Even I can’t talk about myself for an hour,” says Ricky Gervais as he sits down in his Hampstead office to talk about himself for an hour. Meet the new improved Gervais, whose world tour of his latest show, Humanity, has already begun. More mature, more thoughtful, still opinionated and, of course, still talkative.
When I arrive, the photoshoot has just finished, which is a shame because I was going to suggest that Gervais, not averse to commenting on Trump, as you will read, take a knee in the pictures. Though I did express concern that, at 56, he might not be able to get up again. This prompts the first of many outbursts of his trademark hyena laugh before he gets more serious.
“People taking a knee deserve a round of applause. They are brave enough and they might get into trouble but I think that’s what a real hero is. If you think you won’t get into trouble then there’s nothing heroic about it. I don’t know what Trump has to do to lose his supporters. It’s like a religion. He’s a school bully. This last six months has been crazy. He has said so many things that we can’t keep an eye on them all. He’s like he’s an emperor, he does what he wants.”
Humanity finds Gervais tackling topics including Trump, Brexit, cancer, blasphemy and also his family and how laughter was so vital growing up in Reading. It is his most personal set yet.
A memorable anecdote about his brother Bob, 11 years older, almost makes you wonder if he is the truly talented Gervais sibling. “I realised what an influence Bob was on me growing up. The point of life was to have a laugh, that was the men... the women carried on working! I wanted to be clever but being funny came first. That’s how you know someone is clever. They don’t come out and tell you Pi to 13 places — they tell you a joke.”
Both of his parents were funny. “My dad was very dry. He didn’t say much, he’d hide behind his paper. I remember the family was around once and my mum said, ‘He’s not put any money away for his funeral’. He just replied, ‘Bury me in the garden’. Mum was funny because she told the truth. I remember when I was 12 I asked her why my brothers were so much older than me and she just went ‘Because you were a mistake’.”
He tweeted his support for Labour at the last election but keeps party politics offstage. “I think everyone is political these days but I don’t come down on one side or the other. The only side I take is clever versus stupid. Any line taken out of the context of the show would be horrendous but now I don’t care.” He has no time for people who say they are offended. “Saying ‘I’m offended’ is meaningless to me. It’s like saying, ‘I’ve got a pain in my leg’. What’s that got to do with me?
The self-styled “godless ape” responds to Mel Brooks’s recent remark that political correctness is suffocating comedy. “I’m a fan of the kind of political correctness that is about not promoting prejudice. But some people in America are offended by equality because when you’ve had privilege for so long, equality feels like oppression. There is a vast difference between a government policy of oppression and some fat bloke in a club doing a naughty joke. When a comedian says something and he doesn’t mean it, he gets in trouble. When a politician says something and he does mean it he doesn’t get in trouble because that’s his so-called job.”
Talk inevitably returns to Trump. “He is a poster boy for those people who think they are disenfranchised. They are not oppressed. How naive is it that he has somehow told them that George Clooney is the enemy? Whereas this guy is literally in a gold-plated lift?”
During our chat I’ve been intermittently looking over his shoulder, trying to decipher a mosaic of pink Post-it notes on the wall. I can see that one says, “heckles at a comedy gig”, so I assume these are notes about his live show. They turn out to be something much more interesting.
They are ideas for his new Netflix comedy drama. This is the first time he has spoken about it. The series had a working title of Roll On Death but he has dropped it because it sounded too comical. “I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or more of a six-part story. It’s like a series that’s adapted from a novel, I just haven’t written the novel.”
Gervais will play the “middle-aged, grumpy” lead role. “It’s a guy whose wife has died and he is in the depths of depression and he nearly kills himself. But the reason he doesn’t is that the dog is hungry, so that saves him for a while. He thinks about his crappy job, he works for a free newspaper.”
Definitely not based on the Standard, he chuckles, as he reads out some of the Post-it notes: “Wakes up ... rude to the boss... dad’s in Alzheimer’s hospice...”
“The only thing that gets him through it is: ‘I’m going to commit suicide one day but until then I’m going to do exactly what I want. I’m going to stop being a doormat and say exactly what I f***ing want’. He’s not scared of a mugger because they can’t kill his wife, he doesn’t give a f***, they can’t hurt him anymore. This new-found thing liberates him. It’s dark but it’s funny and he gets embroiled with people he would never mix with in the underworld. It’s like he lives two lives.”
It’s early days for casting but two people in it will be Tony Way, who played Dontos Hollard in Game of Thrones and Tom Basden, who appeared in Life on the Road, 2016’s David Brent movie. Gervais is unsure if Brent will surface again. “I think we might have seen the last of him narratively,” he suggests. Although he hints that might do something as Brent with his fictional band, Foregone Conclusion.
Gervais and his partner Jane Fallon divide their time between the UK — where they have homes in Hampstead and by the Thames in Marlow — and New York, where they have an apartment on the Upper East Side. But he is still very much a Londoner. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, he voted Remain. “London isn’t England and New York isn’t America. A Londoner has more in common with someone in New York than someone in Cornwall.”
Humanity is riotously entertaining thanks in part to rigorous editing. “I cut out this joke: ‘I’ve had a bit of bad news today. My best friend committed suicide. He went upstairs and swallowed everything in the bathroom cupboard. He choked on a tampon’. It gets a laugh but it’s not true and it means the audience won’t believe the things that are really true.”
The show concludes with an example of the latter, an honest, hilarious account of a family funeral. “I’m trying to make people laugh about things they didn’t know they could. Taboo subjects such as death get you there quicker. I’ve taken them by the hand through a scary forest, they’ve come out in the sunlight and they realise it wasn’t so bad.”