My Extras special interview with Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais welcomes me into a nondescript conference room at HBO’s Midtown Manhattan offices, looking cool and casual. Wait. I’m not writing some sort of clichéd magazine piece, am I? How could I?

Sometime in the middle of our half-hour chat, what started as an interview became, unbeknownst to Gervais, a pep talk – not just for me, but for anyone in the creative arts to stand up for what we believe in and tell the naysayers off. He just got Golden Globe nominations for best actor and show this morning. This following his Emmy win this fall. And his Extras finale debuts Sunday on HBO. Gervais told me the finale really can exist as a stand-alone.

Rickygervais "People who have never seen us can enjoy this, kind of like a TV movie. I think we hit the ground running. It’s pretty clear what’s going on. This is a guy who’s struggling with his fame and his press perception, and it’s not what he expected. And he sort of sold out to get this awful comedy on the air and now he wants more. And then soon he forgets what he wants altogether and it’s just fame is the master…I think whether you’ve watched this series or not, by the end of the finale, I think you realize that Extras was about friendship. It wasn’t about media. That was just his job. It was about friendship and what’s important in life."

How much of that hits home with your own experience trying to choose between fame and integrity?
"I’ve never found it a problem. That’s never ever been (laughing) a no-brainer. Integrity wins every time. Because you can’t lie to yourself. You cannot lie to yourself, so you’ve let your conscience take it out for one day and that day will come back to haunt you. So you’ve always got to know why you’re doing it, and as far as how autobiographical is it? Obviously, Andy’s hopefully the antithesis to me in his decisions and his luck and whatever. But he’s a nice bloke. He’s just a bit wounded. He wasn’t a bad man. Redemption’s a great thing, particularly for drama. He said sorry and meant it. His speech at the end — that’s just me, overtly. That’s a thinly veiled character. That’s me in that (laughing)."

More, more, more insight and humor follows after the jump, including his secrets for success for you and me alike, so read to the end!

When it came down to writing the finale, did you write for specific celebrities in mind for cameos, or did you wait to see who you could get and write around them?
"Only who we wanted to be in it. The rumors that were going around were ridiculous, that who was in it, that who we’d asked. You’ve seen the finale. That was always the people who were going to be in it…Some you have an idea and wonder if we can get them. Others, you know, oh god, I know so-and-so is a fan. That’d be great. Or I’d call them up and say, I’ve got an idea, and get a yes out of them, and then we write it."

Anyone who couldn’t be in it due to scheduling or other conflicts?
Long pause.
"Jude Law. He was actually on board, but had to pull out for a film commitment. We got everyone else."
That must be gratifying?
"Well, yeah. We make it pretty easy for them. We work really fast. We filmed that, what’s essentially a movie, in 14 days. Fourteen eight-hour days. We work quick. Two cameras. We know what we’re doing. We know what we want. No mucking around. We don’t want to win awards for lighting, or hair and makeup."
Just as long as you get an Emmy for lead actor.
"That’s what I want." Laughs. "That’s what I want. Emmys for writing, directing and acting. That’s all I want. That was a surprise, wasn’t it? That was a hell of a surprise."
"Wasn’t even there, wasn’t even there. Terrible. I had a good excuse. I was at the Albert Hall, doing the…" Stand-up, right? "Yeah. But wasn’t Steve Carell great? Wasn’t it funny when he got up and did that? That was so great."
Well, he has a sense of being in the moment.
"He’s a good guy. He’s great. And he’s so un-Hollywood. It’s like when good things happen to people you know who are hard-working and nice, it’s a joy."

So then how was it to see Ashley (Jensen) have success with Ugly Betty?
"Oh, it’s great. As long as she’s available for the Extras Christmas special, that’s fine."
When did you end up filming it?
"August. Just two weeks in August."

I noticed at least one instance in which "You havin a laugh?" showed up in at least one other show.
"What was that?"
It was in an episode of Lost.
"Oh, really? They’ve done that before. J.J. (Abrams) did a thing about The Office."
What was that thing?
"He says, I’ve got a friend who works in a paper mill…it was just a little homage, but he’s done it again, has he?"
So I explain the scene in which a woman parachutes onto the island, and when the Losties explain the situation they know to her, she replies with, "You havin a laugh?"
"Oh, brilliant! Oh, wow. Excellent!" (laughter)
Obviously, then, she’s come from a different reality than they’re living in.
"Oh, that’s good."

Is that surreal, though, to have the show-within-a-show and the commentary on catchphrases and canned laughter, to have that become something unto itself?
"It just shows how easy it is, doesn’t it, really? The funny thing about When The Whistle Blows is, because it’s not a real show — if I was in that show, I’d shoot myself — because it’s not, it’s quite liberating. That you can be taking the piss out of a genre of comedy and actually have fun doing it."

And yet, even though Extras is well-received here, American comedies don’t really try as much to take the piss out of themselves. And when they do, it doesn’t really succeed.
"I think Entourage does, doesn’t it? A bit?"
Entourage seems to be more about the guys being guys.
"Yeah, but Extras isn’t really a show about Hollywood and media. It’s a show about celebrity. But again, it’s (Entourage) really a show about four friends. It’s about four guys who’ve got a struggle. They just happen to be on the periphery of the show business industry. It’s not really a document about what it’s like to be in the show business industry in 2007. Not even like The Office was a document about office life. That was a much realer, harsher look at office life than Extras is about show business. Although Extras is in many ways more tragic than The Office, because, with The Office, it was only about people’s working life. With Extras, it’s about their whole life. And, also, the traumas that people in The Office were dealing with were like, turning 30. Whereas, anyone in their 40s knows it’s not a trauma turning 30, in retrospect. These people, and Maggie, who’s got real-life problems, you know. She hits rock bottom. That’s what I hope people with empathize with."

Darren, too. He ends up in a camera shop.
"Yeah, well, that’s sweet. You can feel for him a little bit, but I don’t think you’ll feel for him like I think you’ll feel for Maggie. Because Maggie hasn’t changed at all. And Darren’s a little bit stupid. He’s much more of a comedy character. He’s much more two-dimensional than Maggie and Andy, really. He’s like relief. Whereas Andy, I suppose, is more of the Tim character in Extras, and hopefully you feel for him, even though he’s a complete ass and loses his way a little bit. It’s just because he’s wounded. You know, if someone says sorry and they mean it, I’ve got to forgive him. And I like my characters. I like David Brent. And I like Andy Millman.  I don’t like these comedians who despise their characters. I like ’em both, because there’s a little bit of both of them in all of us."

Is it a little bit sweeter to experience all of this success in your 30s and 40s than if it had been right out of the gate?
"I think it would’ve been, ‘What could I write about?’ How could I write about the traumas of life at 21? You know what I mean? What, what, what are the traumas of life at 21? So, certainly, yeah, and I think that made me not blow it in the first year, as well. Not that I ever thought that fame was the shortcut to happiness, but, I think it was Oprah Winfrey who said, if you don’t know who you are by the time you become famous, it will define you. And I suppose that’s true. If you go in at 21, you’ll believe anything you hear, and you think it’ll never end and you think you’re invincible. Whereas at 40, you realize that, just as every cloud has a silver lining, they’ve got some grey ones as well." Laughs.

Did you ever get fired from a job?
"Sort of. Me and Steve did some little pieces, comedy pieces, for a radio station. But they kept saying, you can’t put that out. And soon they said, look, you can’t put this out. And they went, we don’t need you anymore…We didn’t want to hand in things that were so anodyne that they’d put up with it, so we just kept going, if you don’t want to put it out, don’t put it out. That’s what we did. And in the end, they said, we just can’t put this stuff out. So we went, fine. That’s what you do. You never compromise, just to get on air. Someone will put it out. You find someone that’ll put out exactly what you want to do, not you changing until they want to do it. What’s the point in putting something out that you’re not proud of? That’s what Andy Millman did."

So, what’s next?
"I just finished my third stand-up tour. Played to about a half-million people this year, and the DVD comes out on the 12th of November. I’m finishing this film, Ghost Town, and then I direct my first film next year, with Matt Robinson, and that’s called This Side of the Truth. Then I do some live dates in America which I’ll film in New York for an HBO special, and then I’ll put a DVD of that out at the end of next year. So, 2008’s done, really."

How does that feel to actually know that’s all lined up?
"I don’t usually do that. This is the first time I’ve done that. Well, with films, the planning is part of it. With TV and Extras, we go, we’re ready to film now. Get us a film crew. But with film it’s a much bigger budget, and I suppose everyone needs to know years in advance. So, yeah, this is the first year that’s mapped out a year in advance."

I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow.
"Yeah, well, I don’t usually, except I know I get up and I try and write jokes. But films are different."
Do you have a set routine for writing each day?
"No, just all the time."
Do you carry around a recorder or a pad and pen?
"No, I don’t. But, if I forget, then, well, it couldn’t have been that good. I get so excited about an idea that I formulate it. Very often, it’s just like walking, and I get home and call Steve and go, I’ve got a great idea."
So how much time will you have, then, to develop material for next year’s tour?
"I’ll probably finish the filming of the film in April, May. And then I’ll come back to England and then I’ll fly out to do some dates and recording in July."

So no time in there to contribute again to the American version of The Office?
"No, that was just a one-off, just a bit of fun. No, they’re on their own now. I haven’t had anything to do with it for…outside the sort of the set-up and the initial season, it’s been all their work, really. I’m executive producer on it, but, you know."
I think that’s about it, really. Why keep you longer than need be?
"Exactly. That’s what I think about actors and film crew. I look at my watch and go, it’s 4 o’clock, we’ve done it all. Why stand around? Exactly. I think that’s why they like doing it. We film fast. You know what you want. You know what you’re going to use. I totally agree."
I mean, I’d love to just sit and chat all day, but…
"Yeah, I can’t believe how chock-a-block I am today. You wouldn’t believe how exhausting it is talking about yourself. Even the sore throat. Because you don’t usually talk that much." Laughs.
Especially if it’s the same questions over and over.
"Oh, it’s been pretty good. You want to give interesting answers, but the most important thing is, you sort of want to tell the truth. And then I fret. I think, oh, that sounded arrogant. Or that sounded harsh. Or I don’t think that sounded technically true. Or, oh, did that sound rude? Was I? Did I look tired? So you worry about all those things."
Is it more so for radio or TV?
"No, in a way, I sort of prefer, if it’s for radio or TV, the people hear exactly what I said. Whereas if it’s over the phone, they could’ve misheard me a bit. You know what I mean? And people might make a mistake. Irony doesn’t come across in writing. I feel sort of safer. Live TV is the safest you can be."

Especially with computers, I’ve found, in either instant messaging or emails, the tone doesn’t come across.
"It’s really difficult to joke in email, in case they don’t get the tone. And also, in England, because English people are so sarcastic, a sincere thing can look like sarcasm. Like someone can say, ‘Oh, brilliant idea.’ And I think, well, that’s got to be sarcasm. What, brilliant idea, really? You never know. Oh, brilliant idea! (laughs). Oh no, that’s a wonderful idea. You must be so proud. It’s that sarcasm."

Did you know you wanted to do something comedically from the get-go?
"No, I only knew I wanted to do something creatively. And I still don’t think of myself as a comedian. Secretly, I sort of think of myself as a writer-director, and a program-maker of, I suppose, comedic inclinations. Yeah, I don’t think of myself as a stand-up, or as an actor. I think of the whole package, really. But no, I didn’t. I thought I was funny. I knew I wanted to be creative. But I still do sort of lots of other things, as well. I know, there’s just something in you that you have to create. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a legacy. Maybe it’s just trying to bring something into this world."

"I think the secret is this, you’ve just got to do something you’re proud of, whatever that is. And it doesn’t matter what other people think. You’ve got to do something that you’re proud of. That could be landscape gardening, fine art, or making a table. But as long as you sit back and go, that’s a fucking brilliant table I just made, you can sleep at night. Doesn’t matter what it is. But you’ve got to be proud of it. You don’t want to go home and go, well, I didn’t like the table that much, but they seem to be selling like hotcakes. That’s no good. That’s no good. It’s almost better to go, I made a brilliant table and no one to buy it. As long as you can eat."

And have your mom and dad say, that’s a brilliant table.
"Well, I think your mom and dad’s the worst critics, aren’t they? Yeah. But it’s just being proud of what you do, which then turns to smugness, which then turns to arrogance, which then just turns to annoyance." He howls in laughter.

But I’d suppose you have people like Stephen (Merchant) to keep you in check.
"People don’t need to keep me in check. I’ve never been impressed with fame. I’ve always just wanted to do something uncompromising. Some would say be a control freak. I’d say artistically be free. You can’t take it with you. You can’t take it with you. So when all this is over, how many friends have you got? That’s all that counts. Can you sleep at night?"

I think that’s what MySpace is for.
"(Laughs) Yeah, yeah, two thousand, three hundred. Ha ha! I’ve got 2,300 friends! Yeah. I think five will do. Five friends is fine. I only say that because that’s what my hand has got, five."

I was going to go with one.
"One is fine. That’s what Extras is about. One friend is good. One friend is fine. We’ll see if people likes it. That’s the good thing about television, you find out the next day if anyone liked it…And then it doesn’t really matter how many people like it. It’s if the right people like it. The opinions of people you know count for more. If someone who’s never let you down says it’s a good film, then you’re going to trust them, because you see eye-to-eye with them on other things. And even then, one film could split the difference. You’re crazy! There’s loads of films that I’ve seen eye-to-eye with people and they don’t like that one. Magnolia is a good one. They split the vote. Nick Cave, that splits the vote on people. You know what I mean?"

Comedy’s even more so.
"Of course, of course. So I imagine people argue about The Office and Extras. The Office is the most overrated comedy of all time. The Office is the best comedy of all time. Extras wasn’t funny at all. Or it’s the funniest thing on the telly. Who’s right? They both are."

Well, at least you won’t have to worry about ending like The Sopranos
"(Joking) Best show on air, wasn’t sure about that last 30 seconds. The greatest TV show of all time, can I just change the ending, David (Chase)? Can I just do one tweak? But, it’s up to him. It’s up to him. Who the fuck am I to tell him I didn’t like that ending? Well, I’m me. But it’s the best show on television, so…"

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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