I’m two minutes into my interview with Ricky Gervais and we’re already throwing the c-word around.
I’ve just told him that he is particularly good at wielding the swear word to comedic effect. “Thank you,” he says, “my mum would be proud.”
To be fair, it was Gervais who brought it up.
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In his new Netflix comedy After Life, Gervais plays local journalist Tony who, following the death of his wife, decides to do and say whatever he wants, consequences be damned. It’s arguably the comedian’s most personal work yet, but it’s also very funny, littered with rants, pitch-black jokes, and, yes, a few C-bombs.
He mentions the latter when describing the many talents of his co-star Kerry Godliman, who plays Tony’s late wife (she appears regularly in home movie footage from Tony’s past). On top of her ability to shift from “sweet and caring” to “gobby fish wife” on a dime, she can also “say the c-word really well” says Gervais.
It’s a good attribute to have, but there’s much more to their partnership than Gervais lets on. The pair have remarkable chemistry, no doubt carried over from his previous series, Derek, in which Godliman played nursing home carer Hannah.
“The relationship is based on my relationship because I tried to make it a real relationship,” Gervais explains. “It’s not a coffee advert, you know. But Kerry’s character isn’t based on [anyone in particular]. No, Kerry is very much Kerry. Kerry is the first person I cast, knowing she could do this.”
On paper, After Life sounded like an opportunity to deliberately push the boundaries of what people consider offensive – if Tony’s grief is the thing that allows him to say whatever he wants, is there any joke that can go ‘too far’?
But in practice, the show is a lot more meditative, and we see the consequences of Tony’s actions unfold in real time. We may laugh at him telling a young bully that he is going to “smash his stupid head in” with a hammer, but we soon realise that his behaviour could destroy his relationship with his young nephew, one of the few in his life that has kept him hanging on.
“I think no harm can come from discussing taboo subjects and my only duty is to do it honestly,” Gervais says. “I just think, ‘I want to keep pushing it a little bit more’, because the problem comes, when you discuss these subjects, if you water it down for people because you think they can’t take it. And that’s offensive.
“So you do it honestly and brutally, and hopefully like never before, and people go, ‘That’s great’. It makes people think: they can be angry or they can like it a lot or whatever, but as long as it makes them think, they’ll enjoy the ride.”
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Across six episodes, the series includes everything from heroin use and prostitution through to mortality and grief. “I am a fan of assisted suicide,” he says, referencing a particularly dark sequence in the show. “In real life, I think that if you’ve had enough and the bad days outweigh the good, and there’s no cure and you’re in pain, I think it’s immoral not to let someone opt out.”
Was there anything in particular that made him want to explore these darker themes?
“Well I always have, in a more frivolous way, and [in my] stand-up, it’s always there,” he says. “We went there in Derek. Everything I’ve done is slightly existential. Are we living a good life? I don’t know if that’s because I’m an atheist or what. The Office was about becoming 40, you know. So it’s always been there.”
After Life is a long way from The Office, but underneath the doom and gloom, it’s got the same good-natured charm.
“I suppose I think all I want to do as I get older, in everything I do, in stand-up or drama or comedy, is just be more honest. Am I as honest as I can be in this? Am I as brave as I can be? That’s it: you want less and less compromise.
“So it’s sort of funny that I’ve made a character that does that as well, but everything I’ve done is semi-autobiographical. It’s just that this is the darkest, and with the most jeopardy. There’s never been a sitcom where the bloke might die. Didn’t happen in Terry and June. That’s a cracking reference there for anyone over 58…”
After Life is released on Netflix on Friday 8th March 2019