Behind Ricky Gervais’ desk, in-front of a shelf laden with gleaming awards – Emmys, Golden Globes, BAFTAs – there is a guitar. “I have a little twiddle,” he says. “Unless the cat is asleep. I use the guitar a bit like how other people use fidget spinners. The last time I really got into it was when I was writing songs for [David] Brent. I wish I played more because I’ve got some lovely guitars, but sometimes I just think: ‘I’m not a rockstar. If I play that I’m going to look like an idiot.’
Gervais, the revered (and sometimes reviled) auteur of The Office, Extras, Derek and the melancholic After Life – the third and final series of which lands on Netflix tomorrow (January 14) – lets out a sigh. “I’m mildly embarrassed to be a failed pop star…”
We remind the former singer of Seona Dancing – the new wave group that Gervais briefly performed in alongside university friend Bill Macrae – that things worked out for him, really.
He laughs. More of a shriek actually.
“Yeah, I probably wouldn’t have done as much as a pop star as I have done with this,” he says. “But I met Steven Spielberg once and we were talking about this episode of Columbo he directed that they didn’t use. I said, ‘Still not over it then…’ and he just laughed.”
He tells us he’s excited to be interviewed by the NME. “I got a bit of an adrenaline rush about it,” says the former manager of a little-known indie outfit called Suede. “I used to read the NME, and Sounds, and Melody Maker – all of the British music press, really. Melody Maker was good for finding drummers, but NME was where I found out about what was going on. The NME was my world for a time.”
But we’re not in the company of Gervais today to talk about his salad days in the British music scene, but about the aforementioned After Life, which he writes, directs and stars as the lead – recently bereaved local newspaper journalist Tony Johnson. Tony – often cruel, sometimes bigoted, a man drunk on arrogance – is a character that’s often hard to like. Does Ricky like him?
“Yeah, I think I do,” he says. “Because he’s wounded. If you’re rescuing a fox from a snare, and it’s trying to bite you, you can’t hate it. When you first meet Tony, he’s lashing out. If you didn’t know he’d lost his wife (played by Kerry Godliman), and if the show didn’t start with her going through chemotherapy, you’d think he was a sociopath. The show couldn’t have started with him shouting at the child in the playground saying: ‘I’m not a paedo, but if I was, you’d be safe, you tubby little ginger cunt…’” But because of what he’s lost, you’ve got to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s not well. You can’t hate someone for not being well.”
More than any role he’s undertaken in his career, and certainly owing to his role as the series writer and director, it’s difficult not to view Gervais’ understated portrayal of Tony as the closest depiction of himself we’ve seen on screen. “I think there’s a lot of Ricky in Tony,” we’re told by Kerry Godliman later. “Other than the sadness – outwardly, Ricky doesn’t seemingly get sad, and he isn’t experiencing grief – I think Tony is a character that Ricky is using to express his world view. I would say that their views are probably quite similar.”
But it’s in Ricky’s articulation of Tony that we learn most about a facet core to Gervais’ beliefs. In a world quicker to judge than ever – and with Twitter, the platform to do so instantly – the sometime stand-up believes in the often-forgotten concept of intent. “I’m fascinated in why people do what they do. Why they are how they are. Fascinated by it.”
“I’ve never seen a world that is so judgmental and hypocritical as it is right now,” he says. “I honestly think it’s about controlling the tribe. Once upon a time, if a guy was good at collecting coconuts or they were brave, we’d choose to work with them. It was about achievement and competence. That’s how we got status. But at some point, we worked out that we could obtain status via virtue too. We did it with religion first – like, a person might not be any good at anything, but they believe in God so they’re a good person. Social media is that now. You can show how good a person you are by showing how bad someone else is. There’s no forgiveness. No attempt to understand anybody.”
Other than using his 15 million followers to promote his projects – most recently, and enthusiastically, After Life – Gervais is done with Twitter. “There is an equality to Twitter, which should be a good thing… but you can have a man who shouldn’t be allowed sharp objects, living in a bin saying really horrible, racist, misogynistic things. And then you’ll get Richard Dawkins or someone saying something important. And they’re both in the same font, in the same place. So it’s confusing. If I want to make a point now, I keep it to the art. I’ve explained too much in the past. I’ve found myself explaining jokes within jokes. I want to be more like Larry David. He doesn’t explain anything.”
Few talk about jokes with the zeal of Gervais. He defends the art form like a pilgrim or preacher justifying their religion. “Some people think a joke is the window to a comedian’s true soul. That’s just not true. I’ll take on any view that makes the joke funnier. I might pretend to be right wing. I might pretend to be left wing. I pretend to be clever and I pretend to be stupid. Whatever makes the joke funny without prejudice. I’m all the characters. I wrote all of them. I’m having an argument with myself!”
Set in the fictional southern town of Tambury, actually Hemel Hempstead, After Life is filled with complicated characters – ones that, despite the welcome push for diversity on our screens, aren’t seen often enough. There are compulsive hoarders and the mentally ill (contrary to reports that Gervais shows little interest in people, when this journalist briefly mentions his own battles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Gervais adds an extra five minutes to our interview because he has questions about how the illness manifests). There are sex workers and the lonely, drug dealers and swingers. And none of them are presented as heroes or villains of the piece. After Life might be a show about death, but it’s about the living too.
“I like humanity,” Gervais says, “warts and all. That’s the people I want to represent. The people in After Life, that’s how real people look. The people in After Life aren’t freaks. Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, George Clooney – they’re freaks! No one looks like that! But you walk around an average British town it’s full of people who look like me. They’re screwed up. The real world is more amazing and crazy and weirder than fiction. And I write about them because winners aren’t funny. There’s nothing remotely amusing about being perfect and winning. Being flawed is funny. Having a bad day is funny. When your neighbours go on holiday, you don’t want to hear about all the great stuff they did. You want to know who got drunk and threw up.
“Clowns, comedians, characters, they fall over for our amusement, but they get up again. And that’s what we want. They’ve got to get up again. That’s the rules. Real life Laurel and Hardy. They keep trying. They keep losing. That’s funny. As long as they try again. As long as they keep going. That’s the message of After Life. You’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep trying.”
Gervais might feel disappointed he never became a pop star. He might also feel proud of the trophies and awards that line the walls of his office. But somewhere in between all that, there is an achievement he obviously cherishes as much as anything he’s achieved in his 60 years to date.
“I’ve never had a reaction,” he says, with a quiver in his voice, “emotionally, to anything I’ve done like I have had with After Life. Everyone has lost someone. Everyone knows what that’s like. It’s why I think fiction is so important. We create our own heroes and villains as roleplay for the soul. Bad people get their comeuppance. Hopefully, good people get rewarded. And no one really gets hurt. You might cry watching a show. But you can turn it off. I think we’re so worried, as broadcasters, in asking ourselves if the viewer can take what we’re giving to them.”
Why is that, we ask. “Because real life’s worse and real life is real.”
‘After Life’ season three streams on Netflix from January 14