Let's start at the beginning — for the sub-rock dwellers, or those who've spent the past decade or so in an Amish community. Ricky Dean Gervais. Born in Reading, England. Worked as a music manager and had a brief stab at pop fame himself in a band called Seona Dancing. He eased into comedy. He had an idea for a TV show based on his experiences working in an office. He called it ... The Office. What else is there to say? He's 55. His star-sign is Cancer. He's ... "What are you? Six one? Six two?"
* Listen to Mike Hosking's interview with Ricky Gervais here.
Gervais laughs. It's a boyish shriek, like a schoolboy on crack. I'm sure, unless you actually are from an Amish community, you know exactly the laugh I'm talking about.
He often ends a big laugh with a kind of sigh, "Uuuuuuhhhhh" — like what's just happened is the funniest thing that's happened to anyone. "No, I'm six-four. I'm wearing nine-inch lifts, though ... Like Tom Cruise."
Talking to Gervais always feels like a holiday from the normal celebrity interview. He meets you alone — no minders — and dives at length into any subject without prodding. He doesn't have "no-go" subjects (at least none that I could find. I didn't ask him about his love-life, or his last prostate exam. Though I feel like if I did he'd be fine with it.)
For this chat we mostly talked about Fame. That's Fame with a capital F. The kind of Fame that makes you a household name and gets you guest spots on The Simpsons.
"Last time we chatted was in 2009. I was fresh off the boat from New Zealand, and you had some very interesting things to tell me about Fame."
"I wonder if I still think them."
"Exactly. I asked you what was good about being famous, and you said ... "
"Getting a table in a restaurant."
"You said priority boarding."
"Yeah! The first time you do it you think, 'Everyone's gonna hate me'. The next time, you think, 'Where's that woman who walks us through?'"
The main thing that's changed, Gervais says, is that he doesn't fear Fame anymore. Which is a surprising thing to hear. It's hard to imagine him fearing anything. His characters, his whole persona, is based upon a kind of comic fearlessness. He does what he does. And if you don't like it?
"If you don't like it you can f*** off."
There you go. But still, he admits that back at the start, Fame made him anxious.
"I never called the press and said, 'Make me famous and you can go through my bins.' I had to lay the law down. Don't ring my f-ing buzzer. Don't try to ask my family questions on a Sunday morning. Because I'm not that type. There's nothing there. I don't roll out of clubs coked off my head. I'm not doing anything illegal. I set the boundaries, and I think people have mostly respected that."
This year — a year in which Fame gifted us a parody of itself with the presidential campaign of reality TV star Donald Trump — Gervais is resurrecting his own absurdist alter ego. In David Brent: Life on the Road, we find the title character much where he was: working as a salesman for a company who sells bathroom products to companies. But Brent still craves Fame, and he still believes he has the spark of musical genius in him. "Live fast, die old" is the movie's strapline, and Brent's attempts to live out that motto as a rock star are as cringe-inducing as you're probably imagining right now.
Brent decides to embark on an all-or-nothing tour to bring his music to the masses. (Or, more accurately, to the small part of the masses who live within a few square miles of his home.) He has assembled a band of young, talented musicians called ... Foregone Conclusion. But these lads are unwilling accomplices in his quest to turn his dreams into reality. So Brent is forced to pay them to go on tour. And, of course, a fly-on-thewall camera crew comes along for the ride. Brent hopes they'll capture something similar to what Martin Scorsese got when he filmed the Rolling Stones. Instead, they document the ritual humiliation of a man who has only managed to turn his dreams into delusions. In one of many tough-to-watch scenes, Brent has to pay his bandmates to have a beer with him after a show. "Yeah. When you're in a rock band you don't want to be seen with a 55-year-old rep as your lead singer," says Gervais. "So they just go, 'Well this is a paid job, he's a dickhead, we're just gonna do our job.' He is his own worst enemy. But he's not being a nasty person. He's not Hitler. He's showing off.
He's almost got child rights."
What's interesting about this movie is how much empathy you're forced to feel for a character who, historically, has been one of the easiest to hate.
When he was a middle manager at a paper firm he had status. "It's easy to laugh at someone with status," I say.
"But in this film Brent has lost all his status."
"Exactly. He was the boss and he should have known better. He was showing off. And basically the other people were quite nice. Now he's 55, he's selling tampon dispensers, he's got no status, and he's no longer even the most awful person in the room. But he hasn't changed. He's doing the same thing." The world has changed around him, and around Gervais. Back when he wrote The Office his biggest influence — "Well, apart from working in an actual office" — was 90s docu-soaps.
"The ones where a normal person got their '15 minutes', and afterwards they had a DVD to show their kids.
Fun. Now it's different, now it's insatiable.
I used to think reputation was important. Now I just think reputation is what strangers think of you. Character is who you really are.
Now it's people getting on The Apprentice for saying, 'I'll destroy anyone who stands in my way.' It's fame eating itself. There's now no difference between fame and infamy.
And David Brent today is actually quite a nice guy relative to the rest of the world. Now he's this nice guy who's out of touch with the world he's in. He's Terminator 1 in a world of Terminator 2s."
There's two book-end scenes from David Brent's life. The first is the scene from The Office where he dances his weird, robot-armed dance while his staff look on, shocked. The second, from this new movie, has him dancing alone in a nightclub after
another hopeless performance.
"And they're so different," says Gervais.
"Because in the first he was just trying to get attention and showing off, because his nemesis had done a dance. And here he's just drunk and enjoying himself. There's lots of little moments where we see how he's changed."
GERVAIS HIMSELF has become a bit of a polarising figure lately. After The Office, and Extras, he seemed bullet-proof. But a couple of recent projects have left fans underwhelmed. There are some who think he's used up all his chances — as if that's a thing that, a) exists, and b) we, as fans, have any say in. Others think that for The Office alone he should get a lifetime pass.
"I think if you're doing anything interesting you must polarise," Gervais says. "And people who like you, they like people not liking you 'cause it makes them feel smart. And the people who don't like you hate people liking you. People who don't like you don't want anyone to like you."
He doesn't bother trying to keep up with who likes him and who doesn't. He just tries to be funny. There'll always be an audience if you're funny.
"Growing up, I was attracted to funny people, and I didn't care whether I was making them laugh, or they were making me laugh. Because at the end of the day you're both laughing. It doesn't matter why you're laughing. It doesn't matter why you're laughing!
"That should be my f***ing motto!"
And if you look back with an unbiased eye, you'll see that Gervais has been polarising from the very beginning. There were plenty of people who hated The Office. There were plenty who found his stand-up comedy offensive. He has always faced the challenge of being a massively popular writer/performer who writes and performs some fairly niche material.
"I think I confuse a lot of people. I think people come to my stand-up and think, 'He's the nice person I saw on Jimmy Fallon. And now he's talking about famine and cancer.' If you get really big, if you're filling arenas, then half of them are gonna be there without ever having seen your stand-up. They like Derek, or they like Night at the Museum. It's a funny duality: becoming this famous just doing your own thing."
And as for the trolls ...
"No teenager living in his parents' basement can affect the life of a person floating on a lilo in his own pool. If someone way back had said to me: 'Okay. Ricky, you're nearly 40. You have an average job. Soon you're going to be incredibly famous, and have money beyond what you could ever imagine, and be friends with Bowie, but every so often some blogger is going to say something mean about you. Do you want it or not?' ... Yes!"
And the paparazzi?
"I used to think it was so important to correct people when they said something that was untrue. I used to think reputation was important. Now I just think reputation is what strangers think of you.
Character is who you really are.
"I used to think a bad review meant there'd be everyone agreeing with it with burning pitchforks. Now it doesn't hurt me. I've gone through it and come out the other end thinking, who cares? I don't care now whether people like my face, or my films, or my laugh. "I used to worry about a bad paparazzi photo. Now I take pictures in the bath looking as ugly as I can!"
The primary human goal is to belong. Fame is a goal for most people because it lets us belong to the biggest group of people possible. And it's a tough road for someone, like David Brent, who's seeking fame because they feel like they don't fit in. Brent thinks he wants to be famous, but is it really that all he wants is to belong?
"It's about belonging, that's exactly right. He wants the world to know he's a nice guy. Whereas if he just got on with it ... because he is a nice guy. He's just confused. His life didn't turn out like he thought. It's so sad. You want to hug him, but you also want to slap him and say, 'Stop worrying about what people think! Stop worrying about the cameras! It doesn't f***ing matter!' You just want to shake him and say, "You're all right! You're all right!'"
"The character of David Brent sounds very real to you," I tell him. "Like you're talking about an actual living person."
"Oh he is! He's part of me now, and he's part of everyone. Everyone's got a little bit of Brent in them."
DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD OPENS ON SEPTEMBER 1.