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Several years ago at the Golden Globe Awards when the winner in the best television comedy category was announced, the creators of The Office, the British sitcom that later spawned a successful American counterpart, took the stage to claim their award. Ricky Gervais, the show's star and chief creative talent, later recalled hearing that film legend Clint Eastwood turned to a companion in the audience and asked, “Who the ___ are they?”

When recalling the moment years later, Gervais described it as “my favorite thing anyone has ever said about me. . . .”

Who is Ricky Gervais?

The writer, director, actor, and comedian has been honored with three Golden Globes, two Emmys, and seven BAFTA awards, but like anyone else, he first saw life as a child.

He was born June 25, 1961 in Reading, Berkshire, England. Gervais remembers his childhood as almost idyllic, even comparing it to The Waltons. His background was working class, and he remembers he was one of the few people at his school that went on to pursue an advanced education.

“When you do that in a world where it's important to get a job, you do vocational subjects,” he said, so he studied biology at University College in London, but later switched to philosophy.

“I suppose it was a luxury of learning a subject for a few years that I knew was absolutely worthless vocationally,” he said. “I've always felt it's better to learn and enjoy life and understand things a little bit more, then thinking that life is just a nine-to-five.” While at university, he also met his long-time love, Jane Fallon.

When show-biz beckoned, he was drawn first to music. With his friend, Bill Macrae, he formed the pop duo, Seona Dancing. Signed to London Records, the pair released two singles, “More to Lose” and “Bitter Heart,” but while both managed to enter the UK pop charts, neither got very far, with the latter rising no higher than # 70. He later switched to the other side of the footlights, briefly managing the band Suede, as well as a Queen tribute band.

It was while he dabbled in music that he saw a film that would prove to have the greatest influence on his comedy: This Is Spinal Tap.

“I saw it in 1984, and I was in a band . . . The brilliance of the film is that it's for everyone. It's universal, it just happens to be guitars. It was the biggest influence on The Office. The actual vehicle and the rendering was Spinal Tap all the way . . . You laugh at them because, as a viewer, you see the difference between how they are and how they see themselves. It's the gap that's funny.”

Another influence was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

“Laurel and Hardy were my first comedy love. They nailed it - they got it right 100 years ago . . . it's the funniest, warmest, most intricate piece of on-screen comedy I can imagine.”

Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore also had an impact on his comic sensibilities. Cooke and Moore were “establishment, BBC, Oxbridge footlight comedians and intellectuals with a lot to lose. They just got drunk and said awful things.”

Gervais was working as an events manager for the University of London Union when his future collaborator, Stephen Merchant, applied for a job as his assistant. Gervais admits to assigning the most boring tasks to Merchant while he “messed around.” This experience undoubtedly helped inspire their breakthrough success with The Office.

Gervais and Merchant later began contributing comic sketches to The Breezeblock on BBC Radio 1, and in 1998. Gervais made his television debut in Golden Years, a series pilot that aired on Channel 4's Comedy Lab. But it was in the satirical The 11 O' Clock Show that he first caught the attention of a wide audience. His character was notorious for his use of expletives and habit of making crude, politically incorrect statements.

The Office came about almost by accident. Stephen Merchant was required to make a short subject for a BBC production course, and decided to make a parody. The result found its way to the BBC's Head of Entertainment, and then the Head of Comedy who saw a potential series in the short. Merchant and Gervais went to work on a script, but once it was completed, BBC executives expressed reservations about the lead character, David Brent which Gervais would so memorably play. How, they wondered, had someone so incompetent avoided getting the ax?

“Go and take a look around this building,” Gervais told them. “Just go and knock on a few doors.”

Set in an office of a paper merchant, The Office demonstrated a keen eye for the details of the white-collar world and an ability to mine it for comic gold.

As Gervais noted, most of his comedy comes from real life. “I people-watched to a certain extent, as a comedian and an actor. The funniest things that happen are always in real life. People flicking ash or drinking a pint in a certain way - you're constantly aware of that, of life's tapestry.”

The initial six-episode run of The Office debuted in the UK in July 2001. The series was not an immediate success, but word of mouth slowly began to build, and the re-broadcasts, as well as the release of the shows on DVD, eventually transformed it into a hit. The second season of shows topped the ratings in Britain when they premiered in September 2002. The show would later win over America when it was picked up by HBO.

“Sometimes you laugh because it's funny, and sometimes you laugh because it's true,” Film Freak Central observed of The Office. “The latter category covers someone like David Brent.” CultureVulture.net described Brent, played by Gervais, as “the most jaw-droppingly awful human being to appear on television.” The San Francisco Chronicle praised the series for saving America “from the inanity of its own sitcoms.”

As Brent, Gervais portrayed a character familiar to almost anyone who has had a boss: a man whose limited self-esteem comes from the equally limited power of his managerial position. Beneath the laughter, there is something a little depressing about The Office, which Gervais acknowledges.

“Well, if you looked at The Office on paper - a place where nothing happens, with no stars, no jokes and no plot - that's pretty depressing.”

Although a success, The Office would remain more of a cult favorite rather than a mainstream hit, and that's fine with Gervais.

“There's nothing wrong with getting 20 million viewers,” he said, “but I think there's something wrong with aiming at getting 20 million viewers, because then you have to take away all the things that will offend, and you'll end up with something so anodyne that it just washes over you for half an hour.”

Nonetheless, The Office would be adapted into a successful American version for NBC starring Steve Carell, as well as by France and Germany.

“They have done an amazing job,” he says of the Americanized edition. “I love it. It's brilliant. Steve Carell is just, well, the most famous comedian of all time. How did that happen? He's amazing.” Gervais would write an episode for the American version, and serve as one of the executive producers.

Gervais's next series, Extras, also displayed the subtle humor that characterized his first success. Premiering in the UK on the BBC in July 2005, Extras quickly traveled overseas for its U.S. debut on HBO only two months later. Once again collaborating with Stephen Merchant, Gravais starred in the series as Andy Millman, a background artist in the British film industry. Unlike The Office, Gravais was able to attract top-flight guest stars for the series, including Patrick Stewart, David Bowie, Kate Winslet, Sir Ian McKellen, and Robert DeNiro.

The first season of Extras won the Golden Globe for best television series.

Gervais has also appeared on the big screen in such films as Stardust with DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer, and A Night at the Museum, but he has turned down his share of high-profile projects. Offered a supporting role in the star-studded Ocean's Twelve, he said, “Why say a couple of lines opposite Brad Pitt when I could be playing leads back home?” He was similarly ambivalent about an offer to appear with Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. “I didn't really fancy sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles for nine weeks for two minutes on screen, to be honest.”

He once said, “I don't want to be an actor. I want to write and direct.” But his experiences filming A Night at the Museum changed that. “It gave me the acting bug. It's not bad doing stuff that you didn't write. I'm just learning to trust other people. If you get the right director, the right writer, and the right co-star, you can make a good film.”

This fall, he'll star as a man with the ability to see ghosts in the comedy, Ghost Town, co-starring Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear. But chances are he will be sticking to comedy. In 2004, he tried a dramatic role in the “Facade” episode of Jennifer Garner's cult hit, Alias, but insists he hasn't seen the final result.

“Me being serious,” he said. “I can't watch it.”

He also appeared in and wrote an episode of The Simpsons, although he says that “all I did was put down a lot of observations in an email and they made it look like a Simpsons script.”
In the meantime, he penned the children's book, Flanimals, did stand-up comedy, and even boxed for charity (winning in a split-decision verdict against entrepreneur Grant Bovey). Such intriguingly diverse activities suggest he's serious about not having a “plan” for his career.

“I've always tried to make something out of ideas, really. It was never a plan. I never thought 'Right. First I'll get famous, and then I'll do a book. Then I'll do a podcast.' What I do next is never strategic.”

He is also an animal lover who became concerned about cruelty to animals when watching wildlife documentaries as a child:

“When I see a toreador in a bullfight getting gored, I think, 'Good, you shouldn't be in there.' What is the pleasure in seeing an animal speared to death? It's the same with fox hunting. They're just psychopaths.”

He also finds little appealing about living a glamorous show-biz lifestyle.

“It's all too much trouble for me. It's probably because I'm fat and lazy and old.”

But he is successful, and now he's even famous enough that even Clint Eastwood probably knows who he is.

--by Brian W. Fairbanks



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