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Ricky Gervais Interview: Six Things We Learned

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CreditCreditMamadi Doumbouya for The New York Times

Since Ricky Gervais’s 2001 hit “The Office” — which was at once hilarious, cringe-worthy and divisive — the comedian has cemented himself in the space where comedy might make you a little uncomfortable. “Anything you do that’s the slightest bit interesting,” he said, “as many people are going to hate it as love it.” He talked to David Marchese about provocation, picking targets and outrage culture. Here are six things we learned.

Gervais uses Twitter to look for material. His 13 million Twitter followers allow him to see a “cross-section of society a thousand times faster than I could’ve otherwise.” He’ll ask them questions like, “What’s a subject you should never joke about?” and can come up with some jokes that way, sometimes just reading out the responses. It’s funny, he maintains, because you think about the one person who would be angry about the joke. “The audience has got to be clever enough to know when I’m playing the idiot and saying the wrong thing for comic effect. That’s one of the things of comedy: laughing at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is.”

Even his more offensive jokes work because they’re so sophisticated. During his “Humanity” special, Gervais made a joke that begins with a celebrity killing a person with a car and ends in wanting to self-identify as a chimp named Bobo. Still, Gervais maintains that his audience is logical enough to get it. “I become the idiot who believes that being transgender is the same as changing into a chimp,” he told Marchese. “But I have to do the joke like I mean it for it to work.” He continued, “Most people haven’t got the time to analyze the jokes, and I go in and out of the parody too fast for some. But as long as I know the target and some people get it and agree with me, I think the jokes are justified.”

He wants people to know he’s a nice guy. As a comedian and actor who achieved fame for socially awkward characters like David Brent in “The Office,” Gervais tries to be self-aware in his real life. “I do ironic jokes in my social life. All people do that when they joke with each other, and they don’t have to explain themselves. Whereas you do feel the need to explain jokes to strangers.”

It’s perfectly fine for awards shows to be political. “Despite what people think of me, I’m not judgmental at all,” Gervais said. He walks both sides of this argument — that Hollywood can take itself too seriously or that, say, President Trump shouldn’t care about Hollywood. He’s able to strike this balance, he says, because he keeps his politics out of the show; if you rely on an audience to agree with you, you lose something. “Comedy is an intellectual pursuit, not an emotional one.”

He has complicated feelings on cancel culture. “If people don’t accept a person’s apology for a mistake, there’s no value in that person trying to improve,” he told Marchese, regarding the recent backlash against Kevin Hart’s being offered to host the Oscars after some of his old jokes were thought to be homophobic. Gervais hates virtue signaling, which, to him, allows people to show off how great they are. Canceling someone should depend on a lot of things: the deed, the accusation, the time, how much you liked them. “The Louis C.K. thing — is he allowed to gig? Yeah, he is. Are people allowed to protest? Yeah, they are. But you can’t change history.”

Not everyone likes “The Office.” “Some people hate it,” he told Marchese, “which is comforting.”

[Read the rest of David Marchese’s interview with Ricky Gervais.]

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