Ricky Gervais has made a career out of the uncomfortable. Both through his sitcoms “The Office” and “Extras” (co-created with and Stephen Merchant) and in his standup routines, he’s created situations and subjects that poke fun standards of decorum.
But with his latest project, the comedy “Derek,” Gervais has created a character most viewers didn’t really expect from him: one who’s genuinely nice. The series, which is currently in its second season on Netflix and airs on Channel 4 in the U.K., also earned Gervais an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of the well-meaning, but perhaps simple, title character who deeply loves his job in a retirement home. There are, of course, awkward moments. But, as opposed to Gervais’ past projects, the situations that Derek and his friends find themselves in aren’t a result of their egos.
In an exclusive interview with Variety, Gervais talks about character development, the evolving world of comedic television, working with Netflix and if he’d ever host the Emmys.
How did the character of Derek and the show come about?
We haven’t had a selfless character for a long time. And I’m responsible for it; I’m one of the ringleaders of the comedy of embarrassment and excruciating faux paus and a lot of my stuff has been about fame and swipes. I did “Extras,” which is having a go at the ego of the actor, and I did the Golden Globes, and we know what happened there. I wanted to get back to writing about ordinary people as well.
I think all characters have got to be flawed in some way, but usually the flaws are their own fault … whereas the flaws of the people in “Derek” aren’t their own fault. They’re superficial; they’re the way they look, the way they talk, the way they walk.
I think what is apparent and what jumps out is the sincerity, and that’s because … what they say is what they mean and it takes on more of a dramatic feel because comedy is usually undermining of a society norm. The reason I made [the characters] look a bit weird and scruffy is that kindness can come about and trump everything.
Was the goal also to turn the camera on the audience to show how they perceive, say, the elderly?
My characters are never terrible. I never do murderers and rapists and pedophiles. [“The Office’s”] David Brent’s worst crime is that he confused popularity with respect. Now, there’s a whole generation of people doing that with reality shows … It’s worse since I created David Brent. Andy Warhol could never have known how prophetic he was. There will be a celebrity suicide one day to get ratings. People will cut parts of their body off to get on telly on a game show one day, mark my words!
Is Derek the character based on anyone in particular?
It was meant to be that out of the mouth of babes. I did like that honest innocence without malice or prejudice. He can say things with all good intentions. That’s really me saying some people worry about being disingenuous about things and they sometimes mistake the target of the joke for the subject of the joke. If you’re being genuine and honest and compassionate, you can say anything to someone.
Is this also why you haven’t officially diagnosed Derek?
Early on, people made the assumptions that he was autistic or had Downs syndrome or learning disabled or Asperger’s and they assumed because of that it was going to be cruel. Now they’ve seen it and it’s the opposite of cruel; it’s the loveliest representation of a person I think ever in a sitcom. I never wrote him as any of those things — he was meant to be like a nerd who worked in a care home.
People still argue with me and I’m like no, I created him. Was Sherlock Holmes autistic? Well, let’s ask Arthur Conan Doyle. He’s a fictional character. Why are we arguing about a fictional character? Then he became a role model for people with learning disabilities or Autism or their parents and they started writing to me to say he’s a lovely role model and I identify with him, so I couldn’t suddenly change my story. I said he’s not meant to be that, but he is meant to be different.
I don’t know why people suddenly assume that. They didn’t assume it with Mr. Bean or Father Dougal in “Father Ted.” These people don’t get put under the microscope like my characters … it seems odd that with all the strangest characters in comedy with IQs of about nine that they won’t let this one go.
This year’s Emmy nominees for lead actors in a comedy are reflecting this. You have “Derek.” Also William H. Macy in “Shameless,” Louis C.K. in “Louie” and Don Cheadle in “House of Lies” are all playing different characters from the traditional sitcom nominees. Do you think this means that the definition of comedy is evolving?
People want to categorize something and then they say it fails the test. They’ll say this is a comedy and it’s not funny enough. I want to go, I didn’t say it was a comedy. It’s like when you say I’ve got a joke and someone says you crossed the line. Well, I didn’t draw the line. You did. Draw the line further away and I won’t cross it.
Comedy and drama are branches of the same tree. The old definition of comedy and drama is one ends in death and one ends in marriage. It’s so vague, the dictionary definition. We’re all different. Tragedy is funny. That’s what I deal with, really.
I don’t think it’s changing. I think things come in and out of fashion. The gamut has always been there. It’s just what’s been popular or what’s being bothered getting made or people are exposed to different things.
It’s difficult when you categorize things. As much as I want to warn people — with “The Office” it was oh it’s not like a traditional sitcom. In the early days, I’d say it’s not very funny, there’s no laugh track — if someone says it’s not what I expected, I’d say well that’s good. Why would you want something that’s expected? There’s enough Hollywood romcoms that are exactly what you expected and you saw the whole film in the nine-minute trailer with the same plot as the one you went to see last month. I don’t want what I expected, I want something I wasn’t expecting. That’s the main ingredient with comedy; surprise.
SEE ALSO: 2014 Emmys Lead Actor Nominees
Speaking of surprises. Is it possible this nomination will lead to you hosting the Emmys one day?
Oh, I wouldn’t mind, but it’s a lot more work with hosting the Emmys. With the Golden Globes, I had to do eight two-minute links. I’d do that for the Emmys. I’m so lazy and I also know that I’m best in small doses. It’s for the public. I think people would rather have 16 minutes of me that 60 minutes.
I guess the next goal would be to get the Emmys to actually be hosted on Netflix.
That would be great. Netflix is amazing isn’t it? I think Netflix was invented for me. I suppose as an artist you want as many people to see your work as possible, but without compromise. I’ve always wanted final edit and to get that sort of freedom I have to go to more fringe channels, premium cable or HBO or BBC 2 or Channel 4. Then Netflix comes along and it’s the best of both worlds; zero interference, the sky’s the limit. It’s like network ratings with no interference at all. They’re cash rich, but that’s not important.
It’s all about freedom. Netflix hasn’t changed the genre. All they’ve done is patterned it to the way people want to watch things. And that’s been changing for awhile. TiVo changed the game straight away and then box sets. Now it’s around all the time. That’s the great thing about being nominated for an Emmy when you’re on Netflix because if people hadn’t seen the show before, they can watch it now.
Wait. They share the ratings numbers with you?
No, they don’t. They just give me clues how well they’re doing. There’s an amazing stat as well that 35 percent of Internet traffic entering North America every week is Netflix. That is phenomenal. That is amazing, if you count it as a broadcaster.
It’s so lovely and it’s so global. Fifty million subscribers coming up. And it’s so fast. Think about the world, the world is computers and the Internet. It’s exponential. It’s mind-blowing. We’re living in an amazing age … computers, there’s no stopping them. I sound like someone who was born in a different century and was thawed out!
Like if you invented fire?
Exactly! It’s like a frat film where they found an old cave man and they thawed me out and shaved me and I’m really good at skateboarding and I’m a wizard on the computer. I start off by grunting, but I’m an amazing hacker.
So you’re going to take over Pauly Shore’s career?
This is an Adam Sandler movie. I’m going to write to him now.