Ricky Gervais on Stand-up Comedy, Debating Religion With Stephen Colbert, and Why Kathy Griffin’s Trump Photo Is ‘Bad Art’

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Though it’s only been 16 years since we first met David Brent on The Office, it’s not an understatement to say that Ricky Gervais’s tragic-comic creation utterly changed the landscape of TV comedy. Without his squirm-inducing delusions of grandeur — and the faux-documentary format through which his painfully awkward office manager came to life — we’d likely never have known Parks and Recreation, The Comeback, Modern Family, and most certainly not NBC’s adaptation of The Office.

Last year, Gervais resurrected his Office character for the Netflix original movie David Brent: Life on the Road, which centers on Brent’s attempt to (finally?) make it as a singer, and is currently Emmy-eligible in this year’s Outstanding Made-for-TV Movie category. Vulture spoke with Gervais by phone from London — on a break from his Humanity world comedy tour — about Brent and the perilous pursuit of fame, his own hard-earned ability to cope with the trappings of celebrity, Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher’s recent comedy blunders, and why he finally feels like a stand-up comedian.

In what ways has David Brent changed since we said good-bye to him on The Office? For one, he is thinner.
[Laughs.] Yeah, well a lot changes in 14 years. He’s still basically the same person, but I have given him a hint of self-awareness. He’s not as delusional now and actually knows that people are laughing at him behind his back.

He does seem more self-aware, which only makes him seem more tragic. Is that your goal?
Yeah, he can’t help himself. He’s a bit of a narcissist. He wants to be famous, but still quite an optimist. He always has hope, but people who have reality-show fame always have problems. They’ve been told lies about fame and continue to live their lives like open wounds. How many times have we seen reality celebrities fall from grace — often through no fault of their own — and then go on a show like Celebrity Big Brother and say, “I want to show the public a different side of me.” And I’m screaming at the telly going, “This is not therapy. This is voyeurism! So I wanted to show that people will do anything to be famous. To be fair to David Brent, he wants to be famous for doing something, for being a musician, but he’s just not good enough.

Since we last saw David in 2003, the definition of fame itself has been drastically rewritten by social media. 
It’s insatiable. It’s a different beast. There is no difference now between fame and infamy; people are rewarded equally for both. “Get me on Big Brother and I will behave badly, I promise!” Or on The Apprentice, they say, “I will destroy anyone who stands in my way.” And now the host of The Apprentice is the president of the United States. So by comparison, David Brent isn’t that bad. The biggest difference between him and other narcissists is power. He doesn’t have any. We’re allowed to feel sorry for him because he’s not actually winning or hurting anyone.

You’ve told me in the past about your own complicated relationship with fame. How have your thoughts on the subject changed since you created David Brent?
When I was about to be famous, I feared it on a few levels. I feared it because I didn’t want people to lump me in with those people who’d do anything to be famous. I didn’t like the word “celebrity.” I feared intrusion, you know? Make me famous, and suddenly you can go through my trash bins. I was very protective of my privacy. I didn’t want people to write bad things about me that weren’t true because that’s just not fair. Fifty percent of everything written about me is wrong.

Now we are in a post-truth era, further complicating matters.
Yes, lies now spread as well and as widely as the truth. My thoughts on fame haven’t changed other than … I can cope with it better now. I probably overreacted early on and it wasn’t as bad for me as for other people. Now I don’t fear it at all because I’ve realized that no one cares. [Laughs.]

You also seem very hands-on in managing your own PR and social media.
That’s why I first did a website. I asked a friend of mine, “Why do I need a website? What’s the point?” And he said, “George Lucas has a website to control the message.” I go, “Oh, that’s it. It’s from the horse’s mouth.” If I put up an article about me, people assume I agree with it and that it’s true. Now that I’ve been in the game awhile, anything I do could potentially make the press, you know? That’s why I worry about doing little comedy gigs. I can make a joke that could be taken out of context, and then it makes the paper. Without any context, it’s important for me control the message and social media at least gives me a platform. Also, I never do anything wrong! I pay my taxes. I don’t do drugs. And I don’t break the law.

I used to think reputation was the most important thing in the world. I couldn’t stand someone saying something untrue about me, anything from getting wrong where I went to school or the names of my siblings. What I’ve learned recently, though, is reputation is still important, but not as much as character. Reputation is what strangers think of you, and character is what you are really like and what your friends think of you. People hate me online for being atheist. But there’s so much rubbish now that no one really cares. The internet is like emptying your drawers out of a window. It’s just piles and piles of rubbish.

It’s increasingly difficult to have character in a fame-driven culture where character seemingly no longer has value.
That’s true. Intellectuals are being defamed because enough people don’t like their message, and it’s terrible. We’ve always had the idea of “my opinion is worth as much as your opinion,” but now we have “my opinion is worth as much as your fact,” which is nonsense. I get tweets like, “I believe the Earth is 6,000 years old.” And I go, “You can’t have a view about the age of the Earth.” It’s getting silly. Then I’ll have people say, “If you don’t believe in God, then why don’t you go off just raping and murdering as much as you want?” And I tweet, “I do!” [Laughs.] People don’t trust themselves or a sense of morality unless there is a punishment and reward.

It’s as if by asserting that you’ve decided your own moral code outside the confines of a religious text, it’s a direct assault on their existential framework.
That’s a lot of it. But we’re not talking about the average religious person here. I’m talking about people who are angry that other people don’t believe the way they do. They take it very, very personally. Religion, I think, is a huge mix of some good and some very, very bad. I think what hurts people is the idea of, “What’s the point of living if there’s no heaven?” So then I like to ask, “Why watch a good movie if it’s just gonna finish?” Just don’t ever do anything you enjoy because it’s going to end at some point!

That speaks directly to the fact that many people who deny climate change also believe there’s a better world waiting for them when they die.
Again, you’re right. I tweeted once that people who don’t believe in fossils are the ones that use the most fossil fuel, and their Twitter profile photo has them holding a flag, a gun, and says, “I love my country, love my family, love my God, love my guns.” Isn’t it funny that the people who think God will protect them are also the most likely to carry guns? I think people are very selfish and angry; they don’t want people spoiling their party. The last year of politics is the strangest I’ve ever lived through. But it’s still the same old bit, right? It’s still lying to poor about the reasons why they don’t have any money. “It’s those people who stole your money!” The most obvious people to blame are in the tribe next door, the immigrants and intruders.

What role does comedy have in this new world? We saw what happened with Kathy Griffin. What did you think of all that?
That was ridiculous. Yes, what she did was bad art, but it was still just art. There were people treating it like it was a real head. I’m screaming, “It wasn’t a fucking president’s head!It was a visual statement. Her crime was that it was a little bit crass and thoughtless, but who cares? That’s up to her. These are the same people that are screaming about freedom of speech, but then they shift the goalpost. They actually think that was a terror act. Then Trump tweets, “My children are very upset about this.” And I tweeted a picture of his two sons after they just killed animals in Africa. Then people said, “Dude, there’s a difference between killing a leopard and killing a president.” I’m screaming, “No one killed a president! They actually killed those animals!” Then they say, “But they paid a poor country that needs the money to shoot that leopard.” No, they’re exploiting that poor country. Rich Westerners decimating wildlife so they can go play. That’s like someone going into a cancer ward and saying, “I’ll give a million pounds to everyone if I can just shoot one of these people.” Just give the money away! Why do you have to enjoy shooting something to save a poor country? What did those people do in Africa before rich American dentists? Just shut up and admit out loud, “I like shooting things.”

What did you think about Bill Maher saying the N-word on his show, and then publicly apologizing for it?
That was a difficult one because I really don’t know why he said it. I know he’s not a racist. He’s been fighting bigotry for years. I think it was very misjudged in the split-second and not at all justified. He let himself down. I watched it a few times because when I first read about it, I thought, “I wonder what the context was?” There simply wasn’t any reason to use that word. If you do, it better be justified and “funny” on its own isn’t a justification. The consequences are just too huge compared to that tiny little slip. It wasn’t worth it.

However people feel about Maher, I must say it was a rare thing to see a white man in a position of influence actually apologize for something he said, especially something racially charged.
That’s a good point and actually speaks to the reason I made David Brent a ball of middle-class white angst. He walks into a room and announces, “I am not a racist!” He gets nervous. He can’t believe he has black friends and is constantly talking about black issues.

There’s a great, cringeworthy scene in the movie where David is in a restaurant and he can’t stop mentioning that his waitress is black.
He’s just so nervous. He knows he’s not a racist, but he obsesses about it. So that’s what’s funny. By the way, Chris Rock’s “Oscars so white” routine last year was so fantastic. I’ve been guilty of teasing and going after Hollywood and actors’ egos, but this year I realized that there are bigger fish to fry. We have the president of the United States insulting Meryl Streep on Twitter. Talk about a disproportionate power struggle! What really annoys me is that Trump has convinced his gang that the real enemy is the Hollywood liberal elite. What’s so strange — apart from the fact he has houses literally made of gold [laughs] — is that most of these Hollywood liberal elite are the ones willing to pay more tax! They’re literally voting themselves to pay more tax.

Are those insults just his way of getting back at an exclusive club that rejected him?
Of course. He’s the kid whose dad pays the headmaster to let him be in the school play.

I have to ask you about something that’s been bugging me. I noticed that the last two times you were on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, you were asked to defend your atheism. He doesn’t generally challenge the spiritual beliefs of other guests. Did this annoy you?
I was worried about it the first time, but told the producers, “Yeah, fine.” And then they wanted to do it again and I said, “I don’t want to be that guy — it looks like I’m going off about it.” People will think, “He’s an outspoken atheist!” By the way, I’ve also been referred to as a “self-confessed atheist,” like I should be ashamed of it. But he’s a fan and warned me about it and I think it was a totally fair discussion, as far as it can be. I treated it lightheartedly.

I think you were incredibly gracious about it.
To be fair, it’s his show. He’s a gracious host and I think his motives were genuine as opposed to pushing the Catholic agenda. [Laughs.] I didn’t care about enduring it, I was really mostly worried: Is this interesting? Are people at home suddenly saying, “Hold on, I wanted him to tell some jokes.” I wasn’t worried about whether I could hold my own. Neither of us can lose this argument. [Laughs.] I will say, you’re right in that I haven’t seen him do it to anyone else. So in that sense, I think that’s quite audacious that they did it at all! It should be applauded that there was a discussion on a major network between a religious person and a nonreligious person that was personable, nice, fair, and funny.

What have you seen lately that’s made you laugh out loud?
Family Guy. Honestly, it’s the only thing that makes me consistently laugh out loud. It’s 25 straight minutes of joke, joke, joke. I just watched three in a row. It’s audacious. I love the setup. I love Peter. I love the family. I love how dysfunctional it is. I love how they can go anywhere. I want to be as funny as Family Guy.

What’s next for you? Your world tour wraps up this fall. Are you angling to make more Netflix movies, or possibly get back into television?
The tour wraps in November and I’m also filming it behind the scenes. The tour itself is all about comedy and the human freedom of speech, so I’m going do a little documentary about that. I also just started working — and I mean literally one page — on a potential a new sitcom, but that won’t be for a year. I really want to do another tour because I love it more than anything else now. Doing stand-up was always second or third string to my bow, but now I want it to be the first. If someone said I had to choose between making sitcoms, movies, or stand-up, I’d say stand-up. That would’ve never happened before.

When we talked about this a few years ago, you had very mixed feelings about performing live because of negative reviews you’d gotten in the past.
Well, all that’s gone now. [Laughs.] It’s my favorite and the best-reviewed tour I’ve ever done — and the best-selling. I’m the best I’ve ever been. I think it’s combination of the fact that I had seven years off, approached it very militantly, and I get to confront everything that annoys me. I’m a changed man! I actually consider myself a stand-up now for the first time in my career. Also, I’ve realized what a privilege this is. There’s no interference. I can say what I want. I put the tickets on sale when I want. I play the venues I want. I play the countries I want. And it also changes every night. It’s real. It’s visceral. It’s like I’m awake for the first time. It’s literally like an epiphany. I want everyone in the world to see this, and I’ve never felt like that.

Are you saying you’ve seen the light?
[Laughs.] I have seen the light! I’ve seen the messiah, and it’s me!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Ricky Gervais on Comedy, Religion, and Donald Trump