NPR logo
Ricky Gervais Finds Comic Freedom In America
  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Ricky Gervais Finds Comic Freedom In America

Arts & Life


British comedian Ricky Gervais has made his name playing losers - and not really lovable losers at that. He wrote and starred in the TV show "The Office," where he played the dunderheaded boss, David Brent. In his next series, "Extras," he played the slightly more with-it Andy Millman. Now, Ricky Gervais has a stand-up comedy special that debuts tomorrow night on HBO. He spoke with me earlier from London.

Ricky Gervais, welcome back to Day to Day.

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS (British Comedian): Lovely to be here.

BRAND: Well, you know, I love how you open the routine, the - on the HBO special. You come on stage wearing this king's crown, a cape; there are tons of fireworks.

(Soundbite of TV show "Ricky Gervais - Out of England: The Stand-Up Special")

Unidentified Announcer: Please, welcome to the stage, all the way from London, the Podge Father(ph), the (unintelligible) that is the English king of comedy, Ricky Gervais.

(Soundbite of applause)

BRAND: I think what I love about it is you just manage at the very opening to set the tone that you are spoofing the entire idea of your celebrity. You're kind of reveling in it and...

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, exactly. Yeah. I think - I sort of think it was time, because as much as a comedian, I think, has to be quite every man in a - I don't think there's a place for a comedian to be above the audience. You know, there's no place for rock-'n'-roll cool or any of those sort of things. There's no - should be no machismo in a comedian, because I think comedy is about empathy, and I think the audience doesn't need to be told that your life is better than theirs.

So - however, because, you know, there's a certain amount of realism in everything I do, it was time to acknowledge that I was a famous person. I came out like that to let people know that it was very tongue-in-cheek, that I didn't think that I was anything special, but that I had some stories. And of course, you soon find out that all my anecdotes of fame are about me being the underdog, me being, you know, embarrassed socially, depressed, getting the better of me - everyone get in the better of me, which I think is important.

(Soundbite of TV show "Ricky Gervais - Out of England: The Stand-Up Special")

Mr. GERVAIS: I was jogging once, right? With my iPod on, yeah, looking good, right? Paparazzi got me. Full page in the paper the next day with the headline "iPodge."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Cheeky bastards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: You also create this alter ego, as you did on your television shows.


BRAND: And he's kind of a pompous, pompous journalist.

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, he's - yes. He's one of those people that - he's like a brasher version of myself. He's more confident, but of course, he gets everything wrong. His targets are all wrong. He targets the weak 'cause he's confused. I have to give enough nods and winks to the audience so they know that this is ironic. They don't think I'm some sort of strange, right-wing boar...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Trying to crack down on equality. So, yes...

BRAND: You make fun of kids with cancer. That's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, I do. But of course, they're fictional kids with cancer.

BRAND: Right.

Mr. GERVAIS: You know, there's obviously no victims, real victims, in my show. I think that what a comedian does, or a satirist does, is make fictional superheroes and villains so we can laugh guilt-free. I do a whole scenario that I was at a teenage cancer gig, and I found out that one of the kids with cancer was 19, so he shouldn't be there. But of course, it's all untrue.

(Soundbite of TV show "Ricky Gervais - Out of England: The Stand-Up Special")

Mr. GERVAIS: So, I was doing the gig, and he was laughing along. And I thought, yeah, you laugh up, mate. I was fuming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: And it got too much for me and I went, all right, mate. I recognize you. You came backstage two years ago. Yeah, yeah. You said you were 18. And he went, yes. So, you're 20 now? And he went, yeah. I said, get out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I think anyone who really thought I had someone kicked out of a gig because they were a year too old...

BRAND: Not technically a teenager.

Mr. GERVAIS: Exactly, yeah. So, you know - and another fictional character. I talk about Nelson Mandela, who is one of my heroes, and say that he's incarcerated for 25 years, released in 1990, and he's been out 18 years and he hasn't re-offended.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: So, I - so, it shows you prison does work. So, I get everything slightly wrong. And the reason even I'm attracted to those situations - why I do the comedy of embarrassment, it's been called - is because when you live in a world where, you know, your first-born isn't dying of terrible diseases, we're not being shot at, the worst thing that happens to us is we do embarrass ourselves. We embarrass ourselves once a day.

BRAND: Mm-hm.

Mr. GERVAIS: You know, we get bad service if - on the news, if you were at a terrible war somewhere but the milkman forgot to deliver your yogurt, you're going to be furious about that yogurt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: The TV can be on in the background, and you're complaining to the dairy, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And we will have more with Ricky Gervais after this short break, when Day to Day continues.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Back now with Day to Day and back with British comedian Ricky Gervais. He has a comedy special on HBO tomorrow night. One of the funniest bits is where he takes on children's nursery rhymes.

Mr. GERVAIS: I go on about how everything we learn as a child is, you know, charged with morality and they sneak in learning whenever they can, and politics, from an early age. I deconstruct some little sayings and fables, and then I get to Humpty Dumpty, and I admit I can't see the moral.

(Soundbite of TV show "Ricky Gervais - Out of England: The Stand-Up Special")

Mr. GERVAIS: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again. All I can think is, don't sit on a wall if you're an egg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Again, how is that applicable to a 5-year-old human? I mean, you tell that to a group of 5-year-olds, so, don't sit on the wall if you're an egg. Well, what do you mean if I'm an egg? I'm not an egg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: That bit started off about a minute, and then by the end of the gigs, it was like 10 minutes long when I started thinking of more and more ludicrous - don't send horses to perform medical procedure. It's ridiculous. They haven't - there's no - they haven't got fingers. It's going to be chaos. They've got hooves; they'll squash an egg. And certainly don't send all of them. What if we'd been invaded by France? It's ridiculous. It's just an egg; let it go.

BRAND: Well, that brings up a question. Your comedy is very visual, obviously. You can't see that on the radio, but it is a very physical comedy.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, it's true, and I didn't realize that at the beginning of it. I suddenly realized that what people liked was me acting out a scenario as opposed to just telling jokes, and that was really heartwarming. I straight away act out things and "The Office" was much more a study in body language than clever lines.

BRAND: Mm-hm.

Mr. GERVAIS: And I think that's what we react to, because comedy is empathy. Most of the things we identify with are probably nonverbal, you know, body language, and the way that you feel things are more important than what you hear. I do a piece where I imagine a dialogue between Hitler and Nietzsche.

(Soundbite of TV show "Ricky Gervais - Out of England: The Stand-Up Special")

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Hitler) Hi, Nietzsch(ph).

(As Nietzsche) Yeah, good. What do you want?

(As Hitler) Just read your book.

(As Nietzsche) What'd you think?

(As Hitler) Love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: That was getting a few laughs, but it didn't work until I made Hitler into a naughty schoolboy who was being told off by an intellectual. And as soon as I gave Hitler this sort of body language of being embarrassed and being called out, people found the really - really, really chuckled.

(Soundbite of TV show "Ricky Gervais - Out of England: The Stand-Up Special")

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Hitler) Love all that. Man and Superman. Not everyone's equal. Kill all the Jews.

(As Nietzsche) Sorry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Hitler) Not everyone's equal, so kill all the Jews?

(As Nietzsche) I didn't write that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Hitler) I read between the lines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Nietzsche) I didn't mean that. That's terrible. Have you - you haven't been killing Jewish people, have you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Hitler) What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Nietzsche) Have you been killing Jewish people?

(As Hitler) Yeah, yeah. Little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Hitler) A few.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Nietzsche) How many?

(Soundbite of throat clearing)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Hitler) Six million.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Nietzsche) Six million?

(As Hitler) That's all. I won't do anymore. Leave it - leave it at six.

BRAND: What is it like doing your act? It is called "Out of England," and it does have a lot of Britishisms in it. What is it like doing it in America? Do you get a different reaction to the jokes than you do at home?

Mr. GERVAIS: It was great. I mean, I just think - I don't think it could have gone down better. When I first - the first time I tried it at the Kodak in L.A., it was just - it was great. It was one of the - I mean, it was my new favorite venue in the world.

BRAND: I have to say, I was in that audience. I saw it.

Mr. GERVAIS: Oh, well, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: You were one louder. It was absolutely great. And also, I must say that America is my mecca for entertainment. Everything I've ever loved has come out of America, from Laurel and Hardy and Groucho Marx, early Woody Allen, even, like, wisecrackers like Groucho Marx, Bob Hope. Again, they were cracking jokes, they were cracking wise in the face of adversity, and they were still the losers. Because even though they were smart, that in a room full of idiots, you're the idiot, because the idiots get together and go, who's this idiot?

And that 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. And that's David Brent, and that's Andy Millman. And that's, you know, every character I'll ever play because it's what comedy is about. I was a lot freer in America. I don't know why. I don't know whether I'm under more scrutiny in my own country, but I adlibbed 10 times more than I usually do. I just went off, and I just enjoyed myself more than I ever did before, and I want to keep that feeling now. You know, it's like I hit the ball perfectly for the first time, I felt that racket, and now I know where to hit the ball every time. And I can't wait to do my next show.

BRAND: Do you like doing the live shows the best, over doing TV and movies?

Mr. GERVAIS: That was a bad metaphor, wasn't it? Hitting a tennis ball - I lost people there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: What does he mean, hitting a tennis ball? Does he play tennis onstage? What is he, an idiot? He laughed someone's eye out. Sorry, what did you say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I'll answer anyway.

BRAND: Answer it anyway.

Mr. GERVAIS: I like ducks.

BRAND: Keep going.

Mr. GERVAIS: I like ducks most, then owls, then penguins - in that order...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: If your question was name your three favorite birds at one time.

BRAND: It was. How did you know?

Mr. GERVAIS: I didn't hear - it was? Good. Yeah, duck, owl, penguin.

BRAND: And where's the comedy in a penguin?

Mr. GERVAIS: Oh, come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: It's upright. It mates once a year. They have to shuffle around with little, short legs to keep the egg there. When a plane goes over, they look up and they fall on their back. They live on either rock, right, or they have to take their chance in the sea, where everything is trying to eat it. There's - it's intrinsically funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: A duck's funny because of the quack. An owl is apparently the only bird that can see blue.

BRAND: Really?

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah. So, if you're going to catch an owl, don't wear a denim jacket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Wear, I don't know...

BRAND: Ricky Gervais, thank you very much.

Mr. GERVAIS: My pleasure.

BRAND: That's Ricky Gervais. His show, "Out of England: The Stand-Up Special," premieres tomorrow night on HBO. And you can see a clip from "Out of England" at our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Day to Day is production of NPR News, with contributions from I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.