Ricky Gervais: My conscience never takes a day off

In a Salon exclusive, the comedian answers critics, explains his hilarious new HBO show, and talks \"Office\" sequels

Published February 12, 2012 8:00PM (EST)

Warwick Davis and Ricky Gervias in "Life's Too Short"
Warwick Davis and Ricky Gervias in "Life's Too Short"

Ricky Gervais is not listening to those who say he should pick on someone his own size.

"Life's Too Short," which begins next Sunday on HBO, is a mockumentary that follows Warwick Davis, a real-life showbiz dwarf with a very real small-man syndrome. Like David Brent on "The Office" and Andy Millman on "Extras," Davis suffers a mean case of self-delusion, even as his career tanks, his wife leaves him and a massive unpaid tax bill comes due. He compares himself to Martin Luther King Jr., while also talking about the importance of his dignity, all while falling out of his SUV or asking strangers to press doorbells he can't reach.

It's painfully and excruciatingly funny, yet in early episodes, at least, Davis is an extraordinarily likable Napoleon. In an interview last week, Gervais insisted that the show is not making fun of Davis or little people. And in a wide-ranging discussion that might surprise some after his controversial and sometimes mean turns hosting the Golden Globes, Gervais says that comedy and humanity can't be separated. "Comedy is about empathy," he says. "Comedy is about the blind spot, comedy is about rooting for them, comedy is about flawed characters."

You have a tradition of writing and playing characters who are dangerously self-deluded, who can't see the blind spots everyone else notices right away. "Life's Too Short" follows a dwarf actor who not only says he wants to be the Martin Luther King Jr. of little people, but believes that if anyone takes offense at that, he points out that he's never seen a black person shot out of a cannon before. Was part of the challenge for you making it both OK to laugh at a dwarf in these circumstances, but also somehow humanizing him so completely?

Well, the thing is, we wanted to make it clear that we weren’t laughing because he was a dwarf. There’s nothing mildly amusing about that. He doesn’t have to be a dwarf at all, really. It’s that he’s got small man complex. He’s conniving, manipulative, pretentious. When he falls out of his car, we’re laughing at him because he chose a car that’s not right for him. Way too big for him. And he was just saying, “I carry myself with dignity.” It’s about getting his comeuppance.

So, we want people to see the difference between a show that exploits little people and a show that shows exploitation of little people, and this is clearly in the latter. And Warwick is so likable, we had to make him into a little Hitler to feel that you could laugh at him and want him to get his comeuppance. Because despite everything, he’s drenched in humanity.

You’re right, we had to make sure people knew that they were allowed to laugh. And there will still be people that aren’t sure – around England there are people saying, "Oh, why is it funny that he’s caught in a cat flap" [trying to get back into a house after his wife changes the locks]. It’s funny if anyone gets caught in a cat flap. How is that not funny? [Warwick] is a fantastic physical actor. He’s like Chaplin or Harold Lloyd or something. So we’re going to exploit that. And I mean that in the sense of exploiting his skills, as opposed to exploiting his height, which we don’t. And if people think that a dwarf actor is not allowed to do slapstick, that’s their prejudice. How dare they say that Warwick Davis can’t do slapstick in case someone might think that we’re just laughing at him because he’s a dwarf falling over, as opposed to all the other reasons.

Some people might think that's convenient: You get to make the joke about the dwarf falling over, after all, and immunize yourself from criticism. Or are people just too quick to take offense?

Some people believe it’s their job. And what you’ll notice is, it’s always someone taking offense on someone else’s behalf. You know? It’s always the person saying, I’m not a dwarf myself, but I find that offensive. It’s crazy. You see that all the time. And I’ll tell you why, it’s because whenever you do something slightly taboo, or contentious, or you’re dealing in any irony or satire, people mistake the subject of the gag with the target of the gag. You can tell a joke about race, without it being racist. You can tell a joke about disability, without it being disabilist. And I have done it all my career. David Brent (Gervais' character in "The Office") felt uncomfortable around people of difference.

So he goes up to a black man in "The Office" and assures him "I love Sidney Poitier."

Right, clearly we're laughing at him not knowing how to behave. When he grabs the girl in the wheelchair and says, “I’ll take her down the stairs,” because he wants to be seen helping out on camera. And when Gareth says, "Well, the disabled should be tested to make sure they are claiming benefits and they’re really disabled. Stick pins in their legs, or something like that." We’re laughing at their stupidity. And, let’s not forget, people like that exist. People like that exist.

As cynical as people think I am with the subject matter I deal with and the flawed characters I show, I’m a romantic. There’s always hope in my characters and there’s always hope in my shows. And there’s nothing more exhilarating than redemption. Forgiveness is very important as well. I like to take an absolute asshole, and show him the error of his ways, and have him say sorry. Who can’t forgive when it’s a genuine apology.

What humanizes them is that gap between the way they see themselves -- the aspirations they have, who they hope to be -- and the person they really are.

That's a staple of British comedy. It's always about the blind spot. It’s always that we’re laughing at the difference between how David Brent sees himself and how the rest of the world sees him -- particularly with middle-aged, midlife-crisis males. Men as boys, men who never grow up -- the man wants to be cool and loved. And Warwick’s a branch of that tree really. He wants to be thought of as the Martin Luther King of little people. He’s not and he never could be. And he doesn’t really care about dwarf rights; he cares about himself. He exploits dwarfs, he takes all the best jobs for himself. [In a later episode] he goes on the board of the Small People’s Society – he’s the deputy president, but he wants to be president. That’s what annoys him more, he wants to be president. So he’s more worried about being top dog – he doesn’t care about their rights. In fact, one episode he’s there and there are a lot of little people there, and he’s trying to recruit them to be human bowling balls. And the president says, "I don’t think this is the right forum for that," and he says, “This is the perfect forum, it’s full of dwarves, isn't it?” He’s like David Brent: He thinks he’s going to try to fight sexism and racism, but he doesn’t really know how to. Because he’s a bit sexist and racist himself.

And yet, on some level, we're all a little afraid that we have some David Brent in us, aren't we?

We see ourselves in them, of course we do. We look at David Brent, and everyone, it’s fundamental -- everyone is worried about their reputation. David Brent wasn’t a bad person at all. People say, "Oh, nasty boss from hell, bastard." He wasn’t any of those things. His worst crime is he made the mistake of confusing popularity with respect ... But the downfall of society will be people just wanting to be famous. And everyone is now. Everyone on Twitter is a broadcaster. TV shows are obsessed about what people say on Twitter. It's bizarre. Just make the show!

I use Twitter as a bit of a social experiment. I’m working on a show at the moment, so I do the odd tweet to see what happens. And I think people might think I’m schizophrenic cause I’m playing a few different characters now and again because I’m trying to see the reaction. It’s fascinating what comes back.

What can you share about the characters?

It's a new sitcom set in an old people’s home and it’s about the forgotten -- everyone’s forgotten. Just like all sitcoms, when it comes down to it, it’s them against the world. It’s a family. It’s all these arbitrary people who didn’t know each other, and they’re in there now because they’re in the last years of their life. And it’s about the people who help them, who themselves are losers and have their own problems. It’s about a bunch of people with nothing, but making the most of it, and they’re together.

It’s a show about kindness. Kindness is more important than anything else. Kindness is more important than intelligence, than success, than rewards, everything. Kindness is the most important thing. And it’s about that. So, it's a very good experiment for me, Twitter. Because you see the absolute worst and best in people.

It's interesting that you use the word "kindness," because that's exactly what Tom Hanks accused you of not being when you hosted the Golden Globes last year.

Right, "He used to be a tubby, kind comedian." "And neither of those things he is now."

Were celebrities genuinely offended at your jokes, or was it all a game to generate attention?

No, no, they weren’t. A couple of people said that people were, so that goes into legend. But who was really offended by it, you know? And the other thing is that I’m not going out to hurt people’s feelings and embarrass them; I’m going out to make people laugh. But I also have to make a decision as a comedian – do I pander to the 200 people in the room, or the 200 million people watching at home?

There were critics this year who expected an edgier performance.

I started with a backlash. If you’re going to stand up there, and you’re going to say what’s on your mind, and you’re going to take contentious subjects head-on, as many people are going to hate you as love you. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I cherish the gasps as much as the cheers. And the groans as much as the laughs. I look at it in Darwinian framework. I’m going to do what I do – not so much proudly, but because I have to do this – and I’ll either survive, or I don’t. And so be it.

Seeing as it’s televised, there’s no doubt about it. If you just want a sycophantic back-slapping session, by all means, but don’t put it on telly, because there’s nothing in it for us watching at home. There’s nothing in it. Winning awards is the most boring thing to watch you’ll ever imagine, so I try to make it a spectator sport. So that was doing my job as a comedian, I think. Two, whatever you say, someone will claim it’s offensive. And to that I say, offense is taken, not given. It’s up to you whether you’re offended. And I’ll add one more thing: Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.

If people are offended, they certainly have a funny way of showing it -- Sting, Liam Neeson and Johnny Depp are all among the celebrity cameos on "Life's Too Short."

Well, I understand why they do that now. Because I’ve had a taste of my own medicine recently when I did "Curb Your Enthusiasm." When you play a twisted version of yourself, you realize that the more awful you are, the more armor you wear, in a way, because you’re saying, "Oh, I can’t be like this, because that’s too mad, it’s too terrible." And so, it’s sort of like you build a credibility shield.

There's a line in the first episode of "Life's Too Short" when you're doing an excruciating improv session with Liam Neeson and he makes an awkward AIDS joke. You and Steven Merchant both try to talk him out of it. Neeson asks, well, why can you do it? You both just shrug. Well, why can you do it?

Because I know what I’m doing. And I know the real target of the joke every time. I’m not one of these people that thinks comedy is your conscience taking a day off. My conscience never takes a day off. I can justify everything I’ve done. I can tell anyone why that joke is justified comedically. Comedy is an intellectual pursuit – as soon as you bring real emotions into it, it stops being comedy and starts becoming rallying. I’ve seen comedians go out there and go, “Why are there so many immigrants?” and get a round of applause. And I go, well, where’s the joke? That’s not a joke; you’re just with like-minded bigots. And the reason why a real racist joke isn’t funny, why an actual racist joke isn’t funny, it’s not because it’s offensive. It's because it’s not true. It’s based on a falsehood. As soon as someone says, "Why is it that Mexicans always …" I’ll say, well, they don’t. That’s not true. I’ll stop you there. You can’t go on. The punch line’s irrelevant to me now, because the premise is false. So, as I said, I can justify everything I do. And that’s why I can do it. And the fact that there’s anyone in the world that gets it, makes me know that it’s gettable. If everyone in the world said, “That joke’s terrible,” I’d have to go, “Wow, I’m the only person in the world that thinks that works.” But that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen at all. It’s the opposite. Ninety-nine percent of the people say that’s fine and 1 percent say you can’t say that. Well, watch me.

Do you have a line you won't walk over? Or a Potter Stewart-sense of when a joke has gone too far?

I’ll tell you how I find that line myself. My own sense of morality. And that’s the problem with offense, it’s not right or wrong, it’s personal. It’s feelings, and feeling are personal. I’ll give you an example. I did a stand-up show and I played this non-reconstructed character who gets everything wrong. I say things like, “Steven Hawking. They say he’s a genius, but he’s not. He’s pretentious.” So it’s me getting stuff wrong, I’m the idiot. "I saw a documentary about this little Indian girl. She had to walk 12 miles every day just to get water. She should move.” It’s things like that. It’s getting it all wrong. I made jokes about famine, the Holocaust, cancer, AIDS, everything. Right? And I got a letter saying, we enjoyed the show, but we didn’t appreciate the jokes about the Holocaust. And I wanted to go, but you enjoyed the jokes about AIDS and famine? That’s your thing, and everyone’s got a thing. But it’s personal.

You studied philosophy for several years. How did that shape your perception of how comedy works?

I think there’s a similar train of thought with a joke: start with a real premise and take it through to its logical conclusion. There’s a flowchart of choices, and there’s a certain scientific method to comedy. Where, experimentation, the proof's in the pudding. Particularly with stand-up. The audience picks your best jokes for you. It’s an evolution. The jokes are the genes, and it’s the survival of the fittest.

My first love’s always been sort of science and nature, and the arts, in equal proportions. It’s myth that if you’re a logician or you’re an atheist you can’t appreciate the beauty of nature. It’s a total myth. It makes it more beautiful to me that it was random events. I don’t see the problem in it. I just did this show with Richard Dawkins, it’s about the meaning of life and everything. My bit was “Well, if you’re an atheist, what’s the meaning of life for you? What do you get out of it? What’s the point of living?” And I just listed them: It’s friends, family, loved ones, a decent job of work, making a difference and creativity.

Right -- things you can actually do in this life, without waiting for the next one.

I think religion was born, really, out of a certain spirituality. But the two are very different. Spirituality is a personal thing and there’s nothing wrong with that. If that helps you, thinking a superior being created the universe in six days and he loves you -- if that gets you through and you do good things in his name and not bad, then good for you. I think the Dalai Lama said, ask me my religion, my answer is kindness. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t think they’re right, I don’t think there is a God, and I don’t think they are going to go to heaven. But whatever gets you through, whatever makes you kinder, is fine by me.

Then there’s religion, which is a different kettle of fish. Now these are people who are arguing over whose God’s right and are killing people in the name of it. They’re stoning people to death for believing in the wrong God. That’s what I’ve got a problem with. I don’t think there is an afterlife, and what’s strange about even the kindest people among religious folk is they often say things like, "Well, if you think that this is all there is, then what’s the point?" Which is such a strange thing to me -- because that’s why I cherish every moment more. Because it’s not going to last forever. And who wants to live forever, really. Fuck all. Terrible. Terrible idea.

Lastly: We live in such a nostalgic, reunion culture. And yet you’ve really never gone back and revisited these shows. They’ve had really well-defined lives and no matter how popular or influential they've become, you've probably resisted millions for another "Office" special. Why not show us where David Brent is now?

Because they’re important to me. They’re really important to me. And I’ve seen people let me down in the past by doing a series too often, one too many times. I think they should survive in their own world, and that’s it really. And also, it begs the credibility a little bit if a fake documentary team is still hanging around Slough for 10 years. I think one of the reasons for the success of "The Office" was the realism. I think that’s what resonated. Because nothing comes close to real life. It’s like how art tries to emulate the beauty of nature, and sometimes it nearly, nearly gets close. Well, sometimes comedy and drama create the excitement of real life, and the closer you can get to it, the better you’ve done. You can have the greatest movie of all time – you can be watching "The Godfather" at home – and if there’s a screech of tires and a shout of the neighbors you’re at the window, because real life wins.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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