Repeat offender: New Humanist interviews Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais on his new shows, shock comedy and why God loves him really
What’s your new BBC comedy about?
Life’s Too Short is a fake documentary about a showbiz dwarf who has agreed to let the cameras into his life to turn his fortunes around. Warwick Davis plays a twisted version of himself. He has a massive tax bill, he is going through a messy divorce and the phone has stopped ringing with job offers. It’s not a sitcom about being short at all. It’s a sitcom about a man with a small man complex. He is angry, arrogant, manipulative, selfish and above all fame-hungry.
I suppose I’ve returned to the fake doc format because realism is addictive. But if The Office reflected those quaint docu-soaps of the 1990s that followed ordinary people in ordinary jobs getting their 15 minutes in the limelight, Life’s Too Short reflects the docs of today. Desperate, ruthless monsters living their lives like an open wound in search of another 15 minutes at any cost to dignity and decency.
Do you expect people to be offended? Do you care if they are?
I don’t know why you would ask that question? Is it because the central character is a dwarf? Or is it because you buy into this myth that I am a shock comedian? I’ll just answer the question anyway.
I always expect some people to be offended. I know I ruffle feathers but some people’s feathers need a little ruffling. And remember: just because someone is offended doesn’t mean they’re in the right. Some people are offended by multiculturalism, homosexuality, abortion, atheism – what should we do? Ban all those things? You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you. But no one has the right to never be offended.
I never actively try to offend though. That’s churlish, pointless and frankly too easy. But I believe you should say what you mean. Be honest. No one should ever be offended by truth. That way you’ll never have to apologise. I hate it when a comedian says, “Sorry for what I said.” You shouldn’t have said it. You shouldn’t say it if you didn’t mean it and you should never regret anything you meant to do. As a comedian I think my job isn’t just to make people laugh but also make them think. As a famous comedian I also want a strict door policy on my club. Not everyone will like what I say or find it funny. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are enough comedians who try to please everyone as it is. Good luck to them, but that’s not my game, I’m afraid.
This is not a democracy. No art form is. I love the creative process and I love being a complete dictator when it comes to my work. It’s my way or no way at all. I’m quite Darwinian about it. I do my thing and I survive or I don’t.
Where do you draw the line in your comedy, if you do?
I’m not one of those people who think that comedy is your conscience taking a day off. My conscience never takes a day off and I can justify everything I do. There’s no line to be drawn in comedy in the sense that there are things you should never joke about. There’s nothing that you should never joke about, but it depends what that joke is. Comedy comes from a good or a bad place. The subject of a joke isn’t necessarily the target of the joke. You can make jokes about race without any race being the butt of the joke. Racism itself can be the butt, for example. When dealing with a so-called taboo subject the angst and discomfort of the audience is what’s under the microscope. Our own preconceptions and prejudices are often what are being challenged. I don’t like racist jokes. But not because they are offensive. I don’t like them because they’re not funny. And they’re not funny because they’re not true. They are almost always based on a falsehood somewhere along the way, which ruins the gag for me. Comedy is an intellectual pursuit. Not a platform.
You have another new project, Afterlife. What’s that about?
It’s about an atheist who dies and goes to heaven. I play God by the way. But he’s a slightly different God to the one you may have seen in Bruce Almighty and other Hollywood films. He’s an arrogant, wisecracking son of a bitch, who thinks he’s the best thing since sliced bread. (So another stretch for me as an actor then.) Actually he thinks he’s the best thing ever because, well, he is. (He invented sliced bread by the way.) He also loves welcoming atheists to heaven with a smug grin on his face. He likes atheists deep down though. Or rather he likes good atheists. He admires the fact that they were moral people even though they didn’t believe they would ever be rewarded with everlasting life. It’s not anti-religion, it’s just fun.
What’s it like playing God?
It’s easy. You can do anything. But you mustn’t tell anyone how or why you're doing it. You have to move in mysterious ways.
Did you lose your faith or never have any?
I used to believe in God. The Christian one, that is. (There are a few thousand to choose from. But I was born in a country where the dominant religion was Christianity so I believed in that one. Isn't it weird how that always happens?) Luckily I was also interested in science and nature. And reason and logic. And honesty and truth. And equality and fairness. By the age of eight I was an atheist. (That word shouldn’t even exist. It shouldn’t be needed. But it does. And it is.)
You studied philosophy at university – which philosophical idea has turned out to be most useful?
A few spring to mind. Bertrand Russell said, “No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” That became more profound once I’d become famous. Ha Ha. And I love “There is no god higher than truth” – Mahatma Gandhi.
You say that you have mellowed with age, but you still get angry. What’s making you angry right now?
Only two things make my blood boil. People who think God is on their side and cruelty to animals. Actually that’s not true. About 50 things make my blood boil but they're the only two things that justify it and should instill the same in everyone in my opinion.
Being misquoted or misrepresented in any way annoys me but it’s what I now call a “champagne problem”, not a real problem. I suppose when you first get famous you believe your reputation is everything, and being even slightly maligned really offends you. Then after a while if you’re successful for long enough and you’re still sane you realise that your reputation, as important as that is, is what people who don’t know you think of you. Your character however is who you really are. The people who know you know that. That should be enough really.
You have said that you are just “a cult comedian who got more famous than he should have”. To what do you attribute your success if not divine intervention?
Good point. That’s obviously why. God loves me. And he decided to make me a huge success. That’s why people always thank him when they win an award. It all makes sense now. I’ve been a fool.
Life's Too Short will be broadcast on BBC Two in the autumn, and Afterlife will appear in 2012. You can read Ricky's blog on his website.