’Ego is hilarious—especially the vanity of a comedian,” says Ricky Gervais. “As soon as you see one start worrying about how cool he is or about how many stadiums he can fill, he stops being funny.” Gervais has made a career out of ego-tweaking, from his breakthrough British hit The Office (which spawned the American version, as well as a host of foreign-language counterparts like Le Bureau and La Job) to his record-breaking gabfest podcast “The Ricky Gervais Show” (three million downloads in its first three months, and about to become an HBO show). It’s made Gervais if not the funniest man alive, then a pretty good imitation of him. On November 5, he headlines the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. “It’s soon, isn’t it?” he asks. “The pressure is on! I know, I’ll just eat more.”
You’ve done stand-up shows on politics, fame, science, and animals. Why the big subjects?
I like the ironic pomposity of a stand-up comedian. Like all those comedians thinking they can bring down Coca-Cola. They forget to be funny. I wanna go: “You’re in the wrong job here, you should be running for office and you’ve got drunks watching you.”
You’ve always had comedy rules, even from the first episode of The Office.
It was actually the first comedy about comedy. It was about a man who thought he was funny and wasn’t. We ridiculed catchphrases, we ridiculed people doing impressions of other comedians, we got all these things off our chests.
What are your rules for stand-up?
I don’t do one-liners, because you don’t learn anything about that comedian. All I know is that he reads the paper, and he goes through phrase books, and tries to get to a punch line with the most economic amount of words he can to elicit a reflex.
What can we expect at Carnegie Hall?
I’ll probably annoy the Christians again, deconstruct the story of Noah …
You’re referring to the Evangelical Christian blowback over your recent film The Invention of Lying.
In America, the big thing was “Why didn’t they put ‘Warning: Atheist Propaganda’ in the trailer?” Well, why don’t they say “Warning: Assumes the Existence of God” on It’s a Wonderful Life?
What was the reaction in England?
The British didn’t care. We don’t believe in anything.
Was your sitcom Extras a way to come to terms with your own celebrity?
I’m quite disciplined. I don’t do celebrity this and celebrity that, because I think it’s degrading living your life like an open wound. And even as much as you say no to things, you’re out there all the time. During the British run of The Office, the newspapers would do a survey of office furniture, and there would be a picture of me. My favorite was when a woman took her boss to court for sexual harassment, and went, “He was creepy like David Brent!” On the cover of the paper was a big picture of me.
Tell me about the new HBO show.
We’re animating the podcasts I do with Steve Merchant and Karl Pilkington. In Karl, the world’s getting a new Homer Simpson. They are both blissfully happy with themselves, incredibly stupid, lovable, and often sort of arrogantly in the wrong. I remember trying to explain evolution to Karl and he went: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve got the gist: It went germ, fish, mermaid, man.”
He’s really the star of the podcasts.
I’m like Anthony Hopkins in Karl’s favorite film, The Elephant Man, exposing Karl to the world. There’s a bit where Hopkins is saying, “The only thing that isn’t deformed is the genitals.” And Karl went, “Think about that: The one part you would want like an elephant.”
You remind me of Laurel and Hardy.
They set the template 100 years ago and rarely has it been improved upon. You know, scientists think the first joke was a caveman laughing at someone who hit their head, because the caveman knew through his own experience that the other guy didn’t want or expect it to happen, and that’s why it’s funny. Comedy is about misdirection and surprise, but mainly it’s about empathy. I have been blessed with being able to play the putz because we basically root for the underdog.
People keep trying to build viral hits and failing. You can’t seem to help but go viral. What’s your secret?
Everything is a labor of love. Flanimals, the kids’ book series that we’re developing as a movie, I made up to make my nephew laugh. The podcast started because I wanted to get Karl in a room and prod him. I worked in an office for seven years and had a big bag of observations and thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to try and make your favorite sitcom?
Unlike a lot of comedians, you enjoy talking about making comedy. You seem to take it very seriously.
I do take it seriously. Making people laugh is easy for me. I’m quite proud of that. But I’m prouder of silencing an audience for a minute because they’re thinking about something. I use comedy as a Trojan horse, to deliver other things. And I try and make stories that take characters on an emotional journey. All of my favorite comedies have done that.
Your next film, Cemetery Junction, is more of a drama. Is that harder?
Oh no, it’s a breeze. A much harder dive was The Invention of Lying, where I tried to do a traditional romantic Hollywood comedy but with a very subversive look at life and death, religion, truth. Cemetery Junction is about a group growing up in a small town. It has funny bits, but you wouldn’t say your life is a comedy—your life is a drama. I grew up in Reading, where the film is set, so it’s me trying to talk about my memories. For instance, there’s a line that my mom said to me when I was 18 and I was going to France: “What do you want to go there for? There’s parts of Reading you haven’t seen.” That sort of sums up the film.
You’ve said there are better comics in the U.S. than in Britain. Who?
Louis C.K. does the best stand-up in America. I discovered him on YouTube and immediately cast him in The Invention of Lying. He’s honest and brave, he’s audacious, but he’s fucking bald, so I win. I’ve got hair.
Don’t you have an apartment here?
After I shot Ghost Town, I fell in love with the Upper East Side, so I bought a bit of the set. Have you ever seen them let out cows in the spring from the barn and they roll in the grass like they can’t believe it? That’s like me and New York. There’s something spiritual about it, really, and I’m an atheist. It must be the architecture. No, it’s not, is it? It’s the people, the limitless sense of potential. I love England, but it’s fifty-fifty.
Woody Allen’s been working in Europe for years. You love New York. Can we broker a trade, like the Yankees: Woody for you?
I don’t think anyone could replace the man who brought modern comedy to the cinema, but New York is the greatest city in the world, so I’d happily be your second best. There, I’ve said it. New York is the greatest city in the world.