If you were to view Ricky Gervais’ entire oeuvre, you could start in the morning and be done by dinner. There is not much: two television series, a cameo appearance in films here and there, one starring role in the movie “Ghost Town.”
But what little we have on document is clear: Gervais may be one of his generation’s greatest comic minds.
Exhibit A: “The Office” (the BBC version, of course) - 12 episodes and a Christmas special of pitch-perfect character studies, set in the most mundane of settings. And what makes it so brilliant isn’t the cringe-inducing and oft-uproarious dialogue, it’s that it’s a love story at heart. And this is what Gervais tells us is his approach to comedy: empathy. Only when we feel for the characters, can we laugh at them.
With a DVD of his HBO special “Ricky Gervais: Out of England” released this week, the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning writer, actor and director spoke to us from his London home.
Q. Besides specific cultural references, do you find any differences in the humor sensibilities of Americans and the British?
A. There aren’t. The differences between Americans and the English don’t exist per se. The bigger difference, really, is circumstance and environment.
There are some things Americans champion. There’s a more straight-down-the-line honesty with Americans. British do things more camp and sarcastic than Americans do. Americans aim for and celebrate success more. We (British) celebrate the underdog more. Americans are told they can be the next president of the United States, and you know what? They can. We’re told it won’t happen to you. And you know what? It doesn’t.
Q. So would you say the British sense of humor is rooted in cynicism?
A. Yes. We talk about the rain because it rains. We talk about things not working out well, because, hey, sometimes they don’t. But there’s this optimism that Americans have that the English don’t have. It’s glass half full and half empty. And Americans see the good in everything.
Q. People seem to recognize the notion of funny when they see or hear it. But it’s hard to articulate what makes something funny.
A. I think in general the most important thing in comedy is empathy. We’re human. The very first joke was a caveman stubbing his toe and everyone laughed. And they laughed because they knew he didn’t mean to do that. Something happened they didn’t expect.
Comedy shouldn’t just be a reflex. There are comedians out there who do one-liners, and they can throw in a fake punch line and you’d still laugh, because you’re laughing at their rhythm. I couldn’t laugh at someone I don’t like. There are comedians out there who are just unlikable. And I think there’s no room for machismo. I don’t want a comedian who comes out and tells me how he outwitted the world or how much better he is than me. I want someone (to go) out there and tell me, “I’ve had a bad day too.”
Q. Is this why your podcasts have been so successful? Because people empathize with your co-star/punching bag Karl Pilkington?
A. There I play the villain. I play the bloke who purposefully sets himself up for a fall. I’m playing the rich, educated man who’s frustrated with his stupidity.
But he always wins. Because he’s bulletproof, he’s untouchable, and he doesn’t laugh. I laugh at him. He wins.
Q. Your podcasts had set a Guinness record for most downloads. It seems as if you’re enjoying these audio shows.
A. That’s probably my favorite thing I do at the moment. From a fun point of view, there’s nothing more fun than chatting to Karl for two hours. Poking him, goading him, ridiculing him and then laughing at the things that he says. It’s honestly a joy. I don’t know if you have this phrase in America, “Money for old rope.” It means that when you almost feel guilty, because it hasn’t cost you anything. As a business plan, it’s too good to be true.
Q. It seems your shows and films aren’t just funny for the sake of being funny. They have story, conflicts and resolutions, dramatic tension, narrative arcs built in, but with the thread of humor.
A. Comedy, when decapitated, doesn’t resonate. We cut jokes out of “The Office” because we thought it would interfere with the love story, or the realism. In the long run we knew the payback would be bigger in keeping people caring. ... Sometimes there are bigger emotions than a knee-jerk laugh.
Q. Have you watched every episode of the American remake of “The Office?”
A. I’ve probably watched every episode of Series 1 and 2, but now I probably watch one in three. I watched two on the plane this time of the last series.
Q. Your version only ran 12 episodes. This season finale of the U.S. “Office” will make it 100 episodes total. Does having an open-ended series hurt the storytelling?
A. It makes it more difficult. When you’ve got a finite arc, it’s by definition more conclusive. You get out on top. The love story alone is hard to keep going. Will they, won’t they? Yes they have. That’s the end of that.
But they haven’t been a slave to the realism or the fake documentary either, which you can’t be, because you’re thinking, “Why are they still filming there? Why is there a film camera following him on the bus?” That was the single most important thing for us, because it told us why the characters were acting like that. And ours was much more about characters thrown together. And this is more a traditional sitcom than ours ever was.
Q. What’s the last thing that made you laugh?
A. You can ask me that every day, and the answer will always be Karl Pilkington. Or Elmo. I’ve watched that clip with Elmo (being interviewed with Gervais) about 20 times. Elmo is my new best friend. And working with “Sesame Street” is the highlight of my career now. There’s no more ambiguity. Is it the Globes? Is it De Niro? Is it David Bowie? Is it “The Simpsons”? No.