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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Ricky Gervais became famous worldwide for starring in and co-creating a British TV series that only a few million Americans have seen, the original version of "The Office," which was first shown in England on the BBC. The American version, starring Steve Carell on NBC, is one the eight international versions of "The Office," with more on the way.

After "The Office," Gervais went on to create "Extras" with his writing partner Stephen Merchant, and he co-wrote and stars in the film "The Invention of Lying," which just came out on DVD.

Our TV critic David Bianculli spoke with Ricky Gervais last week. They began by talking about his latest project, an animated HBO series, "The Ricky Gervais Show," which airs Fridays. It features the freewheeling conversations which he recorded with Stephen Merchant and a radio producer, Karl Pilkington, who's the real star of the show. These were initially produced as podcasts, podcasts which made it into the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records as the most downloaded podcast on the Internet.

What did they talk about? Here's an example. Stephen Merchant is posing this hypothetical question to Karl Pilkington. If you could choose any superpower, what would it be?

(Soundbite of "The Ricky Gervais Show")

Mr. STEPHEN MERCHANT (Writer): Remember, you've already got opposable thumbs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MERCHANT: Cross that one off the list.

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS (Actor): Go on, Karl.

Mr. MERCHANT: There's so many to choose from: telepathy, x-ray vision, flight, invisibility; choose it wisely, strength, intelligence.

Mr. KARL PILKINGTON (Radio Producer): But why have I been picked?

Mr. MERCHANT: Oh, for God sakes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PILKINGTON: No, no. But...

Mr. MERCHANT: It solves the question for you.

Mr. PILKINGTON: But I'm just saying, does anyone else want this?

DAVID BIANCULLI: Ricky Gervais, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. GERVAIS: A pleasure to be here.

BIANCULLI: I love that he's immediately questioning the premise.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, of course. He doesnt - he's quite cautious and he asks questions that you never dreamt he would ever ask or need to ask. He hasnt got a pretentious bone in his body. I think its impossible for him. The concept of pretension does not exist in his world, so everything you get is unfiltered and honest. He downloads his brain for your pleasure.

I mean I think what he comes down to eventually, when pressured, is invisibility. And we ask him what he'd do with this and he decides that he'd go into a shop and, you know, be invisible, wait for the shop to shut, and then he would shop at his leisure, buy some records, pay for them, and leave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: That's what he would use his superpower for. I mean we were doing one audiobook, I think its "The Ricky Gervais Guide to Philosophy," and I posed him the Robert Nozick scenario where if you could script your life, perfectly preprogrammed your life, you could get into a float tank and youd live a virtual life, a perfect life...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERVAIS: You know, would you choose that or reality with all the pain and suffering but its real? And I think most people would probably choose a real life. Karl pondered this and his virtual life - his perfect existence turned out to be exactly the life he's got now, but his boiler would work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: And again, I dont think he was making the most of the opportunity.

BIANCULLI: Well, you know, I always look at it thinking, is he putting you on? Is he putting me on? And then I finally decided, tell me if I'm right or wrong about this, that Karl Pilkington is to you and Stephen Merchant what Margaret Dumont was for the Marx Brothers. I mean someone who has no clue how funny you are, much less how funny they are.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah. I mean Karl, I dont know what Karl laughs at in his own life, what he finds amusing. He's quite a serious - you'd think he was a tortured, troubled soul, but he's not. He's just quite happy doing the stuff he does. The only time he's not happy is when he can't get to do the same stuff he does every day. He likes puttering around. He likes doing nothing. He likes sitting in tea shops eating cake with his girlfriend. He's just - he's totally happy with that. He actually said he's looking forward to being old. He said, one, he said old people are no trouble. I dont know what that meant. They're no trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Like you can wrangle them easy or they dont get into fights. I dont know. But he says he looking forward to being old because then you could just sit out in the street in a chair and no one gives you dirty looks like youre lazy. I mean that's an ambition. That's a hell of an ambition, isn't it?

BIANCULLI: I have one last question about "The Ricky Gervais Show," and that's the animation style. I know that there were fans who were sort of doing animated versions of some of the podcasts and then you come out with a TV show version of it which is brilliant recycling, if nothing else.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: I'm wondering is the animation style, is it based more on "Flintstones," Hanna-Barbera, or "Rocky and Bullwinkle"?

Mr. GERVAIS: Certainly, that was the (unintelligible) - I did a sketch of myself initially for the animation house and I wanted it to be a cross between Hanna-Barbera and 1950s children's comics of Britain like the Beano and the Dandy. And there was a very good reason for that. I wanted it to be warm and approachable and not spiky and trendy and innovative in that sense, because for two reasons: I wanted people to know that this is a quite a nice cuddly show, because on the face of it its quite challenging.

We're talking about, you know, there are no taboo subjects. We talk about race, disability, and I wanted people to know it was like safe and sweet. And Karl is quite childlike. Anything he says is not malicious. He doesnt wish harm on anyone. I mean he's fascinated by difference, but I think in the best way, in the same way that a child is. A child stares because he hasnt seen it before. There's no malice. Its the parents that are embarrassed when they say dont look.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERVAIS: They're the ones that are embarrassed socially. A child's just looking at stuff, and Karl's like that. Karl is like that. Karl is asking genuine questions without prejudice. The fact that he comes out with horrendous statements...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I have to explain to people that this - he's an idiot. This is - I mean he thought that Anne Frank...

BIANCULLI: How nice of you to explain that.

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, of course. I have to. It's my job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: But he thought that Anne Frank was just avoiding paying rent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: We had to explain to him that she was hiding from the Nazis because he has no formal education. He doesnt, you know, its like people take things for granted because weve been learning all our life and from an early age and now we think everyone knows these things. But Karl doesnt. Karl doesnt know these things. Throughout the podcasts, throughout the five or six years, there's things that seem so obvious to us that are revelations to him, and I think that people should know that - that they're going to see over this, you know, these - however many seasons we do, we're going to see Karl get slightly more educated - I mean even arrogant in his stupidity sometimes when he gets more confident, which is my favorite, like a la Homer Simpson.

There was one point I was trying to explain evolution to him.

BIANCULLI: Oh, yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: And he went yeah, yeah. He said I've got the gist of it. I go, go on. He went, I know it went germ, fish, mermaid, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Mermaid. Unbelievable.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with Ricky Gervais, co-star and co-creator of BBC's "The Office" and of the HBO series "Extras" and the new "Ricky Gervais Show" which premiered last month and airs Fridays on HBO.

Here in the States, "The Office" was shown on BBC America and seen by a couple of million people. So most people haven't seen you in America for the role for which you are so internationally famous. They know the NBC version, but they haven't seen you as David Brent, and I thought that I'd start off this section by playing a clip from "The Office."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Office)

Mr. GERVAIS: (as David Brent) There's good news and bad news. The bad news is Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs. Yeah. Yeah. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if you want to - stay. I know. I know, gutting, gutting. On a more positive note, the good news is, I've been promoted. So every cloud - youre still thinking about the bad news, aren't you?

BIANCULLI: I do think that's one of the most pitch-perfect characters and comedies ever done for television. And...

Mr. GERVAIS: Thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: ...it seemed fully formed at the beginning. And I'm wondering if you really had that sort of confidence going in, in both the character and the presentation from the very start.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, I was confident in the character. It didnt feel like an acting job. It felt like I was doing an impression of someone I'd never met before, which I suppose is what acting is really. But I was much more worried about the realism of the piece.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERVAIS: I wanted to keep in all the fluffs, all the mouth touching, all the things that rustled the microphone. Just directorially, the realism, the motivation, the players. I always hated exposition. You know, when people would come in and say, John, you know your sister, the one who went to the Gambia?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yes. Of course I do. She's my sister. Why are you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: You know, you might as well look at the camera. And so we tried to avoid that and we tried to make everything organic. We didnt want people entering, doing a scene, then leaving in opposite directions. So we had to find them, and I think that's what people connected with initially, was the realism of the piece, saying I know someone like that. And then we peppered them with the annoyance of mundane life. You know, some people say that is drama is real life with the boring bits taken out. Well, we left them in and we made a feature of them, and the aftermath was so much more tantalizing to us than the event. You know, what happens after someone's told a bad joke that didnt go down well?

BIANCULLI: Right.

Mr. GERVAIS: That's a bit of an awkward, you know, moment.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with Ricky Gervais, co-star and co-creator of "Extras," BBC's "The Office," and "The Ricky Gervais Show."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with Ricky Gervais, co-star and co-creator of BBC's "The Office" and of the HBO series "Extras" and the new "Ricky Gervais Show," which premiered last month and airs Fridays on HBO.

"Extras" was the series that you did after "The Office." And you play Andy Millman, a film extra who desperately wants to get speaking lines in the films in which he appears. And as the series goes on, he succeeds in that quite wildly. But I want to play this early clip. This is one of my favorite moments from the series. He's an extra in a movie about a nun who hides Jews from Nazis during World War II. And your character Andy is dressed as a Nazi. And the movie's star, Kate Winslet, is in costume as a nun. And between scenes they have this little chat.

(Soundbite of HBO series "Extras")

Mr. GERVAIS: (as Andy Millman) I'd just like to say I think, you know, you doing this is so commendable. You know, using your profile to keep the message alive about the Holocaust.

Ms. KATE WINSLET (Actress): (as herself) My God, I'm not doing it for that. I mean I don't think we really need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It's like, how many have there been? You know, we get it - it was grim, move on. No, I'm doing it because I've noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust -guaranteed an Oscar. I've been nominated four times - never won. The whole world is going, why hasnt Winslet won one?

Mr. GERVAIS: (as Andy Millman) Def - yeah.

Ms. WINSLET (Actress): (as herself) That's it. That's why I'm doing it. Schindler's bloody list, "Pianist," Oscars coming out of their ass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: You know, its absolutely hilarious, and what makes it even funnier, of course, is that, you know, years later...

Mr. GERVAIS: Life imitated art.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: She actually won an Oscar for "The Reader" and, which was a Holocaust film. And we know, because you were on the Oscars as a presenter, what you said to her that night. What did she say to you?

Mr. GERVAIS: She - she just laughed. She laughed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Weve actually done a retrospective that's coming out in April in England about "Extras" and weve got all the stars to chat about their episodes. And she says on there, Ricky Gervais thinks that Oscar's half his; it's not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: What do you think the percentage is?

Mr. GERVAIS: I think about 50/50. She can have - about half. She can keep the Globe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: But, you know, again, here was an idea - a really different idea for a television series, where you get to show pieces of these actual films and therefore its the perfect excuse to bring in guest stars. But the series is not about those movies at all; its about your ambition and your friendships and...

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah. I suppose its - yeah, I think people, you know, obviously the big names got the press heat that, you know, I think it was remarkable that we got Kate Winslet and Sam Jackson and Robert De Niro and David Bowie...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERVAIS: ...to pop up in a little sitcom. I mean, it was remarkable. But I think I'd rather do stuff that makes a big connection with a few people than a small connection with loads. Id rather this be a few peoples favorite show, than, you know, millions and millions of peoples 10th favorite show. Because whats the point otherwise? And thats what I want to do.

And also, even though the backdrop of it looks like its major, its not. Just like "The Office" wasnt really about selling paper, it was about a few people thrown together, you know, an arbitrary existence walking the same carpet every day. And "Extras" wasnt really about filmmaking and film stars. It was about a group of friends trying to get on with different ambitions. And it was important that we made them the bottom rung of the ladder because no one wants to see, you know, unfeasibly handsome, brilliant people doing brilliant things. Where's the fun in that?

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: We want to see a struggle. We want to see people falling over but getting themselves back up on their feet. And thats whats extraordinary. Ordinary people, their struggle; there's nothing as interesting as real life out your window. You walk down the street for half an hour, I'll give you half an hour of drama.

BIANCULLI: Religion is a continuing theme in your work. And especially the way that you espouse opinions through your characters about atheism. This is during an episode of "Extras," the same one with Kate Winslet. And in this one you have nuns and Nazis walking around in costume as extras, and Andy, your character, is talking with his best friend, a fellow movie extra played by Ashley Jensen. She is now on the TV series "Ugly Betty" here in the States. In this scene she pays Maggie, a sweet but not very bright young woman, who tells Andy theres something about the movie they are filming that bothers her.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Extra")

Ms. ASHLEY JENSEN (Actor): (As Maggie) All these people going about pretending to be nuns.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) What do you mean?

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) Do you think thats right?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Its a film.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) I know. But theyre all wandering around as holy ladies. Wouldnt that offend God or someone?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Offend God or someone?

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) Does it not worry you a bit?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) No. What, offending God? Im an atheist.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) What ones that? Is that the one where you havent decided what you want...

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) No, thats agnostic. Im an atheist. I firmly believe there is no God.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) Why?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) What do you - The burden of proof is not on me. The burden of proof is on the people who say there is a God. I dont believe in God, I believe in science.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) So do you not believe in anything like ghosts or spirits or anything?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman): No, I don't believe in ghosts or spirits or elves. Certainly not God, no.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) So what do you think happens when you die?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Well, if youre buried, you go in the ground and youre worm food.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) See, I dont like that. I would rather believe that there is a God and your soul just floats away on to eternity. And all your friends from school will be there, like all the ones you havent seen for ages and all your dead pets and just, like, all nice people. You dont have to worry about worms.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman): You believe in God then?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Now, what are you thinking as you replay this?

Mr. GERVAIS: I think that was a very sweet, funny clip that actually housed a very important point. It was someone who - that was genuine, and her reasons for believing in God were that the alternative wasnt very nice. And I think thats a lot of peoples reason for believing in God. That - if there is no God, whats the point? Why are we here? Why are we born? And we live this life of struggle and pain if theres nothing at the end of it? Well, I wish there was a God. But I cant believe in something that I dont. And I suppose that is personal in a sense. Although its not personal to talk about religion because of the effect it has on society as a whole.

BIANCULLI: I dont know what your own upbringing was. I know that you were one of four children, but I dont know if you grew up in a religious household, if you...

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, very working-class upbringing. My dad was a laborer, my mom was a housewife. And I dont know how much they believe, but I know for a working-class mother, Jesus is like an unpaid babysitter. If she is not watching me, someone is. And also I think that, you know, the best you can hope for in a poor working-class accommodation is not that your son becomes an international comedian but that he doesnt die in a barroom fight...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERVAIS: ...before hes clever enough to take, you know, care of himself -and that, you know, I think that if youre a God-fearing person and do live, you know, your life by Christian values as a good rule of thumb, then you'll probably be okay. And so, you know, she did her best. And I believed in God till I was eight, and Im remember I was doing some homework from the Bible. And my brother, who's a lot older than me, he was 11 years older than me, he was about 19, he came in and he just said - why do you believe in God? And my mom went, Bob. And I knew that she had something to hide and he had something to tell me.

(Break)

BIANCULLI: Now, watching television in the States right, you know, during the Olympics, it was unavoidable to see promos for Jerry Seinfelds new series, "The Marriage Ref."

And at some point you started getting promoted on that as a guest. Now, it looks like its a panel show with comedy, and youre famously not married in real life, correct?

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, yeah, Im not. You'd say I wasnt married in the eyes of God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Or in the eyes of a civil...

Mr. GERVAIS: Yes. Although, you know, Im with the same woman - weve lived together for 25 years. So I think were probably most stable than most marriages.

BIANCULLI: Okay.

Mr. GERVAIS: I think thats probably above average...

BIANCULLI: And my question was...

Mr. GERVAIS: ...in terms of longevity.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, okay, and my question was not - I was not trying to question your personal relationship so much as to question your experience on "The Marriage Ref."

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: What was that like? Who were you with?

Mr. GERVAIS: Myself, Madonna, and Larry David. I mean, there's a dream team.

BIANCULLI: Oh, what was the green room like for that show?

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, it was the strangest show Ive ever been on, with us - just giving - I mean I cannot imagine three more different opinions. And it was great to see how the panelists interacted as well. At one point Madonna has a go at Larry David, accusing him of being a misogynist because he's always coming down on the side of the man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I mean, Madonna arguing with Larry David. Well, I did lose it a few times. I was saying this is weird, what am I doing here? I mean, look at -Larry David, Madonna, and Ricky Gervais giving people advice. I mean, is that the first point of call?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: People that have trouble with their marriage. They go, well, call Madonna, call Larry David, call that fat bloke from England.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: But they do a good job. I dont think you've ever seen a panel show quite like it.

BIANCULLI: Well, panel shows as a TV critic is something that I miss and thats a troika that I really would like to see on television.

Mr. GERVAIS: Ive never done them before. I never do panel shows. But when Jerry Seinfeld calls you on your cell phone and says, hello, its Jerry Seinfeld here, do you want to do a show with Madonna and Larry David, the answer is yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: The answer is yes. Ill never have that opportunity again.

BIANCULLI: When you do awards shows, whats your opinion afterwards about how the people in those specific rooms react to what youre saying, what comes off better than you expected, what doesnt?

Mr. GERVAIS: You know, I think you've got to assume when you do comedy, if its got any edge at all or is worth anything, that as many people are going to dislike it as like it. You know, you cant choose your sense of humor. Its like sexuality. You cant pretend to laugh at something you dont find funny. You know, its very peculiar and very personal. So you can only do stuff that, you know, you find funny. And I hope its entertaining. But with that, you know, there are caveats. I dont want to just go out there and do safe, anodyne stuff that everyone will find mildly amusing, but you know, they could do it themselves.

Likewise, I dont want to go out there and bring the room down. I dont want to go out there - it was funny because the Mel Gibson gag, where I said I like a drink as much the next man, unless the next man is Mel Gibson...

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: There was one journalist in New York said, I noticed Mr. Gervais had a go at Mel Gibsons alcoholism but failed to mention his anti-Semitism. Yeah, that would've been a nice half hour, wouldn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, lets talk about the Holocaust, and well done to "Glee."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I mean it wasn't the forum for it. I wasnt giving anyone a hard time for their personal beliefs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I was having a laugh. I was ribbing, you know, the people who are much more successful and famous and richer and more handsome than me, you know, but it was all done in good fun. I had no targets. I've got nothing against those people. But likewise to say I dont want to go out there and make it very, very stuffy and safe and just anodyne. So you've got to do it for yourself and I think I pitched it about right.

BIANCULLI: Ricky Gervais, thank you so much for taking the time to be on FRESH AIR.

Mr. GERVAIS: My pleasure.

GROSS: Ricky Gervais spoke with FRESH AIRs TV critic David Bianculli. Gervais new HBO animated series, "The Ricky Gervais Show," airs Fridays on HBO. Its adapted from his podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington. You can learn about Karl Pilkingtons theory of human reproduction in a clip from "The Ricky Gervais Show" on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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