'There'll always be someone offended by a joke', says Ricky Gervais as After Life returns
Ricky Gervais knows full well that some people might be offended by his comedy.
But the Reading-born star (famous for hit shows such as The Office, Derek and Extras) is never going to filter himself - especially when performing on stage.
“If you don’t like it, you can leave,” the 58-year-old says matter-of-factly. I’ve not broken the law. I warn people. I played for 800,000 people - not one complained.
“It goes on Netflix (his stand-up special Humanity launched on the streaming service in 2018) and people take a little bit out of context.
“I could take every bad bit out and put that out, and I’d get as many complaints, because they’ll find something.
“You can’t make a joke that someone, somewhere, won’t find offensive, so you shouldn’t try.”
That’s where the idea for Gervais’ most recent series - dark comedy After Life - came from.
The Netflix show, which is about to return for a second run later this month, follows journalist Tony (played by Gervais), who is suicidal following the death of his wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman).
With only his pet dog to live for, he says and does whatever he wants, as he no longer cares about what happens to him.
“I didn’t want to make it a vigilante thing; I wanted it to be real and I wanted it to be a comedy,” explains Gervais, when discussing the concept. “So, I thought, ‘You could say what you wanted’.
“And that came with the beginning of people trying to close down on free speech, and, ‘You shouldn’t offend anyone’.
“So, I thought, ‘That’s perfect. I can create a character that can say all the things that polite people are afraid to say; he’s got nothing to lose’. He can’t be threatened by human resources, ‘cos he goes, ‘I’ll kill myself’.”
In series two, we see Tony decide to try and become a better friend and colleague. He realises that everyone is grappling with their own problems - especially after learning the Tambury Gazette, where he works, faces possible closure.
But he is still really struggling with grief, something Gervais recognises is a universal theme. He says he’s had lots of fans that have shared their own stories of loss with him since watching series one of After Life.
“It might be a week before or a year before, but everyone’s grieving about something, whether it’s your nan when you’re little, or a partner...” he notes. “And that was interesting, because they’d never go up to a stranger and say that, but now they can.”
Has Gervais found writing about Tony a cathartic process? “Yeah. And I think that’s where the comedy came, actually. Even though it was dark, and I wanted people to feel sorry for him and I wanted it to be real...
“I mean, to start a sitcom with a woman in chemo leaving a message and you know she’s dead - that’s not Terry and June. But that’s what also makes you want to root for this man who’s nasty to everyone - even kids.”
The funnyman is referring to a memorable scene in series one when Tony walks past the local school and threatens a kid with a hammer, because he found out they were bullying his nephew (we did say it’s a dark comedy...)
“Parents have told me, ‘The thing with the hammer? I’ve wanted to do that’. “It’s like, if your kid’s being bullied, the rules go out the window,” says Gervais, who has been with his partner, author Jane Fallon, for more than 35 years.
He points out that his “character’s not acting right”; there are many other things Tony says or does which are “terrible”. There are scenes you cannot imagine being allowed in a sitcom normally.
It is why he’s pleased that he’s been able to work with Netflix (having previously made shows for the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky), who said they wouldn’t interfere. Although, he adds, he has always “demanded final edit” anyway, whatever telly project he’s working on.
“To be fair, I can sit here smugly, pontificating about how brave I am and how I get final edit. But I think most people start out and go, ‘Right, I’m going to do something that’s uncompromised’.
“But then someone says, ‘We could put it on at 9 o’clock if you lose that word and you’ll get more viewers’, and they go, ‘OK’. And, ‘Maybe don’t show this’, and soon, it’s good, but it’s got all the stuff taken out of it...”
He continues: “Why are we second guessing what adults can take? People say these things in pubs, at home, to their kids. They say these things all the time, but then someone in charge thinks, ‘Oh no, it will be too much’.”
Yes, Gervais is certainly unafraid to speak his mind (or insult people; he made headlines earlier this year for his controversial jokes about Hollywood’s top talent, when presenting the Golden Globes for the fifth time).
But when I meet him, in autumn 2019, I discover how approachable, gentle and affable he is. Even though he’s got a busy day of filming (he also directs the show), he uses his lunch break to eagerly show us round the set of After Life himself. And, yes, he is just as funny in real life too.
On how he deals with Twitter trolls, he quips: “If you were walking down the road and someone living in a bin, covered in [rubbish], shouted [and swore at you], you’d laugh.And that’s what you’ve got to think about these people - they want a reaction. That’s all they want. They don’t mean any harm; they’ve got nothing against you.”
He recalls how he’s had tweets from people saying they “hated The Office”. “And I look back at their timeline and they’ve tweeted me 50 times before saying they loved The Office - but they didn’t get a reaction,” he continues.
Some social media users are even happy with a negative response from the star. “People used to insult me, and I used to slam them, and they used to go, ‘Oh, cheers, I just got insulted by Ricky Gervais - my hero’,” he says.
“And I think, ‘Why would you do that? If I’m your hero, wouldn’t you rather I thought you were a good bloke?!’ It’s so weird!”
After Life series 2 launches on Netflix on Friday, April 24. Gervais is also scheduled to appear at the First Direct Arena in Leeds on June 12, as part of his Super Nature tour.
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