Ricky Gervais didn’t set out to make a show about grief.
“It wasn't planned,” the comedian tells me from his London home on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “It sort of just happened.”
The comedian was on tour with his Humanity stand-up hour, much of which revolved around big issues like free speech and political correctness. “I thought, we can’t say what we want,” he says. “And sometimes that’s for good reason because we’re culpable for the things we say. And we’re worried about the consequences. So the reason why we don’t go around saying exactly what we want to people is that we’re worried what they think of us.”
He started thinking, “What if you didn’t care? What if you didn’t care about dying? Then you could say what you want. If you didn’t care about the consequences, you could do anything.”
All of this led Gervais to the character of Tony in After Life, the darkly funny and surprisingly moving series he created and stars in on Netflix. After Tony’s wife dies of cancer, he comes close to killing himself but instead decides to try living his life without caring what people think of him.
This makes Tony both similar and completely different from the role that first brought Gervais fame on his original version of The Office.
“David Brent says things because he wants to be popular and loved,” he explains. “Tony says things for the opposite reason. He wants to hurt people’s feelings. But what they’ve got in common is that they both need a hug and they don’t quite know that yet. David Brent thinks his life would be good if he was famous, because he equates that with happiness. He’s been sold a terrible bill there. It’s just not true.”
Gervais, meanwhile, is very famous. And by all indications he has a very good life. And yet in recent years, he has emulated his characters by pushing his comedy in a direction that has alienated progressives, leading to allegations that he has abandoned the left in favor of the alt-right. The most recent backlash came when he went after “woke” Hollywood hypocrisy at the Golden Globe Awards in January.
“What’s weird about that is it was actually the left on social media that once again said, ‘Oh, he’s alt-right now,’” Gervais says. “What could be less right-wing than going after the biggest, richest corporations in the world?”
The second season of After Life premiered about a month into the world’s collective coronavirus quarantine and Netflix recently announced it has been picked up for a third season, which Gervais is currently writing while he’s stuck inside.
On the day we Zoom, he says he’s done “about 28 minutes worth of actual writing,” adding that he’s “not finding it as hard to be as productive” during the pandemic as he has in the past. If he writes one scene in about half an hour, he’ll think to himself, “It might take a day to film that, so I’ve done a day’s work.”
“I wasn’t going to do an unwanted encore,” he says of season three. “I’m not going to do it for the sake of it. And I wouldn’t want Netflix to do it just because it was paying for itself. I want it to be a demanded-for encore.”
But while his iconic shows like The Office and Extras both had second seasons, he’s never made a third season of anything in his entire career.
“I think the reason why I broke the rules this time is I haven’t explored all the characters. And I’ve got more lead characters in this than any other show I’ve done,” he says. He sees the fictional town of Tambury that he created as a “grieving Springfield” from The Simpsons.
Gervais knows that the first big question everyone will have for season three is, “Do they ever talk about the pandemic?” He’s still trying to figure that out. “I’m hoping that it’s a distant memory,” he says. “I think there’s going to be about 30 novels and bad movies and bad series about the pandemic. I don’t think we need another one. I might do a throwaway mention of the lockdown.”
The comedian was at the beginning of a worldwide tour in March when he had to postpone all of his upcoming gigs indefinitely. While he says his new stand-up hour may also include a “mention” of the story that changed the world, he promises, “I’m not gonna do a special about coronavirus.”
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Why ‘After Life’ is such a fitting quarantine binge
“I think people have been thinking about what really matters in life. Suddenly, they’re calling their family more, they’re worried about their family like they weren’t two months ago. Also, it’s everywhere. You know, these things have happened before, but the reason why this is different—and I've never seen anything like it in my lifetime—is because it happened all around the world at the same time. Usually you’re seeing terrible things on TV and it’s not in your back garden. ‘Oh isn’t that terrible. But it’s not here.’ Now it is. Also I think people are sick of watching TV shows made by Zoom. It’s refreshing to see something that isn't about the pandemic because everyone knows it was filmed before. So that’s quite nice. It's funny though, because when I watch TV now, and two people are hugging, I’m thinking ‘Keep apart, keep apart.’ It could be an old movie. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, he’s going to catch it now.’”
On getting called ‘alt-right’ for promoting ‘free speech’
“If I do a tweet about freedom of speech, people go, ‘Oh, he’s alt-right now.’ And I think, when did that happen? The alt-right were the ones, the fascists were the ones that were closing down free speech. Basically people love the idea of free speech until they hear something they don’t like. That’s it. It just becomes selfish. People try and justify it as well. They go, ‘I’m all for freedom of speech, but you know, that’s the one thing you shouldn't joke about.’ Oh, you mean the one thing that you care about?”
On Fox News praising his ‘woke’ Hollywood jokes
“Even on Fox News, they said, ‘Well, no, Ricky is left-wing. He hates us. He hates Trump.’ Even the right was saying they know I’m left. So it’s odd. People pretend they don’t like a joke, for some reason. But you know what? They just don’t like the joke having the target that they defend. That’s the bottom line. They do a new one now. They go, ‘I’m not offended, I’m just bored.’ Or ‘it’s lazy.’ No, you mean you just don’t like the joke. You liked it when I made the joke about the thing you don’t like. You didn’t like it when I made the joke about the thing you do like. Just admit it. I don’t care if people like all the jokes. But don’t pretend you’ve weighed it up and you’re being the fair one. You just don’t like that joke and that’s fine.”
On his brash Golden Globes persona
“I never want to upset anyone. I think people fall for the marketing a little bit. Because I'm out there pretending to not care and there’s a poster with ‘Too Hot to Handle’ and I go out there with a beer. ‘He’s drunk. He doesn’t care!’ Well, you know, I've practiced those jokes in the mirror. They’ve been lawyered. They're not breaking any broadcast rules. How bad can they be? They're not libeling anyone. Also, it’s not a room full of wounded soldiers. These are the most privileged people on the planet. I can tease them a bit about that public behavior.”
On the infamous clip of him saying the ‘n-word’ with Chris Rock, Louis C.K. and Jerry Seinfeld
“You’ve got to make things bulletproof now for 10 years time, which is nonsense. I saw John Wayne got canceled 40 years after his death last year cause he wasn’t woke enough. So there’s that. And obviously we’re discussing the word. It’s the difference between, you used the ‘n-word’—we didn’t use the ‘n-word.’ Saying ‘hammer’ isn’t using a hammer. We were discussing the word. But the thing that came out of it was, on Twitter, Chris Rock got all the flack. He got all the hate because he ‘allowed’ [us to say it]. And I was thinking, well that’s a bit harsh. Of all the people in the room...”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Former SNL cast member and actress Michaela Watkins.