“What if you didn’t care what anyone thought of you?” asks Ricky Gervais. This is the question that inspired his phenomenally successful Netflix series After Life, and he is still working it out. “I had the idea for the show when I was thinking about cancel culture and people not being able to say what they thought because they would get in trouble; so I wondered, what if I had a character who didn’t care about that?” he says. “Why wouldn’t he care? Well, what if he didn’t want to live because he has lost the love of his life? This man is angry at the world so he is going to say and do what he wants and if it all gets too much he can kill himself.”
Gervais, 60, is at home in Hampstead where he lives with his partner, the novelist Jane Fallon, and their cat, Pickle. He is sitting in what looks like a trophy grotto — four Baftas are neatly lined up next to two Emmys on dark wooden shelves — sipping a beer (to quote The Office, “he drinks”) and looking like an off-duty music manager in a plain black t-shirt (he did briefly manage Suede in the Nineties).
As well as being the man who made us squirm with his caustic jokes in The Office, Extras and as a Golden Globes host, Gervais has an earnest side. Of course he is hilarious, punctuating serious points about why men don’t cry with self-deprecation and snark, frequently erupting into high energy, contagious giggles. But he is also philosophical and wants his work to make a difference to people’s lives, “otherwise I might as well get an office job,” he says.
Last Thursday, he added another award to his collection when After Life won Best Comedy at the National TV Awards. He plays its main character Tony, a local paper reporter going through the seven stages of grief after the death of his wife Lisa from breast cancer. With respect to his previous work and The Office’s frequently quoted nightmare boss David Brent, Gervais thinks After Life is “the best thing I’ve ever written”. He is currently putting the finishing touches to the third and final season, coming soon to Netflix. He says it defies genre but “if I had to reduce it to a theme I’d say it’s a love story. There’s that line, I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her. Tony is an atheist so he hasn’t even got the comfort that he will see Lisa again in heaven”.
Gervais is the master of mixing poignant lines like this with humour that goes daringly close to the bone. The first joke he wrote for After Life was about a child calling Tony ‘a paedo’. “I thought, one, you’re going to let him off that because you know his wife is dead, two, it is a funny, terrible thing to say.”
Lines like this mean that Gervais has “had to talk broadcasters down from ledges for 20 years”, ever since he met Stephen Merchant working at Xfm in the Nineties and developed The Office. He has joked that The Office would be cancelled if it were made today and says now: “Let them cancel it, I’ve been paid.” He laughs before adding more seriously. “It is not that The Office wouldn’t get made today, it is that the broadcaster would be worried, although at the time I did have to explain irony to people. Nothing’s changed, it is just how vocal the pickets are.”
Does this make for dull TV? “There are still places that don’t pander to that nonsense.” Still, he hasn’t watched any British or American TV for two years, preferring Scandi Noir and French thrillers. As a result, he thinks After Life has “a European, Scandi pace”.
“The TV used to be on all day and I’d watch nothing. I don’t like all these personality-led dramas, with the big person on ITV. Now the TV goes on for two hours and you watch the best dramas from round the world. I don’t know who any of the actors are so I have no prejudice. The language might hide bad acting, who knows. The subtitles initially put me off — I thought I had perfect eyesight but Jane could read the subtitles before me. But never watch it dubbed, it is offensive, oh turn it off.”
While he agrees with “caveats to free speech — libel, the watershed, protecting children”, he thinks it is “impossible to have jokes that don’t offend anyone”. “Just because you are offended that doesn’t mean you are right. Why do people panic if they get one complaint? That’s like one person heckling me in a theatre of 20,000 seats and I walk off. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but you have to ignore it and do what is right with all your passion.” There is a difference between not liking something and criticising it to the extent “you are bullying to fire someone because they said something on Twitter.”
He continues: “I want to polarise. As I said with The Office, I wanted it to be a million people’s favourite show, not 10 million people’s favourite show. If you water it down and make it anodyne, people go, ‘yeah it was alright’. I don’t care if people hate it as long as they have some feelings.”
There is liberal swearing in his work too — Netflix allows him this creative freedom but also has a safe version.
After Life is the first show Gervais has done where strangers come up in the street and tell him how it has resonated with their experiences of grief.
The way Gervais talks about TV makes it sound therapeutic. “You cry and you feel better and you laugh and you feel better.” Music plays a crucial role in setting the mood — there’s Radiohead, David Bowie and Sufjan Stevens (and some cheesier songs, which Tony mocks his brother-in-law for playing in the car; Gervais says “this is what families and friends do, they wind each other up to the point of madness”).
He pauses to drink some beer, which he tells me is the vegan one he produced with BrewDog, “to support homeless dogs, so I tell myself I am drinking for a good cause.”
Gervais has long-championed animal rights. He supported former Royal Marine Pen Farthing’s controversial evacuation of dogs and cats from Afghanistan last month and has been a patron of Farthing’s animal charity Nowzad for a few years. What about the argument that they shouldn’t have been rescuing animals before people? “It’s nonsense, it didn’t take up any space, it was privately paid for and actually they got extra people out — but people want controversy.” He “doesn’t know anything about politics” but says that “all animals are perfect”.
He speaks fondly of the dog in After Life, Brandy (real name Anti). “The dog saves his life. Tony doesn’t kill himself because the dog is hungry. I was careful that Tony was never cruel to the dog, so you knew that he was a decent person trying to be this badass but can’t quite do it. He is only acerbic to people who deserve it — noisy eaters or people who won’t stop at a zebra crossing. He is like a verbal vigilante. Some say the show is nihilistic but I don’t think it is. People go through grief, loss and thinking whether life is still worth living.”
As a journalist, I enjoy seeing life at the fictional paper Tony works at. “The job took me a long time to work out,” says Gervais. “I wanted a job where he had to deal with people. I thought he could be in customer care but then hit on local news because it is banal and he hates the banal. He’s talking to people like the bloke who got five of the same card for their birthday and he is bored, until he finds out the bloke lost his wife and suddenly, bam, empathy.”
Gervais doesn’t have any experience of newsrooms (he is welcome to come visit the Standard any time) but when he and his partner were on the dole in the early Eighties they delivered a free local paper. “And if me and Jane are staying in a little village the first thing I do is get a local paper. If it’s something like ‘library book overdue’ or ‘TV stolen’ you know it’s a nice area. You pick one up in London and go ‘Jesus Christ, we are never leaving the house’.”
Deciding to bring After Life to an end was tricky; The Office and Extras both wrapped up after two seasons and Gervais seems to like leaving audiences wanting more. “I told everyone this would be the last After Life so I can’t go back. It is tempting, it would be easy to do a fourth and makes sense businesswise. But it doesn’t make sense artistically; you want to push yourself.” He may not be religious but he has a puritan work ethic, saying he felt guilty while on his stand up tour, Humanity, about only doing one hour’s work a night and he is chomping at the bit to “jump straight back into the saddle” and write a new series, deliberating between two ideas.
Explaining his process, he almost seems to tie himself in knots. “I burn my bridges and make a rod for my own back, to use two metaphors, in that I put all my eggs in one basket, like everything I write is the only series I am going to do. So that makes it loads harder. With After Life, I did want Tony to complete his journey — not wrapped up in a bow and happily ever after, but he is here now, pushing towards a conclusion. There are hundreds of possible endings for After Life and you want to choose the best one.”
After Life seasons one and two are on Netflix now. Ricky Gervais will be speaking at the Evening Standard Stories Festival, in association with Netflix, September 24-26. Tickets for the festival are on sale now. Head to stories.standard.co.uk to book and find out more about the line-up.