It would seem a challenge to create a comedy about grief, but for writer/producer/director/actor Ricky Gervais, taking on challenges is a core skill set. In Netflix’s After Life, the latest series from the Emmy Award-winning British comic, Gervais tackles the darkest subjects with the deftest touch, daring the audience to take an emotional journey that is both surprising and cathartic. And really funny. As usual, Gervais sprinkles the serious with the silly and sometimes scurrilous, packing the show with colorful (and sometimes bawdy) characters and a huge heart. After 2 seasons and with a third one already green-lit, After Life is the personal pinnacle of a career that has launched an iconic franchise (The Office), played to sold-out venues worldwide and bruised more than a few Hollywood egos.
I chatted with Gervais about how important it was to find the right tone for After Life, what he considers his job as a comedian to be, and how he really felt about hosting the Golden Globes.
AwardsWatch: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I have to say, like a fine wine—which you know—you are getting better with age.
Ricky Gervais: Oh, thank you!
After Life is truly one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. It traverses so many different emotions and realities and it’s just so honest.
You’ve hit the exact two things on the head that I’ve tried to develop over my career and get better, like a fine wine, which is being more honest and to not be scared of emotions. I don’t know if it’s the funniest thing I’ve done, but it’s certainly the most honest and emotional. And that’s what I aim for now. I just want to be more honest and braver. I don’t want to win more awards or get more famous or get more work, I’m busy enough, everything I do now, I ask myself, am I being as brave and as honest as I can possibly be. So you really said the right thing there.
And it’s interesting because the two things I wanted to ask you were, is this the most personal thing you’ve done, and you mentioned how you love Curb Your Enthusiasm because you say it’s brave, but don’t you think After Life is brave?
I think Curb Your Enthusiasm probably is in some ways braver because he cares about nothing but the joke. He cares about no issue. I might be that brave live, but it’s harder to do that when you also have real feelings to worry about, and pathos. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, he doesn’t worry about the consequences because next week he can just shrug it off! Because I deal with realism more, I have to worry about the realistic consequences, do you know what I mean? [After Life] is about a man who is saying what he wants. It’s not that it’s braver, it’s that he doesn’t care anymore. I think one definition of courage is that you do things when you are afraid. It’s funny, all these things seem to be tying in.
Is it the most personal? I guess so, in the sense that I’m trying to make it honest and raw as I can. Everything I’ve ever done is semi-autobiographical, even if I’m not playing the character, they are based on people I know. I wrote The Office because I worked in an office and based it on true stories and behaviors. There is a bit of David Brent in me, because there’s a bit of David Brent in all of us. We all want to be loved, we all say the wrong thing, and he made the mistake of letting a film crew film it! [laughs] And then I was in the media, so I did Extras, which was sort of a study in media and fame, but really about ordinary people. And I’ve always been fascinated with—it’s always been about humanity. Everything I’ve done, when you really look at it, whatever it seems to be about, it’s about humanity. It’s about people, it’s about getting on. It’s about behavior. We create our own villains and heroes, it’s role-play for the soul. So we go through all these emotions–we really laugh, we really cry, we really get angry, we really feel empty and we really feel elated. It’s like a workout for the soul and nobody really gets hurt. That’s fiction at it’s best. And comedy is saying “we’re all idiots and that’s fine”! Unlike drama, it embraces our flaws. It says, well, what are you going to do, that’s what we’re like, get over it. So I’ve always studied those things but [After Life] starts with a tragedy, so it has in a certain way a more dramatic feel, the pacing is more dramatic.
Because, apart from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Family Guy, I don’t think I’ve watched comedy in five years. I’ve been watching Scandi dramas. But yes, I’ve always been interested in things like ego, truth, honesty, honor and it’s obvious when you’re dealing with it, like in Extras or when I’m having a go at celebrities at the Golden Globes. We expect actors and actresses to be narcissistic and pretentious. When you put it in the real world, it’s slightly more complicated and you have to do some sleight of hand for people to even notice it. Like the psychiatrist—as I said, we expect entertainers to be narcissist, but what’ the worst job to be a narcissist? Well, it’s is someone who should be talking about you instead of them. So I made the psychiatrist act like a spoiled, dumb Hollywood star.
And the tonal changes are so natural, they feel so organic and so real. I don’t think you’ve ever really lost like that, you’ve never lost a partner, and you’ve been partnered for over 30 years, did you sort of imagine what it would be like if you lost Jane?
Well, yeah, I know I couldn’t cope. There’s a line in After Life where Anne on the bench, talking about the husband she lost, says “I’d rather live missing him than have him missing me,” and I think that’s such a complicated, beautiful piece of altruism and mercy. I’m selfish— I want to go first. And that’s the idea. When I first came up with the whole idea of this, it was, imagine if you lose everything and you’re going to kill yourself, but you don’t for some reason, so then it’s “I’m going to punish the world. I’m going to do what I want and then, when it all gets too much, I’m going to kill myself.” It’s like a superpower! You wouldn’t be burdened with worry. The reason we worry about what say or do is because we want to be popular and not hurt someone’s feelings, or we know it will come back to haunt us. But when you don’t care about those things, you can do what you want. It’s a freedom, and I thought that would be fun to watch, because, as an audience, we live vicariously through his candor. We’re all restricted, and we all say things we wish we hadn’t, and we feel stupid and wish we’d done something, and we feel weak, so I thought that would be great to watch. And then the next thing I had to think of was, well, what’s losing everything? And so it was his life partner, and that’s why I made their marriage so fun. He put everything into, he didn’t want a promotion, he just wanted to get back to spend all this time with her and I made her his rock. And then the title came. Because I thought the main thrust of that play on words was he thinks this is after his life has ended, he literally thinks he lost himself when he lost Lisa, so that was his life and now this is something else. Then, I thought, let’s make him an atheist who doesn’t believe in a literal afterlife, so he doesn’t even have THAT to comfort him, so that’s where the line, “I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her.”
And the relationship with Lisa is so wonderful, but on the flip side the relationship with his father is so complicated and yet it is just as genuine and just as loving. The reactions he has are so real.
And he’s got all those feelings of guilt. He says to the nurse, “he wasn’t upset when I was here being grumpy, was he?” All the guilt kicks in. And he’s still a rational person. He knows it’s not like Lisa, it’s the natural order of things. But he still misses him, so it’s all these mixed emotions. Morality is complicated. You know, if it was simple, we would have a world full of good people. It’s not. It’s really complex. And most people don’t know what to do. And that’s why I hate it when villains are just all bad, they are child-murdering Satanists who don’t care about anything, right? [laughs] And good people are angels who have never done anything wrong in their lives. No, bad people do good things sometimes and good people do bad things sometimes. It’s complicated! And I love that ambiguity of morality because I want the audience to think! Drama isn’t just knowing the result, it’s the journey.
And the way he reacts to his father not knowing, continuing to say “Where’s Lisa?” and the honesty in Tony’s reaction, that’s real.
As a dramatic device, I wanted him to be having a bad day. In the first episode, he went from one bad day to the next, from watching a video of his deceased wife to seeing his Dad, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. The nurse gives him a bad time. He thinks he’s hit rock bottom. But you need time to heal. I made him a local journalist having to deal with these people wanting to get into the paper, again, to annoy him! I thought, you know, if you’re grieving and you don’t want to live, the last thing you want to do is deal with the public. But, again, I really love that rough with the smooth. Actually, the mundane things in the world saved his life. The fact that he had to keep feeding the dog, go to work to earn enough money to get drunk or whatever. I also wanted to show that there are people that were as bad off as him but that didn’t whine about as much. I wanted him to feel spoiled a little bit.
I wanted to ask you about that. There seems to be this image of you out there that you are sort of a misanthrope. You’ve said it yourself, you’re happier being with animals than with people, and yet have so much love and affection for these characters who surround Tony and annoy him. How do you find that humanity and that affection?
The reason I give people a hard time is because I care about them. It’s as simple as that. And that’s what comedy does. There’s hope in true satire, because satire says, “look how awful this is, but we can change it. We can be better.” So I like that. I like taking people and try to redeem them in some way. Tony says “the world is an awful place. We’re a terrible, narcissistic plague and the world would be better without us, I’d like to see everybody wiped off the face of the earth.” But that’s because he’s disappointed, because he knows how good people can be. Think of how good people can be. We invented art. We flew to the moon. We’ve evolved so far, we’ve built civilizations, and yet there are still people who are just awful. Why?? [laughs] How can they be the same species? How can a mass murdering pedophile be the same species as the man who cures cancer? [laughs]
And what I love is that you don’t play too much into that hope and give us a standard happy ending either.
Because life does suck, and it’s all about finding those moments of hope. We’re not going to reveal how the end of season two wraps up, but I can tell you I was a mess. It was so emotional and so perfect. You didn’t take the easy way.
Because that’s real life. You mentioned trying to balance that terrible tragedy with laughter, well, we do that every day. Real life is much scarier and harsher, with worse consequences than fiction. And that’s what makes me laugh, when creators or studios ask, “can the audience take it?” Of course they can take it! It’s not real! They’ve got worse things happening in their own life, of course they can take it. It’s good, it’s cathartic, it’s therapeutic. People identify with it and the the group of people who identify with it most of all are the people who are grieving. I have 300 letters sent to my agent. Nobody writes letters anymore. People come up to me on the street, “I lost my brother two weeks ago,” or “I lost my wife last year and that was me”. They like seeing that acting like that is ok, it’s normal. They probably felt terrible about how they felt, the guilt and the hate and the despair, and then they see it—a taboo subject deconstructed and put on a mainstream platform. And they suddenly feel normal again. That’s why I thought I had to treat it respectfully. And series 2, he wasn’t just better because that doesn’t happen. Life is a constant struggle and then you die. And that’s it. I’ve spoken to a lot of grief therapists who said that they used this in some of their lectures and it’s been good for their clients. They were so glad Tony didn’t end his life because what everyone going through grief really finds out is that there is hope. That’s all there is.
I want to switch gears a little bit. Since we are AwardsWatch, I would be remiss to not ask you about your gigs hosting the Golden Globes. What do you say to those people who have never seen Derek or After Life, and judge you only by your hosting gigs and may think you’re mean?
I get it. I think it’s a very common occupational hazard for a comedian who deals with real things and taboo subjects and contentious issues. And I deal with taboo subjects for a couple of reasons. One is I want to take the audience to places that they haven’t been before. I want them to feel comfortable during that joke. I want them to think, “Oh my God, how are you going to talk about this,” and I take them by the hand to a scary forest and we come out on the other side and it’s all sunny and it wasn’t that bad. No one really got hurt. No harm can come from discussing taboo subjects. I hate dogma, I hate people saying things like, “You should never discuss this or question it or talk about it.” It’s ludicrous. It depends what the joke is. And most defense comes when people mistake the subject of a joke with the target and they’re not necessarily the same.
As far as the Globes is concerned, I can justify everything I’ve ever said. I don’t go out there and try to undermine the moral fabric of America and ruin their day, I’ve got nothing against those people, but I try to make it a spectator sport. As a comedian, you have the dilemma, do you pander to the 200 egos in the room, or the two million people watching around the world. And there’s no competition because the people at home are not millionaires and they are not winning awards, so I do it for them. And what do I really do? This isn’t a room full of wounded soldiers! These are the most privileged, secure celebrities in the world and what do I do? I tease them about their public behavior! That’s all I do. And it goes out on mainstream network television in the afternoon. I’ve never had a complaint. And most outrage is also fake. They just want to be heard. They want the headline, “so and so said a thing and people are furious.” Do you know what? People aren’t furious, and they wouldn’t have even heard about it if you hadn’t printed it. No one cares. There was nothing to see here. That’s the bottom line. But people fall to the hype.
One thing that was controversial was you told everyone, “Don’t get up here and get on your soapbox.” Let’s admit, the world is a different place today than it was back in January. Would you still say that today? Would you still discourage them from speaking their minds?
No. Well, one, it was a joke, and two, I knew they’d ignore me. Three, it wasn’t about activism or them saying good things, it was about hypocrisy. It was about people lecturing poor people at home telling them to recycle when they’d arrived in a limo and private jet. It’s about people lecturing people about things they don’t know anything about. It’s about people going, “Look what I pointed out, I must be perfect!” That’s what annoys me. When someone stands up there and says, “this is a terrible thing and we’ve got to change it,” I’ll give them a round of applause! If I find out they are just as bad and they don’t really mean it, then I’m annoyed!
I just have to say my favorite thing you’ve ever done, other than After Life, is The Ricky Gervais Show, with Karl Pilkington and Stephen Merchant. I also love your podcast on Sirius/XM. They genuinely sound like a group of friends sitting around talking about nothing and everything. Is good conversation a lost art?
I think people think that because everything now is about identity politics and we fall into tribes. So people don’t look at the argument anymore, they look at who’s saying it. And if they decide you’re not on the right side, they try and undermine you to discredit your argument, as opposed to actually tell you what’s wrong with your argument. And that’s been reduced so much to sound bites on vox pop, on Twitter, there’s no room for nuance. Everything you are is an exaggeration on Twitter. If you are vaguely left wing, a tweet will make you sound like Trotsky. If you’re vaguely right-wing, it will make you sound like Hitler. And if you’re centrist, it’ll make you look like a coward. But that’s why the format of the podcast, the long form discussion, is so important. If you looked at Twitter, you’d think there was a war going on right now. You go out into the real world, it’s fine! It’s not that bad! [laughs] They’ve got their own lives and they are walking their dogs and they’re going home and they’re making tea and they watching telly. But Twitter looks like that 1-2% of civilization that are exaggerated, who look like they’re trying to kill each other. It gives us a false view of society. So yeah, the longer you’re on Twitter, the worse you’ll think the world is.
So we need to actually go back to having actual conversations with each other.
Yeah! Conversations are great. I don’t understand it, why people on both sides fear freedom of speech. It’s the one thing everyone should agree on. As long as we’re all talking then there can be progress. It’s mad for either side to try and restrict free speech. It’s shooting yourself in the foot. It’s so odd.
I know you’re working on season 3, we’re really looking forward to it.
Yeah, I’m really getting excited. I’ve got 30-40 pages of ideas. Just trying to push the envelope more and trying to keep it bubbling. Hopefully, it should be good.
Season 2 of After Life is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.