Ricky Gervais
Photo by Todd Antony

Ricky Gervais: “The truth is more devastating than a lie”

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Short Profile

Name: Ricky Dene Gervais
DOB: 25 June 1961
Place of birth: Whitley, Reading, United Kingdom
Occupation: Comedian

Mr. Gervais, you recently tweeted, “Stupid people are my favorite.” Why?

It’s true! (Laughs) They’re so much fun! The good thing — and the annoying thing — about stupid people is that they don’t know they’re stupid. Stupid is just funny. I don’t know why. Stupidity mixed with arrogance is even funnier.

You’re the third comedian I’ve heard say that.

Really? Great! Because it is true! For example, there are people who will say, “Can’t wait to see you burning in hell!” You idiot! Why say that? You’re making a fool of yourself! I like that in comedy as well. Stupidity without malice isn’t horrible; some people can’t help it. True idiocy is when you mix nastiness with stupidity. I think being nice is more important than being clever.

Even though you can be quite ruthless with your jokes?

I think you can make fun of anything except things people can’t help. They can’t help their race or their sex or their age, so you ridicule their pretension or their ego instead. You can ridicule ideas — ideas don’t have feelings. You can ridicule an idea that someone holds without hurting them. I think it’s important to hold a mirror up to society and yourself. When people take offense, they’ve often mistaken the target of the joke with the subject of the joke: you can tell jokes about race, sex, and age without being racist, sexist, or ageist.

Do you sometimes still get nervous when you tell jokes like that though?

Some people are scared of taboo subjects, but I think it’s always important to point and hold the mirror up. That’s what a comedian’s job is; they’re not politicians. Politicians worry about popularity, whereas comedians shouldn’t worry about popularity, they should worry about the truth.

“Just because you’re offended, it doesn’t mean you’re right.”

You’re really not concerned whether people take your jokes the wrong way or not? The backlash can be brutal sometimes.

If they take it personally, that’s their problem! I understand that sometimes that happens, so I’m careful with my wording, but if I’ve done my best and most or even some people get it, then it’s not my fault. You can’t legislate against stupidity. You can’t worry about one person not understanding a joke — because some people will never get it! Someone misunderstanding you is not your problem, it is theirs. On the other hand, if everyone doesn’t get it, then there’s probably something wrong with the joke.

Has today’s audience become too sensitive, in your opinion?

I think people care too much about offense these days. There’s nothing you can say that someone somewhere won’t find offensive. Just because you’re offended, it doesn’t mean you’re right. And it has gotten to this point where if one person complains, they expect the world to stop. In art, the only valid form of censorship is your right not to listen. You can turn your own television off, but it’s wrong for people to try to turn other people’s televisions off. It has nothing to do with you. You don’t have to come to my show, you don’t have to listen to me, you don’t have to agree with me, but I am going to say what I like.

Ricky Gervais quips that his lawyers proofread one of the jokes in his opening monologue at the 2011 Golden Globes.

A couple of years ago during the Golden Globes, you said, “My lawyers helped me with the wording of that joke.”

That was just a joke. But when you write a script or something for TV or Netflix, someone legally checks it. If you talk about a book, you have to make sure you get the quote right, for example. And I agree with that! I think outside of breaking the law, like incitement of violence or libel, you should be able to say anything you want as long as it’s the truth.

Although a lot of comedy involves exaggeration and fiction?

The truth is more devastating than a lie. I’m very careful about my jokes. I factually check them. I never want to lie about someone to get a laugh. In all the things I say and all the TV shows I’ve done, I’ve never had a complaint upheld. I’m careful. If someone deserves ridicule you don’t need to lie about them. The truth is enough. I can tell the truth about Donald Trump and that’s devastating. I don’t need to lie about him, I don’t need to laugh at his hair, I just have to tell you some of the things he’s said, and that’s enough.

“A comedian without a sense of humor is horrible.”

Where does the truth come into play when you’re talking about yourself? Are you of the school that comedians who dish it out should also be able to take it?

I think you have to be fair. You’re not allowed to laugh at other people and when it comes back to you say, “That was cruel!” If I’m a comedian that gets things wrong, the joke is that I’m an idiot. A comedian should be above it. A comedian without a sense of humor is horrible. So, yes, people see that I can be the butt of the joke as well, and often I am. I grew up with that, with play fighting and teasing. It’s quite a British thing. We’re very sarcastic. If you lose your temper, you lose. If you laugh or come back, it is good.

You said your humor is particularly British, but your global success would rather imply that it is more of a universal kind.

My humor is British — we like to take the piss. We play fight. We tease. But my comedy and my influence is probably more American. I like everything from Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Woody Allen, and modern comedy on the screen that’s more complaining, more character lead, more being the butt of the joke as opposed to the one-liner.

Ricky Gervais stars as David Brent in the TV series The Office.

When it comes to your own comedy, do you prefer directing, acting, hosting an awards show or doing stand-up?

I love them all, but stand­up is a medium where you can do everything. It is the last bastion of self-censorship, because what you think is what they hear. There is no filter. There’s no one involved. When you’re on stage and there are 10,000 people, they’re hearing exactly what you want them to hear. They might take it wrong, but at least it is your pure idea. I don’t really enjoy doing other people’s movies much. I like them, but it’s not as fulfilling as creating it yourself.

Is that why you enjoyed working on The Office so much?

Right because if you create a narrative for TV or film, all those mediums you mentioned come as one. I love writing. The best an idea ever is at that point, and then it’s about how little you ruin it. That’s why I take charge, so that I make sure it’s my vision.