Ricky Gervais Finds Comic Freedom In America

Ricky Gervais doing stand-up in New York. i i

Ricky Gervais performs in New York for his American TV stand-up debut, Out of England, which premieres Saturday on HBO. Patrick Harbron/HBO hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Harbron/HBO
Ricky Gervais doing stand-up in New York.

Ricky Gervais performs in New York for his American TV stand-up debut, Out of England, which premieres Saturday on HBO.

Patrick Harbron/HBO

British comedian Ricky Gervais has made his name playing losers. He wrote and starred in the original British version of The Office, where he played the dunderheaded boss, David Brent. In his next series, Extras, he played the slightly more with-it Andy Millman.

It took coming to the United States to really find his stride, however, he tells NPR's Madeleine Brand. This Saturday, Gervais makes his American TV stand-up debut on HBO with Ricky Gervais: Out of England, which was recorded in New York's Madison Square Garden.

It's his best work yet, he says. There was something about performing for a bunch of Americans that left the famed funny man feeling wild and free.

"I don't know whether I am under more scrutiny in my own country, but I ad-libbed 10 times more than I usually do. I just went off," Gervais says of his performance stateside. "I just enjoyed myself more than I ever did before, and I want to keep that feeling now. It's like I hit the ball perfectly for the first time, I felt that racket. Now I know where to hit the ball every time, and I can't wait to do my next show."

Gervais has long been a fan of American comedy. He cites Laurel and Hardy, Groucho Marx and Woody Allen as major influences for his brand of what he calls "the comedy of embarrassment."

"America is my mecca for entertainment. Everything I have ever loved has come out of America," Gervais says. Those comics "taught me that you have to be at the bottom rung of the ladder. No one wants to see unfeasibly handsome, clever people doing things brilliantly; they want to see a putz struggling and falling over, and the important thing is getting back up again."

Gervais insists there is no place for a peacock in comedy. He says it's all about being the everyman and maintaining a fallible persona that people can relate to. "There should be no machismo in a comedian because comedy is about empathy," he says. "I think the audience doesn't need to be told that your life is better than theirs."

In Out of England, Gervais comes onstage with a king's crown and a rock star's pomp, accompanied by fireworks and Queen's "One World, One Vision." His ostentatious entrance is a tongue-in-cheek jab at production values and the idea of celebrity.

"Soon you find out that all my anecdotes of fame are about me being the underdog, me being embarrassed socially, depressed, everyone getting the better of me," he says.

Gervais says returning to stand-up has allowed him to discover the importance of physical comedy. He realized "what people liked was me acting out a scenario as opposed to just telling jokes," he says. "Because comedy is empathy, most of the things we identify with are probably nonverbal. Body language and the way that you feel things are are more important than what you hear."

His routine touches upon kids with cancer, Nelson Mandela and a dialogue between Nietzsche and Hitler, but Gervais says there are no real victims in his show. "What a satirist does is make fictional superheroes and villains so we can laugh guilt-free," he says.

Gervais' stand-up persona gets everything slightly wrong, a trait he says is important for his brand of the comedy. "When you live in a world where your firstborn isn't dying of terrible diseases and you're not being shot at, the worst thing that happens to us is we do embarrass ourselves."

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