Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais have enjoyed a remarkably fruitful comedy partnership, co-creating The Office, Extras, and now The Ricky Gervais Show, an animated series premiering tomorrow night on HBO. The project is adapted from the duo’s hugely successful podcast series and is mostly a showcase for the peculiar musings of their co-host Karl Pilkington, a simple-minded man they first met when he was producing their radio show. Merchant spoke with Vulture this morning about the cult of Karl, working with Ricky, and finding inspiration in “Thunder Road.”
Are you pleased with how the animated version of yourself came out?
Well, it makes me look like a kind of lanky, googly eyed nerd, so that’s never good. But I think they captured something about us. We wanted to keep the animation quite simple … we asked to do it in the vein of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Flinstones and stuff. [Ricky’s] got a bit of Fred about him.
When you were transferring the podcast to TV, was the concept always to animate it?
The idea originated because a lot of fans have already done their own animated versions on YouTube, and a lot of it really charmed us. It didn’t really occur to us to take it into television until we saw those, and we thought, Well, maybe that’s a good idea, to bring it to a bigger audience, try to introduce Karl to a whole other audience that’s never heard him before. And that’s what excites us most, I think, to make him a star.
Over the years of doing the show, have you ever once gone too far with Karl and actually offended him?
He’s not a vain man, he’s not a pretentious man, he never pretends to be something he’s not. To insult someone you need to sort of crack their self image, you need to destroy something about them which they think of themselves. He’s just not like that. He just couldn’t care less. He thinks we’re the idiots, wasting our time listening to him, you know what I mean? And I often wonder if he’s really paying attention to what’s being said to him. I wonder if he’s even listening to the insults.
You’ve joked around about Ricky getting all the credit for The Office and other things you’ve co-created, but was Ricky’s larger public profile something you were ever actually bothered by?
You know, I don’t feel shortchanged at all. I’m very privileged. I’m not sure that I could cope with the celebrity that Ricky has in this country. It’s very hard for him to go out and about, and that’s fine for him — he likes to be sat in his pajamas by eight o’clock drinking wine and watching TV. I still like to go out occasionally and see other human beings. I certainly get frustrated that I don’t get more of the free stuff he gets. And If I’m lucky enough to win an award with him, then often my head will get cut off because you can’t fit both of us in the TV frame. Aside from that, it’s pretty good.
Do you guys work well together because you think alike, or because you pull each other in directions you wouldn’t have thought of going on your own?
I think it’s a mixture of both. We’ve got a shared love of a certain style of humor, but at the same time we have strengths. Our sensibilities have certainly blurred over the years, but when we started out, Ricky was very instinctive, going with his gut with what makes him laugh, where I’ve got a bit more of the science of it, the mechanics of storytelling. And certainly when we first started, I was a lot more workaholic and Ricky was a bit lazy. Those roles seem to have reversed.
What’s your relationship like with the U.S. version of The Office?
I’ve said it in the past, but it feels like we got a chance to create a show and then we gave it to people and they made it for us. Like we’re fans, and we won a competition to have a TV show made to our specifications. I love it, I really do.
You were great on-screen in Extras, and you’ve had roles since. But it seems like you’re not actively cultivating an acting career.
Yeah, exactly, it’s something I do as a sort of hobby. I wouldn’t consider myself an actor as such. I have certain qualities … I think I have good comic timing. I like to do it, but I treat it more as a day of fancy dress.
You and Ricky have co-directed the drama Cemetery Junction. How long have you been kicking around something more serious?
Quite a while, actually. We’re not particularly interested in films on sci-fi, aliens, goblins … we like stuff about real people. One of our inspirations was a few lyrics from “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen: “It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win.”
Do people get nervous when you or Ricky go off to do something without the other one?
My father’s probably a bit jumpy. He’s thinking, “Look, you’re not gonna make it on your own, kid, without that fat guy.” We obviously have ideas and thoughts that the other one’s not interested in, but it’s not like you’ve got to break up the band to do them. But I think we’ll always come together again because I think we feel that our best work will be done in a partnership.
How was your Golden Globes experience? And how drunk was Ricky?
I don’t know if he was drunk. I would imagine he had a few beers. I thought he did a great job. And I spent a lot of time staring at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s head. It’s quite extraordinary. You can’t see where the neck ended and the head started. Spent a lot of time doing that.
What’s next for you?
We’ve just finished the film actually, so we’re acclimatizing back to real life. We’ve got a few things bubbling away. We sent Karl to the Seven Wonders of the World for a TV show that will be coming out later down the road. He’s already visited the pyramids. He wasn’t impressed.