-by Ken Plume
Ricky Gervais, along with Stephen Merchant (our interview with whom you can read HERE), is the co-creator of both the original British and American versions of The Office and now two series of the BBC/HBO hit Extras - not to mention co-host of the most downloaded podcast in history.
He’s written an episode of The Simpsons, performed a pair of sold-out stand-up tours (both of which have been released on DVD in the UK as Animals and Politics, with the upcoming Fame tour completing the trifecta), co-starred in the recent big screen outings A Night At The Museum and For Your Consideration, written a pair of Flanimals books for children, and won more awards than you can shake a stick at
In Extras, Gervais stars as jobbing actor Andy Melman. The second series will begin airing on HBO this Sunday, January 14th, at 10pm, and the first series is now available on DVD.
I’ve spoken with Gervais a few times in the past, and from the comfort of my own chair, this is our latest tete-a-tete…
Warning - there are some spoilers ahead.
QUICK STOP: Hello?
RICKY GERVAIS: Is that Ken, then?
QS: Yes, this is.
GERVAIS: Hello, it’s Ricky Gervais.
QS: Ah, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you again.
GERVAIS: Oh, am I… have I called you again by mistake?
QS: No, we’ve spoken many times in the past.
GERVAIS: I recognize your voice, and I just did an interview, and I suddenly thought, “That voice is so familiar,” that I just called a guy back that I just did an interview with.
QS: Or my voice is just so incredibly generic that it sounds like everyman.
GERVAIS: All Americans sound the same to me.
QS: I can understand that way of thinking.
GERVAIS: No, it’s not true. I thought I just called the wrong number. It’s very early, but is it okay if we do it a bit earlier?
QS: That is perfectly fine.
GERVAIS: When did I speak to you last?
QS: I think we spoke toward the end of 2005.
GERVAIS: Right, right.
QS: And then we had spoken a year prior to that.
GERVAIS: Right, wow.
QS: So at this point you’re an open book to me.
GERVAIS: I know. I don’t think I’ve got anything new. Nothing’s happened!
QS: Surely there must be something new.
GERVAIS: Yeah. If not, I can just make it up and make it out that life’s a bit more glamorous than it is.
QS: And I hear all Americans are gullible, so I should believe everything.
GERVAIS: Really? I never said that.
QS: No, but I believe that others have characterized us as such…
GERVAIS: English people think that Americans don’t have irony, and I point out that stupid people think that, because Americans do irony easily as well if not better than we do with things like The Simpsons and Larry Sanders and Arrested Development. It’s just a ludicrous myth. I think it’s the most popular received bit of false knowledge. Whenever I talk to someone, they go, “The American Office is doing well, isn’t it? Strange, because they don’t get sarcasm, do they?” I go, “Yeah, yeah, I think they do get sarcasm.” Like it’s some sort of genetic trait that the gene pool in America just left off the gene for sarcasm. How would that work? (laughing)
QS: Well, surely it’s an environmental switch - with all the fast food we eat, it must have somehow turned it off.
GERVAIS: Although I do understand that over 50% of Americans believe in angels. And that more Americans believe in ESP than evolution.
QS: Yeah, but it’d be interesting to compare the number that believe in angels with the number that believe in God. Because I think some people just believe in angels with no religious attachment whatsoever.
GERVAIS: (laughing) What do they think they are, then? They’re Darwinians. They’re people that sort of jumped out of trees.
QS: I would love to know what the Venn diagram is for belief in angels and belief in ghosts.
GERVAIS: I love that when two people argue, they go, “Oh, don’t be stupid. There’s no such thing as ghosts,” - But they do believe in the afterlife. There’s not ghosts - there’s angels and you go to heaven. You don’t walk around on earth dead, you live in heaven dead.
QS: Yeah, they built some new apartment blocks, it’s great.
GERVAIS: Yeah, (laughing), exactly!!
QS: Heaven is on a big boom right now.
GERVAIS: (laughing) People are dying to get in.
QS: I hear there’s a list. That’s all purgatory is, it’s the waiting list.
GERVAIS: Yeah. “Oh, dear. You won’t be noisy, will you?” “No.” “No musicians.”
QS: Can you imagine what the co-op board is like for that?
QS: “Do you have an instrument?” “No.” “Would you like one?”
GERVAIS: That’s not good, because it is forever.
QS: “We’re putting our bliss order in - how much do you want?”
QS: Well, I have to say, I remain shocked that you still haven’t gotten your DVDs released over in the States.
GERVAIS: I don’t know. People can get them, but I don’t want to release them in America because I think there’s little bits and pieces that Americans might not get. Not many. I try to do everything as universal as possible. I don’t talk about things that happened in the news that week, and I try not to do too many parochial cultural references.
QS: The discs are widely pirated…
GERVAIS: Yes, I know, but you say widely pirated - it’s probably a few Anglophiles dotted around mainly in New York and L.A., I’d suspect. But I could be wrong. I’d want to do it properly, really. I’m doing a gig in America in May, and I may conflate the best of those and mostly new stuff. I don’t want people to just get second hand goods. And also, the more you improve, you want them to see the latest thing. It’s there for them to get, but I think to package it up and release it as new, I think it’s giving them a 90% product just because of the things… if I was doing live work in America, I would change or leave out or…
QS: Which is completely different than the Eddie Izzard model, which is, “I will sell you everything I have ever recorded…”
GERVAIS: Mm. Well, I can’t comment on…
QS: Can’t or won’t?
GERVAIS: (laughing) I think it’s best if I don’t comment on that.
QS: It’s great. It’s like viewing family photos of Eddie. You can buy every phase.
QS: He’s almost like the Bowie of comedy. “Oh, that’s his Ziggy phase…”
GERVAIS: Yeah. Luckily, I haven’t changed my haircut for 10 years.
QS: It’s just all a matter of consistency, is what you’ve been going for.
GERVAIS: If you did a flicker book of all my pictures, the hair would stay the same, but the cheeks would just widen.
QS: That’s going to make for the easiest compilation tape ever made. You can really just combine all your stand-ups in to one uber-standup.
GERVAIS: I’ll just do a virtual one. So I never change. And then I can just edit it to audio and just cut from one to the other and have a cartoon. That’s a great idea!
QS: Did you see what Jimmy Carr is doing?
GERVAIS: What’s that?
QS: He’s doing a gig in Second Life - the online virtual reality community…
GERVAIS: I’m not… I don’t live there.
QS: It’s basically where people walk around with these computer generated avatars and live this weird second life within this online community. And he’s actually doing a gig online, virtually. So there’ll be a computer representation of Jimmy while he’s doing this gig live at a secret location in London.
GERVAIS: Oh, so he’s gonna do it, and it’s his audio feed?
QS: That’s going to be matched up with this digital representation of him.
GERVAIS: Right, okay. But that’s just… okay.
QS: So it’s basically like listening to a CD with a really creepy Jimmy graphic.
GERVAIS: But that’s just like a webcast then really, but within a cartoon.
QS: Exactly, yes.
GERVAIS: And so will people… okay. This is for nerds, surely.
QS: I can think of no other audience.
GERVAIS: (laughing) And nor can I.
QS: But he seems really keen on it.
GERVAIS: I can think of no other audience. A Venn diagram - It’d just be one circle with the word “nerd” written in it.
QS: Yes. “Who actually believes in angels? And Jimmy Carr?”
GERVAIS: (laughing) That’s hilarious.
QS: I did want to ask you about your appearance at Comedy Central’s Night of Too Many Stars charity event in New York - it was the only time I had seen what I perceived as you being nervous in performance…
GERVAIS: Oh, tell me about it. I hadn’t gigged. I’d never done that stuff before. I followed Jerry Seinfeld. And it was the first time I’d ever played America. So I think your perception is spot on.
QS: You picked a hell of a gig to do that!
GERVAIS: It’s mad, isn’t it? You’re meant to frighten yourself once a day. So I did a couple of months worth in that four and a half minutes.
QS: I’ll bet you wished you believed in angels then.
GERVAIS: I know. They were… yeah.
QS: But you seemed to get comfortable about halfway through it, and go with the rhythm.
GERVAIS: Yeah. I just think that… do you know what, though? You say that it’s a hell of a gig, but actually, the audience on those things are very, very generous. If they’d have paid $50 to see me, and I wasn’t ready, then that’s despicable - but when they know that everyone’s thrown in and sort of doing it, they’re actually a very very generous crowd. And for me, a bigger crowd is better than a small crowd. I’d rather play to five thousand people than five.
QS: When you mentioned Jerry Seinfeld preceding you, do you still feel intimidated around performers like that?
GERVAIS: No, I heard he said he couldn’t follow me. He insisted he went on first.
QS: What a prick.
GERVAIS: (laughing) Oh god…
QS: I’ll bet they were all throwing themselves in front of you.
GERVAIS: Yeah. I didn’t get to meet him, either. I think he was in and out. He’s sort of as good as it gets in terms of quality, size, fame, and adoration. And so yeah, I was watching him backstage, and I was laughing, because he’s brilliant, and I was going, “Oh, I wish I’d already been on!” (laughing)
QS: How surreal was it to have Steve Carell, in character, doing a piece?
GERVAIS: Oh, he’s great. I love Steve Carell. He’s got a likeable face. So has Jerry Seinfeld. I think that’s the secret to film comedy, having a likeable face. If people like you, you’re already halfway there.
QS: What was that really odd experiment they did in the UK a few months back, where they determined what the ultimate comedy face would look like?
GERVAIS: And it came out me. Now the thing about that is, I looked at the list of all the comedy greats they got in to come to me, and at least 50% of them were fat, round-faced blokes.
QS: And one of them was Jo Brand.
GERVAIS: And one of them was Dawn French! So when they say, “the perfect comedian is Ricky Gervais, he’s got a round face and so many features,” well that’s because you’ve been using round-faced women! (laughing)
QS: And yet they said nothing about perfectly round heads.
GERVAIS: Karl Pilkington…
QS: I had a nice conversation about Karl with Steve Merchant yesterday.
GERVAIS: I was with Karl last night. He came round. His girlfriend said to him, “Tell them your theory.” He went, “Well, all it is was I was thinking, right, how did we make that quantum leap from chimpanzee to humans?” I went, “I’ll stop you there. It’s not a quantum leap. We actually share more genetic material with chimpanzees than chimpanzees do with gorillas.” He went, “Well okay, then how’d you get to that?” I said, “Well it’s not a quantum leap. It’s a gradual process.” He’s going, “No, no.” I went, “Well, what’s your theory?” He went, “Well, I was thinking, how did we get that brain?” I went, “Well, it evolved.” He went, “No. That brain… what if we got that from aliens?” I went, “What are you talking about?” He went, “Well, what if there was some… like, a brain in space?” And I said, “What the fuck does that mean? How will it live in space?” He went, “It can.” I went, “Well, it can’t. It can’t without…” He went, “Yeah, well, somehow it can.” I went, “Well, that’s not a theory. To go, ’somehow it can’ - that’s not a theory.”
QS: Or it’s the most profound leap, almost quantum leap, in logic you can make.
GERVAIS: It’s amazing. He says that often - he just says, “and something happens.” He had that idea for the watch that counts down and tells you how long you’ve got left. And I went, “How would it work?” He went, “You just wear it on your wrist.” I went, “No, that’s not how it works, that’s where you wear it. How does it work?” He went, “It just does.” I went, “Well, that’s no idea at all then, Karl.” Imagine him going to the patent office with that one…
QS: Is it like Schrödinger’s Karl? Does he exist if no one observes him?
GERVAIS: Well, some people think that he is an invention.
QS: I had this argument with John Hodgman, who I put in contact with you for that New York Times piece a few months back. We’ve had this running argument about the truth of Karl…
GERVAIS: Well, all I’ll say is this - if he’s putting it on, he puts it on 24 hours a day. He’s incredible. He’s absolutely incredible.
QS: Have you spoken to anyone who’s encountered him during his childhood, or did he just arrived fully formed?
GERVAIS: No. I think I knew one person who knew him when he was about 14, and he just said he had hair then. That was the big difference.
QS: Karl made quite an impression on people, then.
GERVAIS: (laughing) Oh, god!
QS: “I remember him, he had hair.”
GERVAIS: “He had hair!” But no, it’s a joy because he’s always got something to say. He’s always got an opinion on… we did the Christmas podcast, which went live on Christmas day, and we were just talking about stuff. We were talking about the three wise men. On the podcast he talks about the three wise men giving him gifts. And he was going, “The trouble is, for the one who brought gold, what did he get him next year? He said, ‘Have some myrrh, and then you can get something better next year.’” And afterwards we were talking about the gifts, and he said, “Were those presents for his birthday or Christmas?” Which is an amazing question. And I said, “Well, his birthday, because Christmas wasn’t invented yet, was it?”
QS: It’s a weird sort of logic line that he dances…
GERVAIS: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. He’s incredible. But the Christmas podcast is one of my favorites because it’s… I don’t know, it’s sort of looking back, and there’s some closure to it, because we decided it’s going to be the last one for a while, and it’s quite sweet in a way. It’s quite sweet when you give him a chance to talk. (laughing)…
QS: It’s almost become this thing where it’s like when the aunts show up at Christmas day, and they bring the child out to perform. Like, “Did you see the cute thing that he said today? Say the cute thing that you said!”
GERVAIS: I do feel that I’m like Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man. That I’m taking this oddity around. Oh, talking of that - that’s his favorite film. And you know the bit where John Merrick is displayed to all the surgeons at the Royal College by the screen and he’s naked, and he goes, “See the deformation of the skull and the spinal column and the limbs.” And he says, “The genitals are unaffected.” Right? And Karl went, “Think of that - the one thing you would want like an elephant, and he got the head.” (laughing)
QS: Has anyone ever given Karl an IQ test?
GERVAIS: That’s a very… that’s incredible that you should say that, because Karl’s doing a thing for Channel Four. It’s called a Comedy Lab. It was the first thing me & Steve did, a Comedy Lab, and he’s got his own Comedy Lab where you get some money and you make a half hour thing, and he’s making this documentary about whether knowledge is bad for you. He’s got that theory…
GERVAIS: So I did an introduction where I said it’s ludicrous, because he’s always grumpy. I’ve never seen him happy. And he’s stupid, so I don’t know what point he’s trying to make. And he took a Mensa test yesterday.
QS: He did?
GERVAIS: Yeah. And it was incredible, because he was talking to us last night about it, and he was going, “It was really weird. The first one was easy, and then it kicked in, and I didn’t know what was going on. They were asking this stuff like, ‘If Jack and Janet got married what would be baby be called?’” And I went, “What?” And there was no question like that. He just couldn’t even remember the questions. And he went, “Oh, that was doing me head in.” He said, “At one point, I looked over, and one woman had finished and she was doing Soduku in her own time.” (laughing)
QS: It almost makes you think he was wondering, “God, if I could get this done, I could have play time in the field…”
GERVAIS: Well, exactly. Except there was an 11 year old kid there who didn’t look like he was having too much trouble. I predicted he’d do quite well on it, but I was wrong. Because I thought… I said, “Well, one, they are obviously class biased. There’s lots of stuff, word play and things about the English language and word recognition. So the only true one is like shape recognition, in a way, and maths, If you can understand the question. And I thought he’d do quite well. In fact, I said, “Well, he’s got a good brain - he’s just never used it.” But apparently he’s got three percent, if he’s lucky! (laughing) But I’m going to open the envelope with him for the documentary, so he doesn’t know. It’s in a couple of weeks time. But that’s so strange you said that.
QS: But there’s a difference between a standard IQ test and a Mensa test…
GERVAIS: Well, of course. The Mensa test is for nerds who want to prove something…
QS: It’s an ego test more than anything else.
GERVAIS: Well, of course it’s an ego test - and also, you can get good at them. You can learn the tricks and all this sort of stuff. I don’t know why he’d want to say, “I’ve got an IQ of 180,” or whatever. I’m sure there are purer I.Q. tests… because obviously Karl, I think, is a very intelligent person. He sees the world differently. He’s very creative. He’s very, very funny. But he has a problem with simple concepts. He cannot understand the monkey-typewriter thing. I was going, “Listen, it’s not to be taken literally. It’s a model of the nature of infinity. No one’s gonna sit a monkey down with a typewriter.” I was going, “It’s like this: there are many even numbers as even and odd numbers put together. There’s no understanding of that other than infinity means forever. So anything can happen.” He went, “Well, I don’t even know what that means.” I went, “What?” Have you heard his discussion about monkeys and typewriters?
QS: Yes I have…
GERVAIS: Have you seen it on the Politics DVD?
GERVAIS: It’s phenomenal when he says, “I’ve never seen anything published by a monkey,” as proof it would never happen.
QS: He’s never read The Guardian.
GERVAIS: (laughing) He doesn’t quite understand the concept. I think he doesn’t understand the concept of infinity. You have to concentrate when someone says infinity, and all that entails. And I just think…
QS: I view Karl more as a far too concrete thinker as opposed to… he wants to put it in concrete terms, this view of infinity… like the alien brain thing.
GERVAIS: I don’t know, you see. I think sometimes he’s got a real fluidity to his thought, and he’s not constrained by it. Because if you tell him something, the question he asks, you couldn’t predict. It wouldn’t come up if you asked a hundred children. The question he asks is never the one that you think anyone would ask, and it’s always hilarious. For example, I told him about a story in the paper that I thought he’d be interested in. It was a chimpanzee, an adolescent chimpanzee, that had a fight with its father in the zoo, and it had escaped. It had an argument and escaped. The point was, he’s an adolescent - not a human being. Karl said, “What was the argument about?” See, there’s no way you’d be thinking that when I told you it. There’s no way that you were thinking… because you were already thinking about, “What’s the connotations, what’s the higher level, what are we talking about here?” There’s no way you’d think, “Was it about the remote control or you’ve got to go to bed early?” Whereas he thought… he just… he personifies things too readily.
QS: But it goes back to trying to make things concrete and identifiable as things that exist within his world.
GERVAIS: I… well, yes, I suppose…I suppose he does then. Yeah, he has to…
QS: Sort of like a kid with a blow pipe shooting down balloons or something. He’s got to find a way to ground things within his domain.
GERVAIS: Yes, to make sense in his world. But he quite happily dismisses things. You can be telling him something, and if he doesn’t like it, it won’t get in. He doesn’t go, “What do you mean?” - He thinks, “That’s not for me. I don’t get it. It’s too vacuum packed. It doesn’t matter. Forget it.” And he’ll shut off. I’ll lose him. I’ll lose him halfway through the first sentence.
QS: How do you know when you’re losing him? Do you see the light go off in his eyes?
GERVAIS: Yeah, he looks bored. I know he’s thinking of something else. He’s thinking of another word I’d said, and he’s gone off on a tangent. I can see it happen. I can actually see it happen. I’d love to be able to download a flow chart of the word that I lost him at and what he was thinking of. Sometimes I say, “What are you thinking of?” And I’m right. It’s like Homer Simpson. It’s like Homer Simpson. We were talking to him once about bringing back a mammoth to life, right?
GERVAIS: And I thought he’s be interested in that. And he went, “Really?” And he was too interested. And I went, “Yeah.” He went, “A man moth.” I went, “Not a man moth! What do you mean a man moth?” He went, “Well I thought…” I said, “What were you thinking of when you thought it was a man moth?” He said, “I thought it was a moth with a bloke’s head bumping into a lamp.”
QS: So he went the extra step of putting the man moth within a natural context.
GERVAIS: Yeah. And, he can download his thoughts. You might be right. So he can actually… so he doesn’t have nebulous concepts or symbolism doesn’t matter… he doesn’t understand metaphor and analogy.
QS: Has anyone given him a Rorschach test?
GERVAIS: Well, that would be amazing. Because I think he’d say, “It looks like someone spilled some ink.” I think you might be right, actually.
QS: I would be fascinated if someone actually gave him a Rorschach test, and what his instantaneous response would be. I think you’re right, as well.
GERVAIS: He’ll never be hypnotized. That’s dangerous. He’ll never… I mean it’s incredible what he will and won’t do. But I’ve never met someone who’s so fascinating to talk… down to. I never met anyone who made me feel so clever!
QS: What would Karl as a child have been like?
GERVAIS: I think he was a very intelligent kid. I think one of those inquisitive, always working, always thinking, wanting to make stuff, wanting to take things apart kinds. I think that shows quite a natural intelligence. And I imagine he was like that. I still think he’s intelligent. I still think he’s a very, very original thinker. I think he’s got a real grasp of certain things, but I think you’re right; the more practical something is, the better he is at it. If you said, “Here’s the thing - this is the best way to do it,” I think he’d always be in the top half of the class. I really do think you’re right, actually. I think the more concrete and the more literal… and the more… see, here’s the thing. If it’s actually applicable to a real situation, he’ll do better. There’s a psychological test to prove that. You know the one where they say, “You’ve got some playing cards. There’s four playing cards. Some have blue backs, some have red backs, some are even numbers, some are odd numbers. Even numbers have blue backs.” And it’s, “What cards do you have to turn over to test the theory?” And so, you go, “Well, if you’re just testing that theory, you’d want to test a red card because you’d want to see if that theory was true, and you want to check the backs of even numbers. You don’t have to check the blue ones, because it’s not saying that have to be blue, etc. But that’s quite a… people don’t score very high on that, right? But when you say, “Everyone in this bar has to be over 21 to drink alcohol, what do you test?” Well, you test the people under 21, what they’re drinking, and you test alcoholic drinks. You don’t need to test the soft drinks, and you don’t need to test… and people get that a lot easier, because it’s applicable to a real life rule.
QS: It’s a known context.
GERVAIS: Exactly. So I think you’re right. I think Karl would do those really well. He’d score high. Well, that’s why they teach kids… “If you have three potatoes and I took one away, how many would you have?” Because there’s a fantastic experiment they did with chimpanzees. So they’d have beads, okay? A big pile of beads and a small pile of beads. And the chimp learned that when he chose the small pile of beads, he got a grape. So what one do you want? Small pile. Great. Brilliant at it. When they did it with grapes, he couldn’t not choose the big pile. Even though he didn’t get any, he’d slap his head and go mad, and they’d give him the choice again, he always chose the big pile and missed out on the rewards. Because it was overwhelming. The reality was bigger than the concept. Oh my god, that’s what I should do with Karl! I should do it with money, with beads, and then do it with real money.
QS: Oh, please tell me you’ll do that.
GERVAIS: (laughing) No even I know he’d get that one right.
QS: Oh, come on.
GERVAIS: (laughing) Oh god!
QS: You’ve got a DVD for Fame coming up soon. You gotta have some kind of bonus feature on it with Karl again…
GERVAIS: I’m going to tell Karl, I’m going to say, “I met a journalist who thinks you’re even more stupid than I do.”
QS: Give him my number.
GERVAIS: I’d love you to speak to him.
QS: Are you surprised that he’s become sort of a cult figure? It’s almost like a modern Kilroy.
GERVAIS: I’ve worked my hardest to make sure it happens, and I haven’t stopped yet. In fact, in the latest podcast, the Christmas podcast, I say to people, “Get a picture of Karl Pilkington, and put it up in your window. If you go in a shop, put a big one up.” I want him to be so famous, so people see him on the street and say, “Look at your stupid round, bald head.” And he just went, “Ah, that’ll be good then.”
QS: Has Karl ever been to the United States?
GERVAIS: Yes, he went to L.A. as a holiday, and he went to Ripley’s three times.
QS: What, did he not take it all in on the first trip?
GERVAIS: No, he just wanted to see the two headed goat three times, I think.
QS: And, of course, there’s nothing else in L.A. to do…
GERVAIS: Yeah, I know! (laughing) Yeah! You’re only in a place where it’s 80 degrees every day. And you go into Ripley’s to see some things in jars!
QS: You should tell him there’s a Ripley’s near Dollywood, too.
GERVAIS: (laughing) Yes, he is a phenomenon.
QS: It’s almost a shame that you don’t take a tour of Karl Pilkington’s America. Put him in a car or team him up with someone…
GERVAIS: I can just have a Karl Camp. I would watch a TV show that was just Karl walking around. It’d be amazing.
QS: Do you think Karl leads some kind of secret life, or has some sort of secret desire that no one knows about?
QS: Would anything surprise you at this point?
GERVAIS: No. No, I don’t believe that. I spoke to him the other day. He said, “I got up, and then I was washing up, and then I noticed there was no milk. So I went to the shop.” He went, “I had a conversation with a woman in the corner shop and everything. I came back, I had my breakfast, walked past a mirror…” He had a cotton bud still in his ear. And he went, “So why didn’t she tell me I had a cotton bud in my ear?” I said, “What, you’re angry with someone who didn’t tell you you had a cotton bud stuck in your ear? Surely that’s your responsibility, Karl.” I said, “Well, what did you do that you’re halfway through, something else got your attention, and you didn’t even bother pulling it out before you did whatever… how can you do that? How can you forget there’s a cotton bud in your ear?” Unbelievable.
QS: It’s like profound ignorance.
GERVAIS: (laughing) Yeah it is, yeah.
QS: It’s not lack of an intelligence, it’s just profound ignorance.
GERVAIS: Yeah, it’s incredible. But again, his take on the story, the reason he was telling me that story was how stupid the woman in the shop was for not telling him.
QS: Does Karl believe in angels? He believes in aliens, obviously - they bring monkey brains.
GERVAIS: He believes in aliens. He think’s it’s possible… but you know what, though? Believing in aliens is not the same as believing in ESP and God and ghosts and that, because at least… my concession to Karl is that it’s possible. It’s possible with aliens. I just say it’s improbable.
QS: That they’re seeding monkey brains to create human brains…
GERVAIS: (laughing) Yeah! It’s so insane. “Well how did they survive?” “They just did.” I’d love him to write a book on science.
QS: I would just love to know what happens when the brains land.
GERVAIS: Yeah, how do they get in there?
QS: Are these empty headed humans walking around going, “Oh, this’ll fit.”
GERVAIS: Yeah, that’s it - he said they got in somehow. They got in “somehow.” Yeah, I’m sure they did, Karl.
QS: It’d be great to actually have him teach a science course.
GERVAIS: It’s be amazing, wouldn’t it?
QS: Sit him down with a book and give him a lesson plan that a teacher would have during the year, and say, “Okay, now you instruct the class.”
GERVAIS: Him and Stephen Hawking, in discussion.
QS: Why hasn’t anyone arranged that yet?
GERVAIS: I don’t know.
QS: Stephen would probably do it.
GERVAIS: You’ve got a lot of clout, haven’t you?
QS: Oh, yeah, sure.
GERVAIS: Doesn’t he live over there? Where is Stephen Hawking? Oh, he lives in England, doesn’t he?
QS: Well, he divides his time.
GERVAIS: I know Matt Groening could get him.
QS: You set the two of them down. If you could meet Larry David, you could easily have Karl meet Stephen Hawking.
GERVAIS: So I did a show, and Stephen Hawking came on to present an award I was getting…
QS: This was the British Comedy Awards…
GERVAIS: That’s right, yeah. Stephen Hawking was there, and it took a little bit of time for him to do the thing.
QS: Who knew he’d go long?
GERVAIS: (laughing) Well, Karl said he’s got to get broadband.(laughing)
QS: It was an awkward joy to see Matt Groening standing there, desperately trying not to look at his watch.
GERVAIS: Well, I mentioned it. I went up and said, “You know, he may be a genius, but he’s got to have it ready.”
QS: I noticed even in his moment of triumph, you had to make Steve’s British Comedy Award all about you…
GERVAIS: How do you know so much about England?
QS: The beauty of the internet age.
GERVAIS: Oh wow.
QS: So, watching shows like Jonathan Ross all the time. I’m surprised Jonathan never made a go in the U.S. …
GERVAIS: Yeah, I had to get in the fact that it’s such a chavvy program, isn’t it? It really is.
QS: It’s like a more erudite, intelligent Graham Norton.
GERVAIS: Jesus, that’s… oh my god, that’s damning. Being less intelligent and erudite than the British Comedy Awards. Jesus Christ. That’d be the worst thing you could ever say about someone, I think.
QS: The weird thing about the British Comedy Awards, is I love seeing the portion when the award goes to an American. Groening will call out the provincial nature of the British comedy scene, and I forgot who called it out last year, by saying, “Who are you people?”
GERVAIS: Oh, Matt Groening did a great line. “I’ve never been in a room with so many famous people I’ve never heard of.” Classic. Brilliant. Because that’s how I see the perception of my peers.
QS: It’s almost like viewing this sort of Petri dish of entertainment. “Who are Ant & Dec? Oh, Okay.”
GERVAIS: The thing is for me I think it’s easy to become famous in England. The leveler is, can you cut it, can you make it global, can you do a product that travels…
QS: All you have to do is make it onto the new edition of Big Brother and you’re famous in the UK.
GERVAIS: Yeah, exactly. It’s easy to become famous, isn’t it?
QS: As long as you’re on shows like 8 Out Of 10 Cats…
GERVAIS: Oh my gosh, shivers down my spine that you’ve heard of all these things.
QS: That’s what I say about trying to introduce the US audience to various shows. I’m surprised you’ve never been on a show like QI, which would seem like a good venue for you…
GERVAIS: I like it. I do like that show. But the reason I don’t do it is because I think… well one I don’t want to pop up on telly too much unless I actually have to. I did the British Comedy Awards because they told me Stephen had won. The truth is, I could have stayed here for it, but I thought, “Any excuse to get out of the country…” (laughing)
QS: I love how you’re treating it like a small town…
GERVAIS: I do.
QS: It’s like, “I’ve got to get to the big city.”
GERVAIS: I lived in Redding, and I had to make it to London, but now I feel…
QS: “This country, it’s a bit too provincial for me…”
GERVAIS: (laughing) Exactly, yeah. England’s about as big as Maine, isn’t it?
QS: “I hear there’s something across water that’s really big and inviting. It’s fast.”
GERVAIS: But you know, some people don’t think that way. The ones that do, they sort of go to America and try and make it. But they’re trying to make on their own terms, as opposed to just coming out with a product that’s universal. It’s very strange… but then again, we’ve got a different attitude, really. Americans are brought up to believe they can become the president of the United States, and we’re told, “Don’t be so silly. Get a load of you.”
QS: Do you think that, in the UK, the audiences don’t dispose of entertainers as quickly? It seems in the US we seem to cycle through entertainers very quickly and forget about them, whereas in the UK, it seems like people can have much longer careers…
GERVAIS: That’s strange, because I think the opposite. I think that entertainers here have a shelf life of a couple of years, and then if they hang around there’s no excitement about them, they just hang on.
QS: It seems you can make a career out of just appearing on panel shows in the UK.
GERVAIS: Absolutely… absolutely, yeah. There’s no distinction… I see things that, when they come on, they’re the biggest thing for a year. And it changes every single year. Then they come up with something not as good as the first thing they did, then they do the other thing they did again, and they do another special, and they go, “Oh, we’re back…” but we’ve moved on now. It usually happens to people that will sort of do anything, and try and widen the demographic. Particularly with comedy, as soon as you get seven year olds liking your comedy, I just think we’re doing something wrong.
QS: Obviously you’ve followed that model of moving on as quickly as you can and not dwelling… Steve mentioned that Extras is pretty much sealed at this point, right?
GERVAIS: Yeah, we’re not gonna do another one. Yeah. We’re gonna move on.
QS: And the podcast is on moratorium.
GERVAIS: I think the podcast… we’ll definitely come back with another couple of specials of podcast but we’ll leave it a while. There’d be no reason to stop that, because it’s not like we’ve got global saturation with podcast. It’s still very cult, and it’s still very nice, and we still enjoy it. We might do another couple over the next year or we might do ten over the next two years. Who knows? But we’re gonna leave it for a while. Extras, I think, is almost certainly complete now. Although there is talk of a possible US remake.
GERVAIS: Yeah, that’s the best of both worlds for me. You do your piece, it’s totally yours, and you put everything you’ve got into that project. Exhaust yourself, exhaust the pile, and then someone else takes that and runs with it, and that’s great. It’s brilliant. I love the American Office. I love what they’ve done with it. I love how they keep me involved as, like, an honorary member of the team. It’s all their work after the initial few months and that initial episode and the one we wrote, it’s been all theirs. It’s a joy. It’s great. It lives on. It’s like reincarnation.
QS: So, you do believe in angels.
GERVAIS: Steve Carell is an angel. That’s what my bank manager said.
QS: Or he’s a ghost.
QS: Does the UK Office exist within the same universe as the U.S. Office? Is there a Slough office across the ocean in that universe?
GERVAIS: Well, that was what we tried to do. When they sat down and Ben Silverman met me, he just had a coffee with me. I’d never heard of him. He just said, “I love the show. I’d love to remake it.” I never thought it would be remade, and everything that had ever gone before The Office since about 1975 has been an abysmal failure. I think the last two successful things were All in the Family and Sanford and Son, wasn’t it?
GERVAIS: Just abysmal…
QS: They tried Men Behaving Badly here in the U.S. and that failed.
GERVAIS: Coupling… all these things, you know? And so I thought, “Yeah, fine.” I kept to a distance, but I did realize that we were asked to direct it. They wanted me to even be in it at one point, and I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. Why would I do that?” So I knew it had to be by Americans for Americans. It was the right thing to do, and they seemed to be doing everything right. So no, it’s great.
QS: Do you ever see Steve Carell bumping into David Brent at a paper convention at some point?
GERVAIS: You know what? Again, I’m never gonna say never, and if I ever did bring David Brent back, it would be a tiny little in-joke in the American Office. I wanted him to be watching Extras. I want him to be watching Extras and for him to go, “I like this guy.” And I want Steve Carell to go, “Meh. He’s not so good.” Or maybe he could go, “Yeah, I don’t like this version. They should do an American version. I’d be good at that.”
QS: What I find interesting, is can you think of any instance… I was wracking my brain, besides game shows, to think of any instances of a US show translated to the UK.
GERVAIS: Uh… Jesus. I just think we think, “What’s the point?” I mean, I don’t know why Americans have to have a remake anyway.
QS: Well remember, we’re the ones who remade Fawlty Towers with Cloris Leachman.
GERVAIS: They’ve had a couple of goes at that, haven’t they?
QS: Yeah. One was with John Larroquette, from Night Court.
GERVAIS: I’d love to see an English 24. It would be a lot slower, and go, “Look, we’ve got plenty of time, don’t worry about it.”
QS: Isn’t that essentially MI-5?
GERVAIS: Yeah. It’s funny, ’cause I was speaking to Joel Surnow. I went down there, I just did a little thing for the gag reel. I’d spoke to him. His phone cut out. He called me back. My phone cut out. I phoned him back and I said, “This doesn’t happen in fucking 24, does it?”
QS: Well, just wait til you see the end of this season. I hear hour 23 is all just him walking around going, “Can you hear me now?”
GERVAIS: (laughing) Right! “Look - text me.”
QS: “No, I’m not going through a tunnel. Do you have a landline?”
GERVAIS: “So annoying.”
QS: If you had the desire or ability to want to remake a US show, is there any that you love enough that you would say, “I’d like to have a go at that kind of comedy?”
GERVAIS: It would have to be one that no one’s ever heard of over here and never would, because I’d just think, “What’s the point?” Why remake a great show, and why remake a bad show? I don’t know, really.
QS: With that logic there would be no U.S. Office.
GERVAIS: No, but it’s a bit different that we accept everything American, whereas Americans, I think they accept everything American, too.
QS: Well, see, we’re exactly alike.
GERVAIS: Is it true that 90% of Americans don’t have passports?
QS: I believe that is absolutely true.
GERVAIS: That’s amazing. That’s amazing. But you know what? America is pretty much the world.
QS: The way I look at that is, you can almost understand it, based on the size of the country…
GERVAIS: Well, exactly. You don’t really need to go… what do you need…
QS: And trust me, if you go to Texas, it is like another country.
GERVAIS: Well, exactly. And people in England go abroad because they want to get a bit of sun, or they want a different climate. They don’t want to particularly meet Spanish people. We’re the worst. We go abroad and we just point and talk louder. There’s no… we learn “beer” in four different languages. That’s really it.
QS: We’re the ones walking around with the books trying to be multicultural and failing miserably, with the Canadian flags on our back.
GERVAIS: (laughing) Yeah.
QS: Because we may be fat, but we’re not stupid.
GERVAIS: Are Americans more hated than English people now in the world, do you think?
QS: I think that the tenor of conversation if you identify yourself as American is different, yes.
GERVAIS: Wow. All I can say is thank god for the French. (laughing)
QS: The only thing worse than the French are the French Canadians.
GERVAIS: I’m half French Canadian, so I’m in trouble there.
QS: Well it’s only half, so you’ve somehow diluted it out. No, the pure French Canadians are the ones that manage to take the ego of the French and multiply it.
GERVAIS: And put it in a much bigger country! (laughing)
QS: Literally, it’s a sad little world to enter into. Have you ever been back to Quebec?
GERVAIS: No, I’ve only been to Vancouver for three days, with Mr. Stiller. This sums up my first Hollywood film… They flew me and my girlfriend over. First class. Put us up in the best hotel in Vancouver. Went to the set. There, I’m in this huge trailer. Ridiculous. Shawn Levy comes over and goes, “Hi folks! Great to have you here. Is everything okay? Is your trailer okay?” I went, “Oh my god. The trailer’s bigger than my hotel room.” He said, “Do you want a bigger hotel room?” I could get used to that sort of treatment. That’s the problem, isn’t it? I went, “No, it’s huge! No, they’re brilliant! They’re great!”
QS: That’s a problem I could get used to.
GERVAIS: That’s the problem with us English. We walk into a trailer and we go, “Oh my god, all this for me? I’m embarrassed. This is terrible.”
QS: The great difference, if you go to France as an English speaker, is they’ll look down at you because they don’t deign to learn English.
GERVAIS: Well, why should they?
QS: The French Canadians, though - they know English, and they refuse to speak it.
GERVAIS: They did learn it, that’s the difference. English people didn’t even learn it - we just think “No, no - they can learn it. (laughing)
QS: Has Karl been abroad? He’s been to Spain before…
GERVAIS: No, he’s been abroad, yeah.
QS: How does Karl act? Is he one of the loud talkers or does he just kind of exist?
GERVAIS: I can’t imagine Karl acting differently in any situation. I honestly can’t. It wouldn’t matter if he was in space. He’d go, “Huh?”
QS: But for someone who is so profoundly uninterested in learning new things, what does he get out of it…
GERVAIS: He’s not, though. He’s fascinated with the things he’s fascinated with, and that’s it. He can’t get enough of insects, and he can’t get enough of aliens, and he’s fascinated with theories and…
QS: Do cultures intrigue him?
GERVAIS: He’s not interested in any form of anything artistic or cultural. He thinks it’s ridiculous.
QS: So a trip through the Louvre would be lost on him.
GERVAIS: I think I could get him into anything. I think I could get him into something. I’d just have to find the right angle. I feel like I’m in one of those schmaltzy films about teachers who turn ’round inner city kids by talking to them in rap.
QS: You realize that you’ve just about remade Pygmalion.
GERVAIS: I’ve thought about that.
QS: My Fair Karl.
GERVAIS: I’ve thought about that. Yeah, Pilkmalion. I’ve actually thought that would be amazing to do. But what could I pass him off as?
QS: I don’t know. Have you tried putting hair on him?
GERVAIS: I wouldn’t pass him off… it wouldn’t be a class thing. I’d pass him off as a great thinker.
QS: You know what the thing is, though?
GERVAIS: He already is.
QS: I think he’s so eccentric that he could very easily be passed off as, like, a college professor.
GERVAIS: I think I’d have to have him talk about… no, it’d have to be something hard. It’s have to be something like…
QS: Like String Theory?
GERVAIS: No, not that, he could get caught out straight away. That would be impossible. He’d actually have to learn.
QS: What about insect behavior?
GERVAIS: What about philosophy? Where we teach him to say, “I don’t have a formal philosophy. Don’t give me Plato, don’t give me Kant, there’s all flaws in that.” And then they’d just say, “Well, what do you think about so and so?” He goes, “What do you mean, exactly?”
QS: Or, “That is the question.”
GERVAIS: He’d put it back to them, like, “Right, ask that question again as if you’re asking a 10 year old child without a brain.” So it’d look like he was teaching them to ask the question correctly.
QS: Oh, that’d be brilliant.
GERVAIS: That’s what he’d have to say. He’d give them a get-out - “Now, ask that question again. Now, you’re coming from a very educated middle class point of view there. Now, ask that question again like you’re talking to a retarded ten year old.”
QS: “Have you really thought this through?”
GERVAIS: (laughing) Make them look like an idiot. Just make them always feel like the idiot.
QS: I think you could pull that off.
GERVAIS: It would always leave on a poignant matter…
QS: But the thing is, if you took Karl, taught him that, and took him to like an American college where they hadn’t heard of him on the podcast or anything, you could sit him down in front of a philosophy class and it would work…
GERVAIS: Give him a fake CV the night before. Make up an award that he’s been given for things he’s doing… make up some amazing quotes…
QS: “He’s a fellow from so-and-so university in the UK. We brought him over here to give a lecture to the class.”
GERVAIS: And it’s called Free Your Mind. I love it.
QS: I think you can pull that off.
GERVAIS: I really would like Karl to talk to you. I mean, for the sake of it.
QS: I would love to do a nice big feature on him.
GERVAIS: I’ll tell him. In fact, I’ll make him.
QS: And like I said, get him out in front of the US audience a bit more.
GERVAIS: He won’t do that. I want to bring him on stage and just ask him questions, and he was going, “No, no.” He went, “Ridiculous.”
QS: Now, if you bring him in front of that U.S. philosophy class…
GERVAIS: That would be so much fun. Maybe as a DVD extra.
QS: There are plenty of colleges in the U.S. to bring him to. Bring him to a nice Midwestern one.
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