Ricky Gervais On Controversial Jokes, Celebrities And 'Special Correspondents' "I didn't go out there to ruin everyone's day or undermine the moral fabric of America. I was making jokes." Gervais talked with NPR's Rachel Martin about his new movie and how he approaches humor.

Ricky Gervais On Controversial Jokes, Celebrities And 'Special Correspondents'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ricky Gervais has a problem with fame. He endlessly mocks those who have it. He's not comfortable with it himself. And not to get too deep, too fast, but he thinks our obsession with fame as a culture is eating away at our moral fiber. But this is Ricky Gervais, so he's come with a funny way to address all this stuff.

He's written and directed a new movie now streaming on Netflix called "Special Correspondents." It's a rom-com with Eric Bana as Frank Bonneville. He's a super hot news reporter who's shipped off to cover a war in Ecuador with his sidekick audio engineer Ian Finch played by Gervais. Finch loses the tickets and the passports, so the two end up broadcasting fake reports from an apartment above a Spanish restaurant in Queens. Here's Gervais setting the fake scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS")

RICKY GERVAIS: (As Ian Finch) There's monkeys, parrots.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNGLE ANIMALS)

GERVAIS: (As Ian Finch) Hold on. Here comes a tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE MOVING)

GERVAIS: (As Ian Finch) Oh, machine gun fire...

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE GUN)

GERVAIS: (As Ian Finch) Airplanes, a helicopter hovers overheard.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE, HELICOPTER)

GERVAIS: (As Ian Finch) Explosions...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

GERVAIS: (As Ian Finch) Hand grenades.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION, HELICOPTER)

GERVAIS: (As Ian Finch) Welcome to Ecuador.

MARTIN: I'm joined now by Ricky Gervais. Ricky, thanks so much for being on the show.

GERVAIS: My pleasure.

MARTIN: There are a lot of things that are implausible, I guess is the word, in this film. Just for starters, it's about two radio journalists who fake war reports from a New York City apartment. But the other one that I just couldn't shake is the casting. I didn't really have a hard time buying you as the sad and dejected radio engineer. But I couldn't get my head around the fact that someone who looks like Eric Bana is working and struggling in radio. This guy's just, like, too good looking, frankly.

GERVAIS: Well, yeah. And he sort of knows it. And he's angry that he's not happy with his lot. He's one of those guys that sort of thinks the world owes him a living. And he's got (unintelligible) sort of charm. And he thinks he can do what he wants. And he hasn't got on because he can't bite his tongue. I'm the sort of opposite. I'm really happy with my lot. I'm happy to be a little radio nerd, and I think I've got the best job in the world until my wife points out that I'm an underachiever (laughter) and I should be doing better.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS")

GERVAIS: (As Ian Finch) Shells are incoming (imitating missiles and crash) I take pictures hit by shrapnel.

ERIC BANA: (As Frank Bonneville) Oh, no, he's fine. But we got to get out of here - fast.

GERVAIS: On the face of it, it looks like a swipe at, you know, media and journalism and information. I think its real target is fame itself and what people do for a shortcut in life. Obviously, I exaggerate the severity of it because, you know they, don't actually - they don't cause a war.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GERVAIS: They don't -

MARTIN: So there's that.

GERVAIS: They don't hide a war.

MARTIN: It could be worse.

GERVAIS: You know, they just pretend they're at a war, you know. It's not a huge, immoral lie. It's just somewhat - and we've seen people do that in real life. They just exaggerated where they - how close they were to the war, you know. But in real life, now the news is sort of entertainment now. So if they can make it seem a little bit more exciting than it is - you know, I even see it in the weather. They say things like well, there's hurricane coming tomorrow, and it's going to destroy humanity, so stay tuned to this channel. We will be there when...

MARTIN: Because we'll still be here. Everyone else will be gone.

GERVAIS: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: But we miraculously survive.

GERVAIS: And then the next day when it wasn't as bad, they went ah, well, it wasn't as bad as we thought. And they've got, you know, of a few roofs.

But of course, they want you to keep watching. You know, news is entertainment really.

MARTIN: For someone who has so many kind of philosophical, ideological problems and qualms, concerns about the culture of celebrity, you've chosen an awfully difficult career.

GERVAIS: Well, no, because I've never been a part of it. You know, I think I became famous at an age where I already knew who I was so it didn't define me. I wasn't famous till 39, 40. So you know you are then. I didn't want to be lumped in with those people that do anything to become famous. There are people now that live their life like an open wound. There are people now that do terrible things and get rewarded for it because they're honest about it or they film it. We're soon going to have a reality game show called "Celebrity Enema." You know, people will do anything.

MARTIN: I'm now watching that.

GERVAIS: People would rather be thought of as an idiot than not thought of at all. I see it on Twitter. People would rather be hated than not known of. It's crazy. You know, they did a survey amongst 10-year-olds recently, and they were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up. And they said famous - not even a footballer or a pop star, you know.

And that's another thing - everyone thinks they can become a singer now. There are so many reality shows. We're going to run out of doctors because everyone's going to want to sing. So, you know, I think the honest answer is I feared it. But I never signed that contract. I never said to everyone - make me famous, and you can go through my bins, you know. I knew that it was an upshot of what I did. I was famous for something. I had to be proud of what I did to become famous.

And also, I'm much better with it now because - you know, when you first, like, oh, my God, I don't want anyone to say anything awful about me. You shouldn't know. It's like reading every toilet wall in the world when you're famous and you open a paper or - everyone, even family, say things like oh, you looked bit a fat on that TV show. Did I? Cheers, Mum.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GERVAIS: You know, everyone's suddenly - everyone's got an opinion, and so it's weird. It's - you walk around and you start to think - why's everyone looking at me? Oh, yeah. I was on the telly. Right? You feel like you've done something wrong.

MARTIN: Yeah.

GERVAIS: You know, fame's not normal.

MARTIN: You - I get that you - you don't want to be part of this particular kind of this culture and everything that's negative about celebrity. But at the same time, it is how you make your living, so you have to straddle this tension.

Have you, over the years, learned to exist in that space more comfortably because everyone will remember your Golden Globe hosting performances? And you were lashing out at this actor and this actress. And it was just like this big middle finger to Hollywood, and do you feel as angry about this stuff now?

GERVAIS: But I wasn't angry. And I wasn't lashing out. People, you know - people use things like targets of your jokes. Well, I don't consider them targets. I consider them subjects. And I didn't go out there to ruin everyone's day or undermine the moral fabric of America. I was making jokes, you know. I'm the butt of my jokes as well. And it's our attitudes.

You know, I wasn't picking on anyone. And I also didn't pick on anything that people can't help. It wasn't a room full of wounded soldiers. This was a room full of the most privileged, rich people in the world with some idiot from England teasing them a bit, you know. And I really think offense is the collateral damage of freedom of speech, and freedom of speech is one of our greatest privileges.

MARTIN: You've said that you've tried to release yourself from caring too much about what people think. But is - I'm sure this is a question you've been asked before - but is there someone whose opinion really matters to you, whose approval really matters to you?

GERVAIS: Well, yeah. And also, it's not that I don't care what people believe or think, as long as they've got it right. I care - you know...

MARTIN: That sounds like people can't disagree with you, though.

GERVAIS: No, no it doesn't at all. What I mean is - I've seen people say - oh, Ricky Gervais did this terrible joke. And they say joke, and it is terrible.

(LAUGHTER)

GERVAIS: But they've got it slightly wrong.

MARTIN: Oh (laughter).

GERVAIS: Or they've misunderstood it 'cause they've changed a word and they've missed one side of the pun or the play on words or anything. I just think - well, no. Say you didn't get the joke. You're allowed not to like my jokes. You know, when I go out and I do stand up, I cherish the gasps as much as the laughs, you know, because I've made, you know, - I know (gasps) like, oh, you shouldn't be saying that. And then they laugh and they get it. So I don't mind people not liking my stuff. But to criticize it, I think they should understand it.

MARTIN: May I ask you about the joke that you told about Caitlyn Jenner that then got all this criticism and anger from the trans community?

GERVAIS: Yeah. But exactly, it was a buzzword. You know, that thing - that's the thing about taboo subjects. Some people - they see the subject, and it's an emotional response to it. It's that's my thing - he shouldn't be doing - saying things about that. But if you analyze the joke, there's nothing transphobic about that joke - at all. I clearly get into it by - I'm going to be nice tonight. I've changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. Now, first of all, people didn't like me dead-naming. I'd never heard that term before, dead-naming. Now...

MARTIN: Which is when you identify the previous identity.

GERVAIS: It was Bruce Jenner that changed. Are we to assume - we're not allowed to say Bruce Jenner ever existed? That wasn't a person? Well, it was, you know.

And I understand that some say - well, he didn't change. He was always trans and now he's come out. I accept that as well. But the important thing was that I wasn't making a joke about the transition. I was making a joke about her driving, clearly. So I say I've changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a role model, became a role model for trans people everywhere - breaking down barriers, you know, and destroying stereotypes. And here's the joke - didn't do a lot for women drivers.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GERVAIS: So that's clearly a shift in expectation. So I've accepted Caitlyn Jenner for who she is now. And the joke is that she broke down barriers and stereotypes. And now I hit them with a stereotype of women drivers being bad. But the joke is that, actually, Caitlyn Jenner ran someone over. So there is nothing in the slightest sexist...

MARTIN: If you had known about the dead-naming phenomenon, would you have changed that joke?

GERVAIS: What, that you can't even say...

MARTIN: Yeah.

GERVAIS: ...That Bruce Jenner existed? Well...

MARTIN: That that's considered...

GERVAIS: Well, I do know about it.

MARTIN: ...Offensive.

GERVAIS: And I've just done it three times in this interview. But I hope we're all grown-ups. And I hope you're allowed to use words that may be politically charged if you're doing it in context, and we are. I have to say that name to explain this joke. So it's ridiculous that you can't - words don't have power outside the context in which they have that power. So we should be allowed, as adults, to discuss anything. That's the important thing.

So someone just tuning here suddenly hears me say Bruce Jenner. And they go - that's terrible. He shouldn't ever say that. Well, why shouldn't I say - we're having an intellectual discussion here. Of course, I should be allowed to say any word that is needed in this discussion. Do you see what I'm saying?

MARTIN: I do.

GERVAIS: Good (laughter).

MARTIN: Believe me, I do (laughter).

GERVAIS: Good (laughter). Well, I'm glad.

MARTIN: So I'm going to - in an effort to kind of switch the tone, I'm going to go back to what I previously asked you. Is there someone who always thinks you're funny? Is there the person who you can always call up when you're, like, I just need someone...

GERVAIS: I doubt it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GERVAIS: I doubt it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GERVAIS: I don't know. I doubt it. But I think your question was - is there anyone that, you know, you trust. I always run things by my girlfriend. I mean, there's absolutely no agenda with her other than the truth.

MARTIN: Yeah.

GERVAIS: When I come with something - I've got a joke. I run it by her. She says please don't say that in public, and I know it's good.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Ricky Gervais, his new film is called "Special Correspondents." It is available now on...

GERVAIS: We didn't talk about the new film.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah, a little bit.

GERVAIS: We talked about (laughter)...

MARTIN: A little bit (laughter).

GERVAIS: I'm fine. I don't care. It's on Netflix. They've got 75 million subscribers. They'll send an email. You might as well watch it. It's free. And I've been paid. I don't care if you watch it or not.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH STROLL")

MINK DEVILLE: (Singing) Hey, Mr. Jim, I can see the shape you're in.

MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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