Ricky Gervais is more offensive than ever in his new show and he knows it. ‘They laugh at everything, they get everything, but any one of those lines out of context would make me look like the most evil psychopath in the world.’
He’s not kidding. The creator and star of The Office, Extras and movies such as Ghost Town and Life On The Road pushes the boundaries of taste further than he has ever pushed them before with his Humanity tour – and that’s very far indeed.
There are jokes about ‘the good old days’ of terrorists like the IRA (who he says at least gave bomb warnings before they blew up innocent people) and serial killers like Dr Harold Shipman (who served a nice cup of tea with the poison), and how he’d rather have dinner with Hitler than someone with a nut allergy.
Ricky Gervais is more offensive than ever in his new show and he knows it
There’s the sight of him kicking an imaginary dead baby around the stage, which made one recently bereaved woman walk out in distress and complain to the press. And there are gags he says he thought too tasteless to use in public before, one of them a particularly brutal joke about a deaf, dumb and blind child.
And yet here is the same Ricky Gervais at his office in north London, talking frankly about his life and work, saying he feels a responsibility towards his audience and would never want to hurt any one of them, personally. ‘They know me. Hopefully they know I’m a good person.’
It’s hard to reconcile the savage performer – who boasted on Twitter of writing his ‘most offensive stand-up routine ever’ – with the friendly chap here in the grey slacks and black T-shirt who wants to be liked. ‘All my life I’ve tried to be a nice guy and do the right thing and be honourable, and then you hear these horror stories. “Oh, I heard he’s awful. I heard he punched a girl in a wheelchair when he wouldn’t give her an autograph.” That didn’t happen!’ He laughs, baring wolfish teeth.
We’re at the top-floor office on Hampstead High Street where Gervais writes and organises all his stuff, just a short walk from the eight-bedroom £11 million mansion he shares with his long-term partner, the novelist Jane Fallon. It’s all very spartan, tidy and bare with modernist black furniture. The only bit of fun is a life-size cut-out from The Simpsons, which I think is meant to be him. He looks tired in the flesh, the goatee a little grown-out and shadows under his eyes, but then Gervais is midway through the tour, his first in seven years. He has fallen in love with stand-up comedy again and says it is a privilege to do it.
Gervais has long defended the right to joke about anything he wants to, an argument in the name of free speech that he has rehearsed many times
‘Tens of thousands of people coming out, finding a parking space, finding a babysitter, often spending 200 quid on [touted tickets] eBay, which breaks my heart but I am aware of it. I’d better say something they haven’t heard before. It had better be special.’
This milder, real-life Gervais claims he never sends the soup back in a restaurant and tries never to refuse a selfie because he is ‘terrified’ of leaving fans feeling jilted. ‘I don’t want to be that guy. You do feel a responsibility. I didn’t try to be a role model – and I don’t think I have the same responsibility or power as a policeman or a priest or a teacher or a parent, but I still don’t want to think that I’ve hurt one person’s feelings.’
I never go out and try to ruin someone’s day, hurt their feelings or make them feel inferior
And yet he tells breathtaking jokes like the one about the dead baby. Gervais imagines having a child, looking down into the cot and finding it lifeless. He mimes picking it up and kicking the corpse across the stage in frustration, like a phone that has broken after just a few days, shouting: ‘F***’s sake! Call that a baby!’
When I saw him do that on stage in Cambridge there were gasps from women near me and one of them looked upset.
Suzi Gourley from Bangor in County Down walked out when he did the routine in Belfast, having lost a baby the previous year. ‘This is our life – we have no choice but to live with this,’ she told a reporter afterwards. ‘I know people take things differently and I know our emotions are raw but why joke about a baby being dead? It’s just wrong.’
Gervais has long defended the right to joke about anything he wants to, an argument in the name of free speech that he has rehearsed many times. But I want to put something else to him today. If he really does feel a responsibility to the people who pay to come see him, why do something that he must know will cause some of them hurt?
‘But they know it wasn’t them in the joke,’ he says, looking baffled. ‘It reminds them of bad stuff? But then every joke does, potentially. I make a joke about cancer. We’re all touched by cancer. My mum died of cancer. You can’t go through life not doing a joke about a thing that reminds you of a bad thing that had nothing to do with the joke, otherwise you won’t make any jokes, you know? “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “My chicken died yesterday. How f****** dare you?”’
Yes, but this is about babies not chickens. In an audience of 1,000 people, half of them women, there are very likely to be some who have been through cot death, still birth or miscarriage.
‘But if they’re rational people, they know I don’t know anything about them. You’re not allowed to go on stats. You’re not allowed to go, “Well, he knows statistically that one of us in this audience suffered from this thing he’s joking about now.”’
I don’t see why not, but he’s in full flow. ‘If I picked on someone – if I asked who’d had a baby die on them and then said do you mind if I just make a few jokes about it – that would be horrific, terrible. I’m joking about my own, non-existent baby.’
So he doesn’t want to hurt people in person but doesn’t mind doing it in a crowd. Can’t he see there’s a contradiction there? ‘No, there’s not, because there’s a void. There’s a blackness. There’s 10,000 people. I don’t know those people. I have no responsibility to them other than making them laugh. If I make 9,999 laugh and one of them goes, “That happened to me,” then what can I do?’
The question clearly bothers him. ‘I never go out and personally try to ruin someone’s day, hurt their feelings or make them feel inferior for something they can’t help. But I do acknowledge that every single thing I say may make someone think of something bad that happened to them. You can’t change your life in case someone remembers something bad.’
Gervais as David Brent in the famous dancing scene in The Office, 2002
The baby routine is prefaced with reasons why he and his partner Jane have never had children, which apparently he is asked often. The comedy answer is there are too many children already, they’re all scroungers and he’d be worried sick about them all the time. ‘I’m not even serious about those reasons,’ he says. ‘I just thought, I’d rather not have children. If I wanted kids I would have them whether the world was over-populated or not.’
Is there a deeper reason why they haven’t had kids? ‘Because I couldn’t? No. I’m pretty sure I would be honest about that if it was true. As a comedian, you grab big things like that [for material]. I’d do a joke about being tested and what the doctor said. That would be an amazing routine.’
I’m surprised by his willingness to answer. We’ve met twice before over the years but today Gervais is different. More at ease, more reflective.
‘If we put it down to age and wisdom, I realise certain things don’t matter as much,’ says the comedian, writer and actor, who is 55 years old. ‘When I first started, I thought reputation was everything. And now I realise reputation is just what strangers think of you. Character is what you really are.’
He started acting brash soon after getting an award for his breakthrough comedy The Office in 2001.
‘I went up and said, “Correct.” I was dealing with my own embarrassment at winning an award. I thought I would play ungrateful, it was funnier. And it stuck.’
He took it all the way to the Golden Globes, where he has appeared as the host three times, lacerating stars of Hollywood. They’re fair game, he says, having ridiculed Mel Gibson for his drunken ranting and brawling. ‘I joke about things they did in public that I already know about.’
Can he take it? Are there any jokes people could make at his expense that would hurt? ‘No, nothing.’
Gervais does get visibly upset, though, when I point out that his public persona makes people think he is cold and unfeeling in real life. ‘The fact that I’m not offended by jokes doesn’t mean I’m not offended in life. I’m offended by animal cruelty. I see someone torture a dog and I want to put a f****** mallet on their f****** head. I’m offended by injustice. I’m offended by f****** liars. I’m offended by cheats. It makes my blood boil. Oh God, I’m offended all the time.’
He really is agitated about this. ‘People make the mistake of thinking I’m this Teflon-coated person who doesn’t get offended by stuff but it’s just not true. I can cry at the idea of an animal being tortured, it breaks my heart, I have to get it out of my head sometimes to go to sleep.’
He’s usually so guarded. I don’t think I have seen him being this open and honest about himself before.
‘I think people think I’m not burdened by a conscience just because it’s my right to offend, but that doesn’t mean there are no holds barred. If I did a routine that I absolutely stand by but someone said it upset them, I’d say, “I’m really sorry.” It wouldn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t do it again.’
He got into a lot of trouble for telling a joke about Caitlyn Jenner at the Globes last year, referring to the fact that the reality star was once a male Olympic athlete called Bruce. Transgender rights groups didn’t like that. He made a public apology but mentions Bruce again and again in his stand-up. Then he goes into a routine about choosing to become a chimpanzee, saying: ‘It’s easier for a man to become a male chimp than it is to become a woman.’
Gervais is midway through the tour, his first in seven years
Life On The Road saw the return of David Brent as a travelling entertainer
Gervais in the The Muppets Most Wanted in 2014. Despite his persona, Gervais insists he is a softie in real life
Gervais insists he doesn’t mean it. ‘I don’t really equate trans people with me changing into a chimp. I’m very pro-trans rights and stuff like that. But I’m allowed to joke about anything.’
Yes, but can’t he see why people think he is ridiculing transgender people?
‘They might, but that would be because they’ve taken that ridiculous statement seriously. They’ve gone to see a comedy show and they’ve decided to take what a fat comedian says on stage as medical truth. Well, they’re in the wrong place.’
Perhaps the real point here is that he’s acting again, on stage. People might think they have come to see the real Ricky Gervais, saying what he really thinks, but it’s just not true, is it?
‘Well they are going to see the real Ricky Gervais but he’s not always going to say things that he really means. I’m lying for comic effect. Just so we’re clear: I’m joking!’
Is this his last tour, as he suggested before it began? ‘I’ve changed my mind. I love it more than anything now. I choose places that have a five-star hotel within 20 minutes of the venue. I do two days on and five days off. If it’s abroad, Jane comes with me. We’re going to Copenhagen this weekend.’
Normally, Gervais knocks off work at four and likes to be on the sofa at home by six every night with dinner, a glass of wine, Jane and the cat and a box set – as well as his 13 million followers on Twitter. He shows off his wealth – posing in budgie smugglers on the steps of the new mansion, for example – but we’re all expected to laugh along. Gervais is thought to be worth in excess of £50 million. So what does he spend it all on? ‘I’ve got the biggest, nicest house in the biggest, nicest area I could afford. We’ve got a place in the country and a couple of places in America. These aren’t follies, we use them. I don’t race cars, I don’t do drugs, I don’t do bling, I haven’t got any kids. I don’t know where it all goes, really.’
Who’s going to inherit his fortune when the time comes? He grins. ‘I did a tweet the other day: “I said I was gonna give my fortune to animals after I die, but now I’ve decided to do it before I die, so I can see the look on my stupid family’s face!”’
The lines between reality and performance blur again in his stand-up show when he talks about the brutal humour of his big brother Bob, who told the priest their mother was a keen racist just to get a laugh out of the funeral sermon. Gervais claims to have handed out hankies to his weeping nieces, on which he had written the words: ‘Snivelling bitch!’ Is any of that true? ‘Yeah. All of it. I asked if I could use it and they went, “Whatever.”’
Gervais with David Bowie, who appeared in Extras in 2006
Gervais has more time to spend with his family here now that his Hollywood career appears to be on pause, though he says he has turned down some big offers lately. ‘I was offered the Churchill movie [he means Darkest Hour, the upcoming film about the Winston of 1940, who will be played by Gary Oldman]. It would have been dreadful. People would go, “That’s a comic, he’s not Churchill, who does he think he is?”’
He shrugs. ‘I get no joy from seeing my fat face in a film. I get joy from this…’ He points to blue sticky notes on the wall, each carrying a thought about his new project, a dark comedy for Netflix that did have the working title Roll On Death but is currently nameless. ‘It’s a six-part 30-minute comedy but there’s more of a story. It’s like a sitcom adaptation of a novel, without me writing the novel.’ Gervais will play a man whose wife has died and he is in the depths of depression, which sounds as bleak as it comes but then The Office wasn’t cheerful, on paper, and that was funny. Will he ever make any more movies? ‘I don’t know. If I get a good idea. Writing a sitcom is more important to me than popping up in a huge film. I own it. It’s my baby, my DNA.’
So it’s true what colleagues say, he’s a control freak? ‘Definitely. Absolutely. That’s why I love stand-up more than anything. I say when and where the shows are, how much the ticket is, what I talk about, I don’t answer to anyone. Apart from the laws of the land, I am God!’ The famous atheist laughs. ‘There’s your headline! I’m not ashamed to say that with art you have to be a complete fascist.’
Gervais has fallen in love with stand-up comedy again and says it is a privilege to do it
Is he like that at home? ‘Well, no. It’s about compromise, isn’t it? If Jane wants white walls and I want black walls we don’t settle for dark grey. We go, “Let’s find a colour we both love.”’
Gervais is good at walls. He puts them up all the time, with a brash and spiky public persona on stage, on Twitter, at the Globes. Meanwhile, the real Ricky is at home in his pyjamas. ‘I’m private. Yeah. That’s not the same as hiding. What did they say about Bowie, that he kept his cancer a secret? No, he kept it private. There’s a big difference.’
Today, though, I’ve seen a glimpse of a warmer, more likeable Gervais. Is this the real one? ‘What’s the real me? What can I say?’ He pauses, then answers with disarming honesty. ‘Just then I thought of saying this: “I think I’m nicer than most people imagine.” But what will that look like in print? Sounds awful.’
Gervais grimaces. ‘That’s the conundrum for me. You don’t usually have to go around saying you’re nice, if you are.’
Ricky Gervais’s global tour ‘Humanity’ is at London’s Eventim Apollo until October 19
SOME EXTRAS FROM RICKY
Cats or dogs?
That’s too hard. That’s not fair. I want a dog. The only reason we haven’t got a dog is because we travel too much. I love them both. I can’t decide.
Animals or humans?
Oh, animals. That’s an easy one.
Trump or May?
That’s harder than cats or dogs! But it’s got to be May because I don’t think she’s deranged.
Brent or Bowie?
Well Bowie, because he’s real.
‘I did go through a phase of wearing Marks & Spencer pyjamas. In fact I wore them to the White House because my tux was in the hotel dry cleaning’
Hollywood or Hampstead?
Hampstead. Most places beat Hollywood.
W1A or Curb Your Enthusiasm?
I haven’t seen W1A, but I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David is our living genius.
Fry-up or fruit smoothie?
Fruit smoothie. Everything goes in my Nutribullet. I wouldn’t have my five a day if I couldn’t drink it in 30 seconds.
Night at the museum or night on the tiles?
Night at the museum. I love museums. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self how fascinating history is.
Michelin star or McDonald’s?
Well the only thing I can eat now in McDonald’s is the fillet of fish so Michelin Star. Although if you’re in a country where they eat elks and octopuses and things with too many legs and eyes, McDonald’s can save you.
Tim or Gareth?
Oh that’s a really good one. Gareth is so purely funny, but Tim is the heart of The Office and he is the audience. Tim made The Office more than a comedy.
Suit or PJs?
Pyjamas. They’re black and Ralph Lauren if you must know. I did go through a phase of wearing Marks & Spencer pyjamas. In fact I wore them to the White House because my tux was in the hotel dry cleaning. We were there for the premiere of Night At The Museum 2. Ben Stiller calls my room and says, ‘We’ve been invited to the White House.’ I only had pyjamas. There’s a picture of me at the White House pulling the pockets out (inset), showing I’ve got pyjamas on. Marks & Spencer don’t do them any more.