Ricky Gervais writes, directs and stars in the Netflix comedy “After Life,” which returned for a second season earlier this year. He is a two-time Emmy winner, taking home hardware for “The Office” and “Extras.”
Gervais recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria on blending comedy and tragedy on “After Life,” how the show resonates with audiences and the reaction to his latest Golden Globes stint. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Ricky, this is a raw, unvarnished and brutally honest portrayal of grief. It’s also incredibly funny as he scowls and berates people with the abandon of a guy that has nothing left to lose. But how challenging is it to balance the sadness and the laughter?
Ricky Gervais: Yeah, that was the one big worry as I was writing it before you actually get to do it and see the results. That was the concern. Could people find this funny? It starts with a woman who’s clearly going through chemotherapy that’s failed because she knows she’s dying, leaving a funny message. Cut to the man who’s lost everything and he wants to kill himself. Now, that isn’t a broad sitcom. But I think you can you can get away with anything because real life is worse in many ways. We second-guessed people too often. We go, “Oh, can the audience take that?” Of course they can. They’re in the real world. There’s worse things happening to everyone. And I think people are crying out for taboo subjects dealt with sensitively. I’ve never had a reaction like it after the first series. And I don’t just mean the size of the reaction. It was the emotional response. My agent got like 300 letters. That never happens. People come up to me on the street and they all say the same thing. They’d sidle up and say, “Oh, I just want to say I lost my brother three weeks before I watched ‘After Life,’” or, “I lost my wife last year and that was me.” So people like seeing themselves on telly or something they’ve gone through. And it is the last taboo, death. But I don’t think any harm can come from discussing any taboos. That’s why they’re still taboo. But people identify with things done well. I took all that and I put it into Series 2 because I realized I had a responsibility and I had to treat the subject realistically. That’s why he’s not just better. He doesn’t just snap out of depression. He’s going through the stages of grief. So it’s about one man’s journey. But yeah, that was the thing I worried about. It is a hybrid. People don’t know whether it’s a drama or a comedy, but I treated it like it’s a sitcom because there’s farcical elements in it. And I try and make everything funny. But it’s about a man who’s going through a lot. So, it’s really in the playing of it and the pacing is more dramatic. The acting is more dramatic. Things have real consequences. It’s not like things happen and it’s back to square one. There’s a development which is more drama than sitcom, I guess. But it is what it is. And I try and make it like real life, and you’re right, the important thing to me was the honest portrayal. The older I get, it’s all I care about now. I don’t want to get more famous or richer or win awards. I just keep going, “Is this the bravest I can be? Is this the most honest I can be?” And I want people to laugh. I don’t care what their emotion is. I think crying is just as good. I think thinking is just as good. As long they feel something, then I’ve sort of done my job.
GD: Yeah. I mean, you’ve been like this for a very long time where you’re not really afraid to go there in your comedy. And that’s what we all love about you. But there are parts, for example, Episode 4 of Season 2, I know it quite well ‘cause I’ve seen it a few times, there’s a lot of tears that one. I think that is an episode where you’re really going there in terms of your vulnerability and we don’t see that a lot from you, generally. How did that feel? I mean, there’s some real acting in that one, I think. It was a really good one.
RG: I always snuck a little bit of drama into everything, pathos, “The Office,” “Extras,” “Derek,” lots of shows over. But yeah, it’s funny because the scene is about what we’re talking about. It’s a man who’s putting on a front to be brash and brave and then he breaks down. So it’s quite meta in the sense that you think that of me as an artist. But it’s just because it felt right, I wanted to get across that we don’t know what people are going through. It’s sort of about that. Even in Series 1, when Matt says to Tony, “Oh, you just realized that other people have got problems too,” because they’re all like that. When we’ve got a problem, we think, “Well, no one else is as bad off as me.” And that’s why I made him meet people with worse lives than him. So he felt a bit spoiled, in a way. We do wallow in our grief or our failures. We do. And he’s got friends and he’s got people that care and everything, but if you’re not happy in there, you’re just not happy. And so I thought it was important for him to say, “Even if you think I’m getting over it and I’m being snarky, it’s just a defense mechanism in there. I miss her more than ever and I the one thing that would make me happy, I can’t have,” and as I said at the beginning, he’s going through the stages of grief. In Series 1, we hit the ground running with shock, anger, denial. And now he’s going through negotiation. He’s going through settlements with the world. He’s going, “Okay, if I’m not going to kill myself, what’s in it for me? What can I do?” He tried everything in Series 1. Violence. Drugs. Didn’t work. Now, let’s talk about it then. Okay. Let’s admit it. Let’s seek help. So that’s what it’s about. But yeah, I suppose it’s the most overtly dramatic and grown-up and vulnerable I’ve ever been as a performer. But not as a writer. I mean, I’ve always tried to look at things from a brave angle, I guess.
GD: Yeah. What I also love, what makes it so existential is that there’s a lot of clips where we see Tony watching his past life on his laptop and how simple things were and how taken for granted they were. And it’s so jarring and necessary because this is why we empathize with him, because as you say, we all feel this way. We all have these thoughts and feelings and we all have regret. And I’m wondering, do you get a lot of feedback about that aspect of the show? Because that’s what hits me the most.
RG: Yes. Well, I also found that the happier the flashbacks were, the sadder it is now. He had such a lovely marriage and I didn’t want it to be like a coffee advert where it was soft lighting and roses and Valentine’s Day. That’s just not true. They were soulmates. They were mates. They were friends. They were goofing around. They were winding each other up. They were swearing at each other. It was a real relationship. So we really know what he’s lost. But yeah, the title is sort of a three-way play on the term “After Life.” One, he’s an atheist, so he doesn’t believe she’s in heaven looking down. So he hasn’t even got that. That’s where that line comes from: “I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her.” He doesn’t want to live without her. The other side of it, of course, is that he thinks his life’s over. When she died, he thinks he lost himself as well. So it’s after his life. And the other play is the fact that we survive on video. We survive in pictures and more and more, people do film every aspect of their life at the moment. And so, that’s what he’s got. He can’t let it go. He just can’t let her go.
GD: Yeah. And Tony even uses the words, he was “addicted to grief.” And then, as you say, he’s going through the stages. And by the end of Season 2, there seems to be maybe some kind of connection with Emma, played by Ashley Jensen. We get closer to maybe a romantic thing. I don’t know, but where are we headed for Season 3? We know you’re writing it now, which is great. Where are we at?
RG: Well, no spoilers, but also, I’m not sure. That’s the tricky bit, really, because you’re right, he’s sort of addicted to grief, as he said, because he knows where he is with it, because hope lets him down too much. There’s a sort of staple of comedy particularly in sitcom, and that is it’s usually an ordinary person trying to do something they’re not equipped to do. That’s what we’re laughing at. With Tony, it was that he tried to make himself a badass verbal vigilante. He tried to turn himself into a psychopath so he wouldn’t feel pain anymore, but he couldn’t because he’s got empathy and he’s got a conscience and he’s a nice bloke. It didn’t work. He cared about his dog. He kept him alive. He cared about the new girl. He cared about the old person in the graveyard because she lost something. He couldn’t do it. The other staple of comedy is that I suppose we’re living vicariously through his candor. We all wish that we could say and do what he did. But we worry about the consequences. We worry about being popular or hurting someone’s feelings. And again, we laughed at him trying that. I think that we identify with him and we feel sorry. We know why he’s like he is. He’s a wounded animal. We forgive him because he’s a wounded animal. And I think that he’s scared. I think that’s the point. He feels guilty. He feels guilty about even having another relationship. No one can compare. But it’s also fear. All these things in his mind are going through. So he just wants to be happy. But he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know how to do it.
GD: And yet the show is so incredibly funny. So I want to talk a bit about that stuff because that’s what I look forward to the most. When I was watching it the other day, I was laughing so hard. That is so rare. And you must love hearing that as the writer and creator of the show. But for example, I love every episode, as a journalist, he’s looking for these ridiculous stories. Where do you come up with these ideas? You’ve got the old lady who drops the C-word. You’ve got the guy who puts the letters in the dog shit. It’s just brilliant. Where you come up with this stuff?
RG: Well, some of it is based on real things like, the woman who made rice pudding out of breastmilk. That’s a real thing that actually happened. And the vagina yeast in a loaf of bread, I saw that in an article. I’ve always thought that all those stories when there’s someone who’s 100 years old and they say things like, “Oh, well, what’s your secret to a good life?” And I’ve always wanted one of them to go, “Don’t. It’s awful. It hurts just to be alive.” So that’s another staple of comedy is undermining societal norms. We don’t expect a sweet old lady who’s got a telegram from the queen to say, “This is awful. Kill me.” (Laughs.) And you’re right, what you said earlier, everything I’ve done has been slightly existential. “The Office” was about being 40 and are we living the best life? “Derek” was about the end of a life and how we leave in the world. And this is literally existential because it’s about death and someone’s deciding whether to live or not. But yeah, I’ve always looked at it like that. I’ve always looked at it like, “Are we get the most out of life?” And it’s not just a life. It’s a quality of life. As a comedian, I’m drawn towards those dark subjects, the darkest of which is obviously death to some. It’s the biggest fear. I deal in taboo subjects because I want to take the audience to a place they haven’t been before. And I want them to be a bit scared, particularly in my standup. When I start talking about a contentious issue, I can feel the tension in the room. “What’s he going to say?” And I take them through a scary forest by the hand and out the other side and it’s all sunshine. Because people get offended when they mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target. And they’re not necessarily the same. You should be able to discuss anything intelligently and we’ve got to be grown-up about it. I hate dogma in anything. I hate it in religion. I hate it in politics. When someone says you shouldn’t discuss that, “No, you’ve said the wrong thing to me. If you’re saying that, we definitely shouldn’t discuss it.”
GD: That’s what we want. That’s what we expect. But for example, my favorite line is that lady with the plastic surgery when she said, “My minge looks like a butcher’s bin,” I almost spat out my lunch. Best line ever.
RG: Again, that’s a real issue! That happens. People have that done. They have that done. I don’t know why. People risk their life. People die under general anesthetic to have plumper cheeks. Honestly, I don’t get it. Even though it’s funny and farcical and sometimes nearly surreal, it actually happens. All those things are things that have happened or could, or they’re about a subject. They’re about a big subject in the world that’s happening. And it’s not my fault that some of those things are happening and they’re absolutely mental. I’m just going to deal with it, I guess.
GD: But it reminds me, of the blooper reel that came up not long ago for Season 2, it’s about 20 minutes long, I’ve watched it with a bunch of friends on numerous occasions. I just love it when you do bloopers and you do that laugh because you are so enjoying yourself. I can just see that you’re just killing yourself. Paul Kaye is so good as the psychiatrist. The worst person ever. How do you get through it?
RG: That was the hardest day. That was the hardest day to film. So that observation, I’ve always dealt with narcissism and ego and all those things. And it’s gotten worse and worse and worse. “The Office” was about a man who wanted to be famous. “Extras” is about fame. But we accept it with actors and actresses that they’re narcissistic and shallow and then I thought, “What’s the worst job to be a narcissist in? Well, it’s a place where you should be listening to other people’s problems.” So I made him this narcissist. And Paul Kaye, we filmed all his scenes in one day and I’m not in the scenes and I ruined every take. It was because of the intensity. I love arrogance with stupidity. He thinks he’s right. All those things, he thinks they’re absolutely right. And he does it down the line. And that’s what’s funny. This man is a maniac who believes what he says is true.
GD: I love it. It’s one of my favorite things to watch. I will hold it dear. It reminds me, you say celebrities and how they’re narcissists. You returned as the Golden Globes host for the fifth time. It’s an event to see Ricky Gervais hosting the Globes. You come out with the beer and it’s like you don’t really want to be there and you just give everyone a hard time. And we live for it. And my favorite, I have a couple, I’m going to say minge again. My favorite line is obviously Judi Dench licking her minge on her couch as a cat. I thought that was the greatest line ever. What’s the feedback like still after all this time? Because there’s no more surprise, really. We know what we’re gonna get.
RG: No, I think you’re right. The more the audience gets used to the shock of me saying those things, the more I have to push it a little bit. But I think I managed to tap into a general sort of wash around the world, that people were tired of being lectured by multimillionaires telling them how to live. But it was the hypocrisy. These people telling them to recycle their coffee jar but they just arrived in a private jet. So it was about the hypocrisy. And I’ve got nothing against those people. But I think it did hit a nerve. I think it’s probably the best reaction I’ve ever had, really. And it was the most fun I had. It seemed like it was the right time and place. But, yeah, you’re right, I shuffle out with a beer like I don’t want to be there. But that’s sort of marketing because I’ve got to be the outsider. The reason is because I made that decision the first time I did it 10 years ago. Do I pander to the 200 egos in the room or the 200 million people watching at home? No contest. The people at home aren’t winning awards. They’re not multimillionaires. I’ve got to make this a spectator sport. And what do I really do? I tease the richest, most privileged people on the planet about their public behavior. This isn’t a room full of wounded soldiers. So no, I do it for the ordinary people watching at home. And if they don’t want me there, I’m fine not doing it. But that’s how I’m gonna do it. No, I absolutely had a blast.
GD: Well, we’re kind of running out of time, but I just wanted to also mention that you were a hit with right-wing media. I mean, the “Daily Mail” called it a glorious kick to virtue-signaling hypocrites. And they all loved you all of a sudden because they thought that you were doing their bidding, which was kind of ridiculous. I know that you on Twitter said that was rubbish, but I thought that was quite interesting.
RG: I consider myself a bit of a liberal leftie snowflake. But the one thing I do defend that seems to suddenly become a possession of the right, which is odd, is free speech. And that’s the one thing we should all agree on. Left, right, centrist, that’s the one thing we should all agree on, because that allows us to keep talking. And it’s so odd that with all my other values in life and political beliefs that as soon as I defend freedom of speech… the other thing that was odd that they called me right-wing because I went after the biggest conglomerate companies in the world. How can that be? It’s so odd. But it was only a few people on Twitter. “He’s right-wing now.” You can do a thousand jokes. People can like you for half of them because you’re on their side and hate you for the other half because you’re not on their side. Whereas, really, I go where the joke takes me. I don’t think that anyone should believe that any joke is the true view of the comedian’s soul. I’ll pretend to be right-wing in a joke, I pretend to be left-wing, no-wing. It depends on the joke. It’s tribal. It’s people trying to claim, owning the other side. I want to say to people, “Listen, I hate everyone.” (Laughs.)