As the final series of After Life, the show he has written, directed, produced and starred in, launches, Ricky Gervais explains why it’s still all about the work
Ricky Gervais could well afford to rest on his laurels, with a library of awards and a fortune estimated at more than £100 million. Yet the celebrated writer and comedian says he doesn’t care about the accoutrements of success—all he wants is to push artistic boundaries.
“I don’t want to be bigger or richer or win more awards,” says Gervais, 60. “It’s all about the work. If I can be honest and as brave as I can be in comedy or drama, then I can sleep at night. I’ve never wanted to make it safe or anodyne: there’s enough of that. You know, the point of art is to make a connection and for me, the bigger the connection with each individual, the better.”
Gervais is talking over Zoom from his home in London’s swish Hampstead neighbourhood, where it looks like he’s sitting in a kind of trophy cavern, a dim space in which those dozens of awards are lined up behind his head.
He’s promoting the third and final series of After Life, his smash hit Netflix comedy-drama about a grief-stricken man that he writes, directs and stars in. Gervais has a surprisingly earnest side but also regularly makes jokes at his own expense and bursts into loud cackles of mirth. He’s very easy to talk to.
As David Brent in The Office
Making non-anodyne TV is what Gervais has excelled at ever since he burst onto the scene with The Office in 2001, the benchmark-setting cringe comedy that catapulted him onto the world stage. He and co-creator Stephen Merchant followed it up with Extras (2005-07) and Life’s Too Short (2011-13), and Gervais’ solo projects include Derek (2012-14) and now After Life.
He’s made Hollywood movies and continues to do stand-up comedy and podcasts. Shock has been his USP—for starters, he’s skewered A-listers as five-time host of the Golden Globes and he uses the C-word liberally on Twitter and in the scripts for After Life.
His fans lap it up. “I think as creators and broadcasters and producers and critics, we second guess people, saying things like, ‘I don’t know if they can take that’,” muses Gervais. “We cut the crusts off for them. But most people can take it. Like swearing: have you heard what people talk like in real life?! They can take swearing; they can take grief. People want to see themselves.”
They’ve seen themselves in spades in After Life. The series has become a massive hit for Netflix, its second series becoming the most-watched British comedy of the decade with over 85 million views. “That’s mad, isn’t it?” says Gervais, shaking his head.
“The one thing that even surprised me was that I’ve never had so many people come up to me and say, ‘I lost my wife’, or their mum or their brother. Because usually they can’t—no one starts that conversation.”
In After Life
“They want to tell me that story and I encourage it on Twitter. I say thanks for your stories. And my other followers are so encouraging to them. It’s really sweet. It’s lovely.”
What might surprise many about Ricky Gervais is just how nice he is. For a comedian who made his name playing The Office’s monstrous manager David Brent, you might expect him to be edgier, to be
“I think people know that a joke isn’t a comedian’s true feelings,” he says. “I take on whatever view is best for the joke—I’ll pretend to be right wing, left wing, clever, stupid: whatever makes the joke best without prejudice.
And I sometimes have to explain irony to people. On Twitter, it’s impossible. That’s why I tweet like a 15-year-old girl, so people know it’s a joke.”
With the exception of those who are cruel to animals, his personal bugbear, Gervais is unfailingly kind on Twitter. “We’ve all got the power to be kind,” he explains. “We can make someone’s day by saying, ‘Nice jacket.’ It’s surprising how powerful it is to just say something nice to someone. It’s magic.
And that’s the thing with Twitter: people are so quick to criticise. And it’s trying to raise their own status to bring someone else down. It’s lovely when people are nice, and it shouldn’t be that surprising.” He lets out a bark of a guffaw. “It shouldn’t be surprising!”
"I don’t want to be bigger, or richer, or win more awards. It’s all about the work"
That vibe carries into After Life, the most sentimental and heartfelt of Gervais’ projects to date. “It’s always been there,” he says of his sentimental side.
“But you get braver as you get older. And you do have to be brave to be honest these days. So many people go, ‘Oh, I want to be honest, but what if someone doesn’t like it or it makes me look stupid?’ So they’ll just be cynical or ironic. It’s much easier to roll your eyes than it is to cry.”
Gervais says he mined his own experiences of grief to understand Tony’s predicament. “We’ve all grieved a loss,” he says. “I’ve lost both parents and a sibling [his eldest brother Larry died in 2019, aged 75] and all my pets and friends and all that. But yeah, I think that, obviously, the ultimate [loss] is your soulmate, so I have to imagine that.”
His own soulmate is Jane Fallon, 61, a TV producer-turned-novelist who’s been his partner since they met at University College London in 1982.
Gervais and his partner Jane Fallon have been together since meeting at university
Gervais depicts Fallon as the sensible one, calming his anxieties. Asked if he’s had any COVID-related health scares, he responds: “Every day I have a health scare—I’m a hypochondriac! If I get a sore throat, I go, ‘That’s cancer’.
There’s always something. Jane’s used to it now. I’ll go, ‘My heart rate’s up’ and she’ll go, ‘You just had three coffees’. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah’”. He guffaws loudly at his foibles.
Their favourite joint pastime is watching foreign TV dramas—he avoids the “bad acting” he sees on UK TV.
“Not only do we not watch British TV, we don’t watch anything in English,” he says. “Scandi and European dramas take more chances with the pacing, the subject matter. Nothing’s episodic or procedural or formulaic. Although obviously we’re getting the best programmes from each country in the world, their greatest hits.”
Despite Gervais’ prodigious work rate, he claims he is essentially a pleasure-seeker, and that even as a kid in suburban Reading he understood that money can’t buy you happiness.
“I remember when I was ten, there was a time when they were using labourers to go on oil rigs and they were earning £1000 a week,” he says.
In After Life
“You can have all the money in the world, but you can’t buy time. And I’ve always known that.”
"You can have all the money in the world, but you can’t buy time. And I’ve always known that"
It’s been on his mind since he turned 60 last June. “I look at it like this every day: this is the best you’ll ever be,” muses Gervais. “Every day I have now is a bigger percentage of the rest of my life.
Time is more and more important. I ache more because I don’t want to give anything up. I play tennis and I can’t walk for a day, but that’s no reason to not play tennis, or I go for a run and my knees and my ankles hurt, but that’s no reason not to go for a run. I do everything I want to do. I’m like an old car. I’m going to drive where I want, and then when it stops, I’m just going to leave it there.”
Before our time is up, I mention that he’s the cover star of Reader’s Digest’s 100th anniversary issue and ask him about his memories of the magazine growing up. Gervais thinks for a minute.
“I’ve probably only got bad associations with Reader’s Digest because I associate it with going to the dentist,” he says with a giggle. “They had it in the dentist’s waiting room. I associate it with my worst two days of the year, my six-month check-up, so it probably fills me with fear.”
“But happy anniversary”’ he adds. “Here’s to another 100 years.”
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