Next week, Ricky Gervais is scheduled to perform his first stand-up set in more than six years at a small theater near his home.
He says he’s already looking forward to the same “adrenaline rush” that accompanied his four controversial stints as host of the Golden Globes. Only this time he’ll be telling jokes to 400 people instead of close to 20 million. And, he says, he’s moving away from “disposable” topics like Caitlyn Jenner and Mel Gibson in favor of more universal subjects like famine and Hitler.
Calling The Daily Beast from London, Gervais previewed some of his new material and discussed some of the broad themes of his recent work. This month, his second film as a writer-director, Special Correspondents, made its debut on Netflix. And later this summer, his much-awaited revival of his character from The Office, David Brent, is set to premiere in theaters.
And while Gervais insists he “knows nothing about politics,” he still has plenty to say about the 2016 presidential election.
Recently, the comedian has been telling talk show hosts like Seth Meyers that he not-so-secretly wants Donald Trump to be president just “for the fun of it.” Now that Trump has all but officially become the GOP nominee, he isn’t exactly backing off that claim. He might even see some of himself in Trump, who has built his campaign on fighting against the same “PC culture” that Gervais abhors.
“If he gets in, I don’t want him to be a good president. I want him to be a funny but terrible president,” Gervais says. “Because nothing will really happen, let’s face it.”
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Why did you want to make a movie about journalists who fake war coverage in Special Correspondents?
I never saw it as a big satire on media or journalism. Everything I do is mildly social satire and I don’t think this is anything more or less than what I did with The Office or Extras or Derek. If anything, the bigger target was once again fame, for me. It’s sort of about that, really—the ruthlessness and insatiable desire for everyone to be famous. I started it as a mild study in The Office. It came out of me watching all those quaint docu-soaps in the ‘90s where ordinary people have their little 15 minutes of fame and then that was it. But nowadays people live their life like an open wound to get on telly. People will let you film them 24/7. They open their lives and their emotions. They know the worse things they do are, the more publicity they’ll get, the more reward they get, oddly. There’s no difference now between fame and infamy.
So that is always slightly more my target than corruption. It’s always about people, it’s always about ego. Usually it’s not their fault. Usually I’m looking at them to blame society, in a way, because they’ve been sold a lie. David Brent’s been sold a lie. Kids today have been sold a lie. They did a survey amongst 10-year-olds and they were asked what they want to be when they grow up and they said “famous.” Now fame is a job, it’s an aspiration.
The film comes on the heels of similar media scandals surrounding figures like Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly. Did those stories serve as inspiration for you?
With the Brian Williams case, he was in a privileged position. And I think you’re always more accountable if you’re in a powerful, privileged position. Whether you’re a parent, doctor, priest, you should be held accountable more than people who don’t have the responsibility and the trust of those people. But let’s put it in context. He didn’t make up a war. He said he was a little closer to it than he was. He didn’t slander or libel anyone, or cause anyone harm. He just said he was a few yards closer to the action than he was. He’s not a terrible person. But what’s strange about it is, his own kind turned on him because it’s news. There were no builders and nurses going, “He should be fired! This is terrible!” It was all the people in his profession. It was like sharks.
Yeah, it was the viewers who were most ready to forgive him and let him back on the air.
People care about what’s happening in their life. A normal person can turn on the news and they can see devastating things, they can see a whole country destroyed by a meteor. And they go, “Oh my god! I forgot the milk!” [Laughs.] That’s human nature.
The way the media in the film picks up a false story and runs with it is pretty damning. Is this something you’ve experienced personally?
Oh yeah. When I became famous, you suddenly read stuff about yourself. People who aren’t famous don’t read stuff about themselves, unless they find someone’s diary or go to every local toilet wall in the vicinity. But with Twitter you’re reading every toilet wall in the world at once. When you’re famous and people write about your work, they can’t help but be personal sometimes. You read these things, I read stuff about myself every day and about 50 percent of it is a bit wrong. Not harmfully wrong. They don’t say terrible things, but slight facts. So am I to assume that everything is 50 percent wrong? Well, I guess so. If I’m the expert on a thousand facts about me and they’re half wrong, then that’s probably true of everyone.
Something you’re probably used to reading about yourself is criticism from those who say you’ve crossed a line or you’re joking about something you’re not supposed to joke about. How have you seen so-called “PC culture” evolve since you started doing comedy?
Yeah, the last five years have been the worst, because I think now with social media everyone’s got a voice. Even the real news says “tweet us with your stories.” When did that happen? That’s lazy! No, you tell me the news. And now people use that as their agenda, so they’ll say, “So and so is on trouble on Twitter, his fans are angry.” And that’s it, they use one example and they say the whole of Twitter was in uproar. Everyone goes, “Oh, Twitter went mad.” And I’m thinking, No, it didn’t. If it went mad, you wouldn’t have to put it on the news, because everyone would know about it. This is fake outrage. I hear it all the time, people saying, “The audience were stunned into silence.” And I’m thinking, No, they all laughed.
I’m tired of this new culture of people saying “I’m offended” and expecting me to do anything about it. I don’t care. It means nothing to me. “I’m offended” means nothing. You might as well say, “I hate words.” Well, I’m sorry, I’m still going to use them. I’ve always said, just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right. Some people are offended by equality. Some people are offended by same-sex marriage. Some people are offended by mixed marriage. What do we do about it? Nothing. We don’t care.
People demand to go through life seeing nothing offensive. Well, I’m sorry, welcome to the world. Everyone has the right to be offended and everyone has the right to offend. And now people are so worried that now I offended someone. So what? Who gives a fuck? I just want to shrug when someone says, “I was offended.” So? Now what? It’s ludicrous. I think Trump is a backlash to that in a way. I think that’s a bit of a protest vote. Because Trump came out and said all these awful things. If you were a teacher, you’d have been fired for saying the shit he said. But people went, at least someone’s saying shit.
You think he goes against that trend of political correctness?
Well, there’s always antidotes. The more you go one way, there’s an uprising the other way. You’ve just got to do your thing and you’ll ride the storm. You know what? I’d say in the last 12 years there wasn’t a month that went by when some journalist or blogger said that this is the end of Ricky Gervais’ career. And the first few times you believe it, you think, Shit, really? Is that the end of my career? And you go, of course it isn’t. I don’t even know why they say it. It’s like the rapture. Their mistake is giving it a date. If anything, they’re doing me a favor by saying you should not go see this comedian. It’s like they’re my PR.
I think offense often comes when people can’t see the difference between the target of a joke and the subject of a joke. As soon as you start talking about race or religion, they suddenly think we shouldn’t be talking about this. Well, why not? Who fucking told you that? Of course you should be talking about it. You should be talking about everything. When someone says to me, do you think you’ve crossed a line, I say, “What line?” I didn’t fucking draw one. You did.
I don’t really want to compare you to Donald Trump, but the same way you say people have predicted that your career is going to be over, there probably wasn’t a week that went by in the past several months that people didn’t say it was the end of his campaign. So are you surprised that he has now been made the official Republican nominee by the American people?
Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? Because when he first came out I thought, oh that’s a publicity stunt. He’s a billionaire, he wants to be famous. He’s willing to spend some more money to be more famous. But then I thought, wait a minute, he’s doing really well here, he’s actually winning. It’s funny as well, because part of me thinks you need a real president, but the other part of me, as a comedian goes, but this is funnier. There’s a part of me that thinks, what’s the funniest outcome? I can’t get enough of him. He’s sort of getting slicker as well, because I don’t think he thought he could do this.
If he gets in, I don’t want him to be a good president. I want him to be a funny but terrible president. Because nothing will really happen, let’s face it. Obama couldn’t do much because everyone blocked him anyway. So I think there will still be pretty much a status quo going on. He’ll be the funniest figurehead, the best soundbites ever for late-night TV. People joked about Bush and Reagan, but life goes on. I don’t know how much a single president can do. There’s also part of me who thinks he’s a businessman, he probably won’t start World War III because it’ll be too expensive. We don’t know the future. We don’t know how bad him losing [to Ted Cruz] would have been. All the analysis in the world isn’t going to tell you what’s going to make a good or a bad president. The dangerous thing is that leaders these days are voted on charisma, it’s all fame, it’s all showbiz, it’s all popularity. And it’s all selfish. Even making our country great is slightly selfish as opposed to making the world great.
I also want to talk about the return of David Brent, which we all have to look forward to soon. What was it like going back into that character?
It’s been an absolute joy. I was sure I’d never bring The Office back, and it’s not The Office. I think that would be weird, all the same people, the same actors 15 years older, sitting at the same desks. But I liked the idea of it being 15 years after with this character who craved fame, who was the epitome of the normal guy who thought fame would sort him out. And what he’s doing? He’s selling toiletry products, but he’s never given up the dream of being a rockstar. And he thinks he’s going to get signed, because he’s been sold the lie. He thinks Simon Cowell’s going to turn up and go, “Here’s the album.”
It’s slightly sadder now too, because he thinks this documentary is like Martin Scorsese following the Rolling Stones around, but it’s actually a “Where Are They Now?” show. People sort of vaguely remember him and the memories of him are embarrassing. And the world’s different now. Now there are people that get on The Apprentice by saying, “I will destroy anyone who stands in my way.” And there’s the future president saying, “I’d like to punch him in the mouth.” So, there’s this new alpha male, this bullying mentality. And David Brent’s just out of time. He’s out of his league.