And speaking of Ricky Gervais (previous post)...
Media Guardian | Television
Ricky Gervais is out of The Office
As hit comedy Extras comes out on DVD, its star tells Owen Gibson why he is different from most British comics and won't appear in cheap spinoffs or bad films
Monday October 31, 2005
If you are planning to stock up on Lou and Andy dolls as stocking fillers this Christmas, do not expect to see a David Brent dancing model or an Andy Millman board game stacked alongside them on the shelf. And if you're one of the thousands trooping along to see Matt Lucas and David Walliams take Dafydd and the rest to the stage this autumn, you are equally unlikely to see Ricky Gervais ahead of you in the queue.
For the creator of The Office and Extras, these accoutrements are symptomatic of a malaise that takes hold of successful British comedians once they have a hit. While he does not mention Little Britain by name, his scathing assessment of some of his peers leaves you in no doubt that he feels little kinship with the British comedy fraternity.
"If you look at it as a career, it's foolish to go all out. You've got to hold out. We resisted putting out loads of rubbish from The Office for years and years. There was a dancing toy they wanted us to put out," he laughs. "It might be funny to have a tacky Brent doll and it'll probably sell well. But it's a con. It's a piece of tat that you don't need," he says passionately.
Gervais is sprawled behind a desk in his sparsely furnished West End office, which is dominated by a huge cutout of Homer Simpson, a store display for the new Extras DVD and piles of his More Flanimals children's book.
These spinoffs fall into a quite different category, he argues, because they are labours of love in themselves.
Given the extent to which scenes from The Office have already lodged themselves in the collective consciousness, destined to be forever repeated on list shows alongside the late Ronnie Barker's fork handles confusion and Basil Fawlty thrashing his car with a branch, it is initially hard not to feel momentarily disconcerted when he slips in the odd Brentish mannerism or aside.
But while his jokey demeanour is contagious, Gervais clearly takes the business of comedy extremely seriously. Since he and Stephen Merchant embarked on The Office, Gervais has been mapping out his future. He returns again and again to the reason they do it: "We're very conscious about the legacy. We're very conscious about it being timeless and universal." And that means, he says, concentrating on "what's important" and blocking out everything else.
"After the second episode of The Office I was offered the lead role in a film. I hate it when a British comedian [becomes popular], the first thing they do is appear in four films and they're all terrible, lottery-funded, tacky shit."
His almost visceral hatred of the world of celebrity magazines and the false chumminess of the showbiz fraternity is well known. At the MediaGuardian Edinburgh Television Festival, at which he and Merchant talked about Extras, the pair went and "hid in a room" because they felt so out of place among their industry colleagues.
"It was just the worst place in the world for me. I haven't got anything in common with other comedians here and other programme makers. We have different ambitions. I've got a lot more sympathy with my American peers," he says. And much of that is down to the parochial world in which British comics operate.
"I get angry when I see people selling their soul, selling their arse," he says, a point of view that clearly informed Extras, with its take on the flipside of fame. "So many people will try and get in the paper. The first thing they do is go and link arms with some D-list rapper. Why do you need to see yourself in the paper? It gives me the creeps."
It has become fashionable again to put comedy at the top of the agenda. The BBC spends much of BBC3's £97m a year budget looking for new talent, BBC1 controller Peter Fincham has declared it a top priority to persuade the likes of Gervais to ply their trade in prime time, Channel 4 is casting its net wider in the hope of unearthing the new Spaced or Green Wing and even Five is dabbling in new homegrown comedy. Lamenting the demise of British comedy is almost as cliched and muddled as wondering why England cannot win the World Cup. But many in the industry believe that a serious spell of underinvestment in recent years, when commissioners concentrated instead on reality and popular factual programmes, has left a worrying vacuum.
"There's something very parochial about a lot of British comedians. Their ambition is to get on a chat show, or have This is Your Life or a South Bank Show made about them. All the things I don't want to do because it's about me as opposed to the work," says Gervais. But when challenged, he will admit that there are certain things you "have to do" - his irregular bouts of verbal sparring with Jonathan Ross on radio and TV, for example.
Occasional gems like The Office made it through despite the system, rather than because of it. "We maintained control in every aspect. They know I don't want to do adverts or do my autobiography - you know, 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Office'."
And the trend for successful standups to be rushed on to screen and on to a million panel shows, quiz shows and sitcom pilots has tended to leave them overexposed before they have barely started.
"They're not historians of fame. It's an ego thing. The same reason actors take bad films. They know it's a bad film but deep down they think it'll be a good film if they're in it. It's a slippery slope. They make hay while the sun shines. But you want a few summers," he says, reasoning that because he came to television fairly late in life it has given him a bit more perspective. That was part of the rationale behind trying to "sneak out" Extras during the summer on BBC2 - an impossibility given the huge expectations, the inevitable rash of magazine covers and the fact that it had a full complement of A-list cameos. He believes that his comedy has found the "four million or so" people in the country who "get it" and that it will never attract a bigger audience.
Gervais is keenly aware of the second-album syndrome that affected Extras. Brandishing a BBC press release that has been sent over for approval, he points out that The Office has sold 4 million DVDs around the world, been sold to 80 countries ("What's the Chinese for Brent-meister general?" he muses) and won two Golden Globes. How do you follow that?
In the event, he and Merchant did it by locking themselves away and coming up with a series that, for all the initial hype surrounding celebrity cameos from the likes of Ben Stiller and Samuel L Jackson, was as carefully crafted and character-based as their first. If it lacked a comic icon to rival Brent, the writing was, if anything, more subtle and multi-layered. Chiming with the trend for DVD comedy sales outstripping initial viewing, Gervais says they make shows that are designed to be better on the second or third viewing. "All the things I love I didn't like immediately. I either resisted them or wasn't knocked out. The Simpsons, Radiohead, The Sopranos". When watching the series again, he hopes people will appreciate the main characters more than the cameos.
"We are proud of these people wanting to be in a little British sitcom. Kate Winslet talking dirty to a Nazi, that didn't happen in Terry and June. But we're prouder of the characters," he says.
It is this microscopic attention to detail and characterisation that he believes is missing from much British comedy and is the reason why he feels more affinity with Matt Groening's Simpsons and Larry David's Seinfeld. Objectionable people "I see programmes in England and think 'you're aiming low there', 'you're selling out there', 'you got a laugh last time so you've done it again'. Sometimes I think 'shame on you', from a production point of view. People get promoted because they got something on the telly. It's awful, it's tat," he rails.
Gervais has already written an episode of The Simpsons, which will go out in the US next March, and will appear with David in a forthcoming Channel 4 special. "Seinfeld was incredible because it was a completely new type of sitcom, almost eating itself and all that postmodern stuff. But they didn't forsake the characters. I think George Costanza might be the best sitcom character of all time. These are objectionable people but you love them for it because it's so well done," he says.
It was an approach that clearly informed The Office. "It looked parochial on the face of it, but it wasn't. It was about making a difference, doing a decent job at work, it was boy meets girl. Which is rare in England. America's been doing that for ages, it always has a human interest and a romance from I Love Lucy to Friends," he says.
"Whereas we always do a catchphrase comedy or a central character who is a buffoon and always ends up back at square one," he adds. Another influence is Christopher Guest, the Spinal Tap and Best in Show director who recently cast Gervais in his next film.
As if to prove that Hollywood has not gone to his head, he shuffles off to find us a pair of chipped coffee mugs from which to drink. After the second series of Extras, which he and Merchant are starting to write now, they plan to make their first film. His work with Merchant is, he says, "the day job", the thing that gets him out of bed in the morning. The rest - the children's books, the standup tours (of which there will be another, Science, next year), the occasional acting gig - he fits in around that.
"We want to do something that no one else can do. Or improve on something that has been done before. You're allowed to tell the same old stories, as long as you tell it better. Boy meets girl is pretty much as good as it gets. Redemption, overcoming a struggle. These are stories that have been told a million times before. It's whether you do them well or badly. Or worse, indifferently."
Perhaps aware that he is in danger of coming across a bit po-faced in deconstructing himself and his art, he sighs: "Sometimes I do think I take it too seriously. I'm passionate about doing it and it's precious to me. But it's not a matter of life and death."
Tongue firmly back in cheek, he concludes that his success is mainly down to a trait he shares with the yellow cardboard cutout in the corner of the room.
"My laziness has really helped me out. Because I've only got so much energy I channel it into things that I know are important. It ends up looking like integrity. It's great. There's only so much time in a day, so I just do one thing and I do it well."
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