we can surely legitimately add The Office?
‘Well, it’s not for me to say,’ he states, with a humility that might surprise some of his critics. ‘Laurel and Hardy have been great for a hundred years. So only time will tell.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 18, 2016
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