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15th Jan 2022

Ricky Gervais: I have to offend even if people don’t like it

Adam Bloodworth

‘Some people won’t like it but that’s no reason not to do it’

One of Ricky Gervais’ most famous gags climaxes with the comedian telling a little boy that peadophiles won’t be interested in him because he’s a “tubby ginger c*nt.”

It’s classic Gervais. He’s made an estimated £140 million by saying things almost no one else could get away with. While critics say he ‘punches down’ on minority groups, Gervais argues individuals aren’t intended to be the butt of the gag.

And audiences keep queuing up to be offended: his dark comedy series After Life has become the most-watched British comedy in the world over the past decade, viewed by more than 85 million people. In the show, which returned for a third and final series Friday, Gervais plays Tony, a local journalist dealing with grief and depression after losing his wife to cancer.

Tony’s also rude to people full time – so it’s arguably an easy character for Gervais to play. “If you don’t want to offend anyone, say nothing, be nothing,” Gervais tells JOE.

“You’ve gotta go there, and you’ve gotta know when you’re doing it that some people won’t like it but that’s no reason not to do it.”

“If you’re honest, you are going to polarise,” Gervais continues. “You don’t only polarise, there’s a big spectrum. If you have an opinion and it’s an honest opinion, people will agree with you and disagree with you. It’s just as simple as that – I don’t want to shy away from it. I don’t want to be everyone’s third favourite thing cause no one was offended by anything but no-one cared.”

One thing that’s riled audiences is Gervais’ continuous use of the c-word, both in After Life and in his stand-up. But he brushes that off, calling out the “strange morality” where film and TV audiences and creators are more interested in censoring swearing than banning extreme violence.

“Have him shoot his face off but don’t swear? That’s a really strange rule,” argues Gervais. “They bleep the swear word but still have the bullet going into his chest and killing them.”

People working on Gervias’ shows have even taken issue with his comedy. Last year, The Office producer Ash Atalla admitted he found some of Gervais’ jokes about his disability made in 2001 “a little bit uncomfortable.” Gervais said Atalla was “just the same as Stephen Hawking, but without all the clever stuff”. (Speaking to The Guardian recently, the comic said he never knew Atalla felt uncomfortable.)

But his penchant for offence also elevated Gervais to become Hollywood’s least likely A-List star. His annual Golden Globes presenting gig saw him savage Tinseltown’s biggest names. He called out Leo DiCaprio for always dating under-25s (“you’re nearly 50 Leo”) and made a joke about Dame Judi Dench licking her own p*ssy like a cat.

Stateside, Gervais’ litany of successful Hollywood films aren’t driven by the same sass and snark which rose him from actual office worker to satirist with The Office and Extras. The Invention of Lying and Night at The Museum are more palatable favourites with a US family-friendly sheen – but After Life brings the 60-year-old back to rural England to the sleepy fictional town of Tanbury.

It’s not all take-downs. Aside from the odd controversial joke, such as one which feels like a dig at the gender debate involving a “snowperson” with a “massive penis,” Gervais says doing After Life taught him that “everyone’s grieving.”

“It’s made me more conscious and it’s made me think that you don’t know what someone’s going through. You better give them the benefit of the doubt. Take a beat and think, they might be going through a really bad thing.”

For Tony on After Life, alcohol is his crutch, and Gervais himself has peppered his live stage shows with jokes about his own drinking. “I do this joke, I go ‘I just want to say I’ve been sober for eighteen years,’ and they all clap, and I go, ‘it was the first 18 years. I’ve been pissed ever since.’ The papers reported that like it was real…”

What’s his drinking really like? “I’ve got a watershed, I have a glass of wine at 6 o’clock,” says Gervais. “I enjoy drinking, if it’s starting to ruin your life or affect your life or you can’t get up every day, it’s not a great idea.”

Gervais pauses. “It’s probably not a great idea to drink full stop.”

Using booze “doesn’t work,” he adds. “I think that’s important. It’s not like he [Tony] gets drunk and has a great time and feels great the next day, he gets drunk and feels worse or indifferent.”

While fans have been fawning over After Life, critics haven’t been so kind. The show uses cheap tricks, such as adding music and zooming in closely on Gervais’ face during emotional scenes rather than relying on much acting. And what Gervais calls “realism” has often been criticised as just terrible writing.

Critics have been a lot kinder to Gervais’ former Office and Extras co-star Stephen Merchant, especially in Four Lives, the story of Grindr killer Stephen Port.

But Gervais isn’t jealous. Not for a minute, he claims, saying comedic acting is as legitimate as taking on serious roles.

“Comedy is underrated,” he says. “You’ve gotta do them both well, you know what I mean? Comedians can make serious actors as well because they’ve thought about it. All you’ve got to do is study real life and go, ‘Would this happen, is that real or not?’

“I don’t think it matters if you’re trying to be funny or sad or serious, it’s just a form of acting…”

If the key to good comedy is studying real life, who will be Gervais’ next target? He says he’s developing a new drama for Netflix as we speak.

Tubby ginger c*nts be warned, Gervais is on the lookout!

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