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Arts and Entertainment

Interview: Ricky Gervais Gets Animated

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Photo courtesy HBO.
Ricky Gervais is such a comedy icon, there's no sense listing his accolades or previous works here. Suffice it to say, Gervais has a penchant for creating whip-smart comedy shows that push boundaries and exceed expectations. Now in it's second year, HBO's The Ricky Gervais Show keeps the same momentum going, with new animations to go along with years worth of amazing podcasts, heavily starring sound-guy-turned-cohost Karl Pilkington, and his inane takes on some of life's biggest questions.

LAist was extremely fortunate to catch up with Gervais to talk about The Ricky Gervais Show, his relationship with HBO, and what it takes to really be successful.

LAist: Your HBO show The Ricky Gervais Show is an animated rendering of your wildly successful podcast that began in 2005. What made you start podcasting in the first place?

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Ricky Gervais: The first thing I ever did in the slightest bit related to show business is when I got a job at a local radio station, where I met Stephen Merchant. We got along well together, and eventually wrote The Office. Eventually The Office took off, but we always wanted to go back to that show because we liked it. We always liked sitting in a room, chatting and playing records. It was like a hobby. So when we decided to do the show again, this time we were big shots, so I didn’t have to press the buttons myself. We were given this guy who worked there, in his own little booth, and he wasn’t impressed with us. We expected fanfares and bunting. One day we asked his opinion on air, and this beautiful drivel came out. It’s as if we’d struck gold, but it was endless.

It was spectacular, and it was original and unpredictable. He’s a true artist. He sees the world differently. So we did the radio show, then we had to stop again for Extras, and I said ‘we can’t just keep doing this little show and then stopping, we can’t keep letting people down’. And I’d heard of this thing called podcasting -so we make it ourselves, and then we just upload it. We made a few, and it just went crazy. I remember the first episode was a quarter of a million downloads, and now it does that every couple of days. We’ve had 217 million downloads so far, and it’s because Karl is addicting.

We never thought it would travel, but then we never thought The Office would travel. On the surface it’s very English and parochial, but if you sort of look a bit deeper, the themes are universal. And I think the same thing is true with Karl. It’s been a strange journey, because I look back over the 7 or 8 years I’ve been doing this with Karl, and I feel a bit like he’s my Eliza Doolittle. Initially, it’s like Stephen Merchant and I were a couple of surfer dudes in an awful 80’s movie who dug up a caveman and thawed him out, and now he’s the coolest skateboarder at school.

LAist: Yes, despite its name, the Ricky Gervais Show is fundamentally Karl Pilkington’s. Has his perspective changed since the show first aired?

RG: I don’t think it’s changed, I think he’s gotten more militant. His stupidity and mistrust were all passive, and now they’re sort of aggressive. He’s militantly stupid, it’s like he doesn’t want to back down now. Yet, of the 1,000 idiot things Karl has ever said, half of them turn out to have a bit of truth to them, and half of those could be considered genius. Karl will say something, and I’ll be reading a book six months later, and Rousseau will have said the same thing but with a wealth of academia and an educated and eloquent mind behind him.

The things we talk about aren’t trivial. We don’t talk about current affairs or pop culture, we talk about the big issues: science and philosophy, art and existence. I think that’s what matters, and it’s what Karl knows least about. Basically, everything. We were talking about the nativity once, and I said that the three wise men famously gave the baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And Karl said ‘were those presents for his birthday or Christmas’? Which is genius, if you think about it. If he meant it, that’s a brilliant one-liner.

LAist: And what made you decide to animate these semi-insane ramblings?

RG: Well, there’s a bit of irony now in one of the first episodes where I tell Karl that he’s living in a cartoon world. At one point we describe him as Charlie Brown, if he grew up. He’s lovable, and he can get away with murder. That’s why shows like The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy can get away with absolute murder on screen: they’re no threat. They’re a cartoon, and you can go anywhere with them. The restrictions are only your imagination, not the possibility, which has always excited me.

And I must give the fans credit as well, because during all this there were folks making little 30 second flash animations that were making us laugh. And then we were approached about making into a cartoon, and we agreed, and HBO just snapped it up. They’re sort of my spiritual home in the US. The relationship’s always been good. They’re right behind it, they support, they don’t interfere. That’s my first stop with any idea. [The show’s] been great, and it’s gotten better, just like all projects. You don’t hit the ground running, but we’re doing that now with the second season. You get braver, or at least you should get braver. You shouldn’t start second guessing or saying ‘oh god, what did they like the last time?’. You’ve got to keep pushing the boundaries, stay one step ahead, and the second season is all out. It’s so much more ambitious.

LAist: HBO has always been great to you, and vice versa. Were you at all worried that their renewed focus on live-action comedies would be hard to match up your show with?

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RG: No, because I don’t feel like I’m ever in competition with anyone in the world. I only do things to please myself, so it doesn’t matter where I stand. The only important things to me are: am I proud of it, and do I get left alone so it turns out exactly as it should? And if you can have that, you’re bulletproof. People don’t believe you when you say that, but I’ve got to be able to sleep at night. And the only way I can do that is with the knowledge that I haven’t compromised. HBO is that company for me.

I think they love awards more than ratings, which is a very healthy way to be. With HBO, if it doesn’t work in the first episode or even season, they may say ‘but we like it, it’s a good show, do it again’. And that is purely about the art itself, and that doesn’t happen in Hollywood.

LAist: Having already won an Animated Character Design Emmy for the first season of The Ricky Gervais Show, is there any award out there you won’t eventually take home?

RG: Nobel Peace Prize? That’s eluded me. Although apparently you’ve got to do something for humanity, and it’s not worth it. Joking aside, I don’t know. I never really came into this for awards. I sort of joke about winning them, but that’s just to annoy journalists in England. I’ve won enough, and I think you can take it too seriously, and go down a different slippery slope, trying to figure out what awards bodies like as opposed to the art. Anything that takes your eye off the creativity, any ulterior motive, is a bad thing. Awards have to be a bonus, they have to be retrospective. I’m still very proud of them and flattered when I’m honored, and there’s nothing greater than being respected by your peers. But if everyone got together and said ‘this project sucks’, I’d say thank you for your opinion but I’m going to do it anyway.

LAist: You’ve also been guesting on a lot of great comedies lately, from Louis CK’s new show to Curb Your Enthusiasm.

RG: What an honor. It’s one of those things where you recognize, at that moment, what an honor something is. I thought, I’m on Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David, this is amazing. I think he’s got to be in the top 5 most important comedy creators of the last 50 years.

I also just did an HBO show last week called Talking Funny, with me, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis CK, just us talking about comedy for four hours. Isn’t that wonderful? Just such a simple idea, comedians talking about comedy.

What’s great about Jerry is, he’s comfortable with what he believes. He’s professorial but not in a pompous way - he’s like an elder. Everyone respects Jerry. Everyone. He’s such a purist. He still thinks he’s a stand up. It’s like Seinfeld didn’t happen. And then Chris Rock. He’s got everything a comedian should have. He’s got a voice, he’s scarily intelligent and articulate in a way that you don’t see coming. And then Louis CK, the most exciting new kid on the block. Louis has that sort of mentality, like he could just walk away. He’s not beholden to anyone, except bringing up his kids. And the other thing about these people - they must have ambition, but I’ve never sat down with three nicer, calmer, more generous people. It’s life-affirming. I always knew you could be nice and make it.

The Ricky Gervais Show currently airs on HBO, and season 1 is available on DVD by Warner Home Video beginning January 4th.