Ricky Gervais on Why He Just Won't Shut Up

The loquacious comedian talks politics, finding common ground, and why he's like a rock star.

by Larry Fitzmaurice
13 July 2017, 1:18am

Ricky Gervais likes to talk—a lot. To wit: When we hopped on the phone last week for a quick 15-minute chat, the 56-year-old comedian gave such verbose answers that, midway through, I ended up slashing my list of questions in half. This isn't a bad thing, nor is it to suggest that Gervais's gab-prone tendencies are indicative of any negative personality traits: The veteran funnyguy and maker of many TV shows ( he Office, Extras, Derek) is generous in his loquaciousness, with side-long self-examinations and revealing anecdotes about his long and storied career.

Fittingly, Gervais has been doing a lot of talking lately too: He's currently smack dab in the middle of his first stand-up comedy tour in eight years, Humanity. His last, 2009's Science, was an abbreviated 11-date affair—but the scope of Humanity is much larger, taking Gervais all over the world and bringing him to NYC's famed Madison Square Garden in October. "It's my favorite tour so far—I'm actually loving it," he states in an even tone while tipping his hat to, well, himself. "There's not many comedians that play around the world."

Read on for our conversation about playing to international audiences, politics, and why stand-up comedy seems to be experiencing a resurgence of popularity.

VICE: Do you find that your brand of comedy translates well to audiences that aren't English?
Ricky Gervais: English-speaking crowds are a lot of the world, and my comedy isn't very colloquial. I don't talk about growing up in the 70s in a small town in England, with cultural references about our toys and sweets and cakes. I don't talk about what was on the telly last night. I talk about big issues: war, religion, stupidity, intelligence, love, death. The people I talk about are world famous.

There's no difference in humor. We're all the same underneath—and when it comes to what's funny, comedy is an intellectual pursuit anyway. I try to keep politics out of it. If you're relying on people agreeing with you, then you're losing something comically. I could spend an hour bashing Trump or Brexit, but I don't think I should. What makes a difference is whether or not you've created a smart audience or a dumb audience. I could play to the wrong crowd in England just as easily as I could play the wrong crowd in America. I just try to do intelligent, thought-provoking comedy.

There's no real difference in terms of where I am in the world because they all come to see me, so they're already my crowd. The only thing that makes a difference is the day of the week. I don't like weekends because I don't like people who come out for a drink. I want comedy that cuts through alcohol. I don't want to shout over drunks or hen parties. If people see me in England, it's on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I do weekend gigs in other parts of the world because there's not a culture of getting drunk.

I always say that I know how lucky I am. I can get these people to come out to see me because The Office is shown in 90 countries—and Extras. They already know me. If it wasn't for those shows, I wouldn't have time in my life to build up a cult following to be this big in every country.

You mentioned not wanting to be political. After the election, a lot of American comedians became very political—almost to the point where comedy has taken a back seat for them.
My comedy's never been political, and it still isn't. But until last year, I wasn't political in my private life. Now, I'm political all the time, because I've got to be. I'm political on Twitter. For the last six months, all I've spoken about is the way the world is changing—from Brexit to Trump to the rise of the alt-right—but I still have to keep it out of my comedy. In my show, I say that the world is getting worse. I blame social media for making people think that popularity is more important than being right. They've created their own echo chamber. We're in a post-truth era. People would rather win an argument than be right. Everything I do is about social politics, self-awareness, communication, and intelligence—not party politics.

I didn't like it in the 70s when comedians would come out and be racist—they were relying on like-minded people clapping because they're racist too. I've played the right-wing, uneducated bore in a lot of my shows, and I don't want to do that bit this time because I've realized half the world is actually like that. What's great is that I've been in the business for 15 years—people know the real me, so they can laugh at the irony and satire. You say naughty things to yourself, or your mate, or partner—and I can do that in public now. It's been great.

There's a perception that stand-up is becoming more popular again.
I see it, but it's very different now, too. Traditionally, the stand-up scene was basically people getting their seven minutes wherever there was a couple of scouts from Letterman or The Simpsons. They wanted to get a writing job or their own sitcom. Now, there's much more pride in just doing stand-up—there's much more pride in it. Why do I want to get a little sitcom that might be canceled? I'm selling out in arenas here. There's not much more pride in just being the biggest and best stand-up you can be.

I remember Jerry Seinfeld saying to me years ago, "Why are you doing films? Why are you doing TV? You're a stand-up." He didn't understand that I like to do everything. Jerry thought stand-up, was the Holy Grail. I never saw that because it wasn't in vogue, but now I do think he was right. There's nothing more enjoyable than saying exactly what you think to 10,000 strangers every night. You do what you want. No one interferes. It's the purest art form. It took me this long to appreciate it, and it took me this long to be good.

My first shows, I was pretty good—but now I think I'm really good. I've cracked it. I want to do another sitcom and another movie, but if I had to give something up, it probably would be everything else but stand-up. That's why being a rock star is so appealing. When you're an actor, you're someone else every day—people love you when you're someone else. You could be the biggest thing in a Marvel film, but no one cares about your next thing because you don't have the rubber suit on. What they liked was the rubber suit. When you're a rock star, you're always you—on the stage, in the limo, throwing a TV out the window. It's the same with a comedian. You're not the same in real life as you are on the stage, but you know you are your person. Rock stars and comedians—they're the superheroes. They're already in their rubber suits.

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Ricky Gervais