Ricky Gervais on creating a 'human connection' with viewers of Netflix's After Life
Michael Hodges catches up with Ricky Gervais about After Life, the Golden Globes and Tiger King
The following interview with Ricky Gervais originally ran in April 2020.
You might not be expecting this, but Ricky Gervais has good news for us. This may seem like the worst possible moment to bring back After Life, his show about a man who struggles to accept the death of his wife. Across the country, thousands of families are coming to terms with tragedy and loss because of the coronavirus crisis – do we really need more misery?
But the message of what Gervais calls “a sitcom that’s not a sitcom” isn’t miserable at all. It’s actually uplifting.
The first series was about Gervais’s character Tony Johnson’s shock, denial, then anger after losing his wife Lisa, played by Kerry Godliman. “Now he’s into bargaining,” says Gervais. “He tried everything, being rude to people, hurting them, giving them as bad a day as he’s having. Didn’t work. He tried drugs, didn’t work. So he’s trying kindness. And it does work!”
For now, as any wise 58-year-old carrying a bit of weight should, he’s holed up at home watching TV. “We binge-watched three episodes of the Netflix documentary Tiger King last night,” he says. “Remarkable, just crazy, just wow!” He’s been tweeting about putting on weight in a pandemic and the pleasures of self-isolation. Consequently, we’re meeting by video call rather than in the flesh and I’m looking into the living room of the home in Hampstead, north London, that he shares with the writer Jane Fallon, his partner since 1982. Gervais is sitting on the floor in front of a white sofa, something only a man without children would contemplate owning. His stomach and legs are tucked underneath the coffee table on which he has balanced his laptop.
“I worried myself in the first series,” he says. “I thought, ‘Hang on, how can they [the audience] go from seeing a woman dying from cancer who we know is dead now, to getting a laugh?’ And you can, because people do it every day. We go from laughing and joking to being bumped into and going, ‘Who the f*** do you think you are?’ We can flip from ‘Ha-ha!’ to ‘Who’s he looking at?’ We can do it. A lot of people second-guess the public, and say, ‘They’re not going to be able to take this.’ And I want to go, ‘Of course they can! It’s not as bad as real life.’”
He’s already said he wants a third series and After Life might just be the crowning achievement of a career that only began when Gervais, creative but unfocused through his 20s and 30s, wrote The Office with his XFM colleague Stephen Merchant in the late 1990s. The hugely successful show was followed by the occasional self-indulgence of the star-studded Extras, the uncomfortable Derek, a series of largely unremarkable movies, acclaimed stand-up performances and even bestselling children’s books.
I’m expecting him to be full of it. In his recent Twitter broadcasts, three BAFTAs have been clearly visible behind him. In January, he destroyed a room full of Hollywood stars at the Golden Globe awards, suggesting they were friends of the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, but the only time he gets tetchy is when I ask about the lampooning of an apparently gay character in After Life. “What gay character?” Gervais demands. “He’s theatrically camp. I don’t think we go into his sex life.”
In part, he admits, the show is a love letter to his own relationship with Fallon. “I wanted it to be real,” he says of the scenes seen in flashback between Tony and Lisa. “I didn’t want it to be soft focus and always giving each other Valentine’s presents. I want them to be goofing around, they’re soul mates, they’re friends. All those silly pranks that I do on the show, I do those in real life, and if I’m doing something with Jane now and I go, ‘Oh, I should put this into After Life,’ Jane goes, ‘Poor Kerry.’ ”
After Life is set in the fictional seaside town of Tambury and filmed near Gervais’s home in Hampstead (he has another place in Los Angeles) and just outside the capital at Hemel Hempstead and Beaconsfield. The beach scenes are filmed on the south coast at Camber Sands in East Sussex. “I want to give people the sense that this place is another character,” he says.
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“I think it’s a Little England. It’s not surreal, and it’s not even that heightened. Everyone knows everyone. You could walk round it in the day and you’d see the one prostitute and the one psychotherapist, the local paper and the local dairy. I didn’t want it to be a sprawling factory and superstores and Amazon delivering everything. I wanted it to be a slightly forgotten, quaint place.”
I say it’s like Dad’s Army’s Walmington-on-Sea. Like Walmington-on-Sea, that is, if it had a sex worker and heroin addict. “Yeah, it’s Kent,” he says, but prefers the Dad’s Army comparison with The Office. “David Brent would not make sense unless he was the boss. If he was a 25-year-old idiot who happened to be a temp, who cares? But he was meant to be in charge. It’s men behaving as boys. That’s what’s funny. In Dad’s Army, originally, the posh one was going to be in charge, then they said, ‘No, of course not! Let’s have some class conflict!’ ”
Class conflict is actually missing from After Life. There is no drawling public-school Sergeant Wilson figure; even the therapist is a leery cockney. The central antagonism is the really big one, the one we don’t usually talk about, that between living and dying.
“The older you get, the more you’ve got to grieve about and the more people you’ve lost,” he says. “But it’s still a taboo subject. No one goes up to anyone and says, ‘I’m really sad [about losing someone].’ They don’t want to burden you. After Life opens the conversation. People say to me, ‘I lost my brother three weeks before, and I was worried about watching it, but I absolutely loved it, it really helps, so thank you.’”
For a long time, fans of The Office would say to Gervais, “Do the dance! Brilliant!” but After Life has changed that. “It’s not like that [The Office]. It’s a proper human connection. I’ve never had that before, an emotional connection.’”
Has the coronavirus crisis made a series about grief more pertinent? “Well, no,” Gervais says. “I don’t think people want to see a show like this mentioning coronavirus. I think this might be a relief, that people know this was made before it happened, because everyone is grieving all the time anyway. People are still getting ill and dying through all the other stuff; that hasn’t gone away. It’s not like suddenly for the last month people have understood illness and dying. It’s always been around, it’s just that it’s on the news every day now.”
It seems counterintuitive that such a famous and successful figure could produce such an acutely observed report from the uneasy margins of ordinary English life, as if he’s still one of us. “Comedians are court jesters,” he says. “We’ve got to be down in the mud with the other peasants, making jokes about the king. Without getting executed. So we’ve got to have low status for them to be able to laugh with us and at us.”
How does someone estimated to be worth £110 million and who reportedly signed a $40 million deal with Netflix maintain low status? “I let them peep behind the curtain. I go, ‘What, you think it’s all glamour, being famous? Well, here’s how I embarrassed myself in front of the Queen.’ Or, ‘Here’s what happened the first time I took a private jet – they thought I was the cook.’ You tell them, ‘I’m the loser.’ I shamble out and go, ‘I’m getting old and fat. I’m losing my hair. I feel ill all the time. I’m an idiot.’
“At the Golden Globes, I do it by being on the side of the people watching at home who aren’t winning awards. I come out with a beer, I don’t want to be there, I don’t like these people. The people at home go, ‘Well, you’ve worked with them, you’re one of them, you’re a millionaire.’ Yes, but look! I’m wrong for this job. They don’t want me here. It would be nauseating for me to go, ‘Hey, George, thanks for letting me use your villa.’ ‘Hey, Brad, are we having a drink later?’ Horrible. Right? So I’ve got to come out, and punch up. I’ve got to go, ‘Look at this billionaire here, isn’t he brilliant? He’s got sweat shops.’”
Doesn’t he get nervous when he steps out on stage in front of Hollywood? “Yes, but probably for different reasons than you think. I do go through anxiety. I say no [when I’m asked], because I want to rule stress out of my life, and then they persuade me, they appeal to my ego. Then I go, ‘Yeah, that would be good.’ And you think, ‘Oh, Christmas ruined. I’ve got to write jokes. I should be getting drunk!’
“My only anxiety is if I screw up a joke. That’s what I’m worried about. Every joke is like taking a penalty. If that ball goes into the back of the net, no one can argue with that. No one can go, ‘That was a terrible goal.’ They go, ‘It was a goal.’
“So if I do that joke right, people might not like it, but I scored. I don’t want to fluff a joke or say the wrong line – that’s the only thing that worries me.”
When I ask if the furore his public performance causes possibly distracts from the serious achievement of After Life, he employs the same sleight of hand used by his idol David Bowie – that it isn’t the real Ricky Gervais we’re seeing up there.
“With stand-up and rock stars, people think you are that person. When you tell a joke, people assume that that’s a window to your soul, like that’s what you think in real life. And it’s not true. I will flip the view of a joke, if it makes the joke better. I’ll pretend to be right wing if it makes the joke better. A joke is a fiction.”
One of four siblings – brothers Larry and Bob, and sister Marsha – he was born in 1961 and brought up in Berkshire. “I grew up in the shadow of the war. Everyone I knew, the generation before me, they’d all gone to war. The next-door neighbour had an Anderson shelter.” The war made Gervais. His father Jerry, a Canadian labourer, came to England and met Gervais’s mother Eva in a black-out. They died within two years of each other, Eva in 2000 and Jerry in 2002. Both had church funerals and in 2007 Gervais told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs that he played practical jokes. “At my mum’s funeral and my dad’s, we were laughing and crying,” he says. “It was funny and sad.”
There is also a poignant church funeral in After Life – “Spoiler Alert!” he shouts, but don’t worry, I won’t tell you who it is – and although the pervading theme of the series is grief, I suspect After Life is mostly about hope and love. Gervais, who based a whole stand-up show, Super Nature, on bashing religious belief and who is one of the most famous atheists in the country alongside Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry, has made a very Christian work.
“Yes, but without the actual belief in God,” he says. “I like the good bits from the Bible. ‘Do unto others’ is a pretty good rule of thumb, but then it gets complicated.”
If there is cruelty in After Life, it’s in the merciless portrayal of men. Brian Gittens, a deeply troubled, sociopathic loser played by David Earl, who seldom changes his clothes and, when asked to perform stand-up at the amateur variety night, delivers a stream of foul-mouthed despair, would quite possibly be sectioned if he walked down any high street but Tambury’s.
“I’ve never thought of Brian as mentally ill,” says Gervais. “He’s hit hard times. I think people, when they see something on telly, and they’re used to watching Friends and ER, when someone like Brian comes on, they think, ‘Oh, they’re odd.’ Actually, they’re not odd, they’re normal! Having a doctor who looks like George Clooney, and six friends who look like that, that’s what’s odd! If I take you around England, you’ll see that we’re all Brian Gittens. We’re not Brad Pitt.
“That’s the best thing about comedy: it says, ‘We’re all a bit crap. All a bit weird.’ And that’s all right, because we’re all in the same boat.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.