The multi-talented Ricky Gervais has a career that includes writing, acting and performing stand-up comedy. He can even play the guitar! But most people know him as the creator and star of the hugely popular British TV series The Office, which is one of the funniest shows ever created and therefore receives the most attention, but he is much more than that. I noticed that a lot of people dislike Gervais and think he only gets off on telling offensive jokes (as Gervais, who is very active on Twitter, will also point out) but if you actually listen to what he says, it often feels like he is actually the smartest guy in the room. I mean you can’t be a successful writer, actor and comedian who created a Peabody-winning comedy without knowing what you’re doing, right?
Gervais was born in Reading, Berkshire in 1961. After studying philosophy at University College London in the early eighties, Gervais began looking to a stage career when he started performing, not as an actor but as a musician in the new wave pop band Seona Dancing, which Gervais formed with his best friend Bill Macrae, although the duo didn’t get much attention in the UK, even after signing with London Records, which released their two singles “More to Lose” and “Bitter Heart.”
More successful was his journey into comedy, which really started taking off in the late nineties. That was the period in his career when he started performing stand-up, when he first met Stephen Merchant (who Gervais hired as his assistant while working at the radio station Xfm, later known as Radio X) and when he made his first appearance on national television.
Gervais received attention in Britain after playing an obnoxious and politically incorrect news reporter on the Channel 4 news satire The 11 O’Clock Show (a show which also introduced many viewers to Mackenzie Crook and Sacha Baron Cohen for the first time). Gervais wrote for other sketch comedy series like ITV’s The Sketch Show and BBC Two’s Bruiser (which featured Martin Freeman and Olivia Colman among its cast) but his biggest success came when he co-created a sitcom with Stephen Merchant called The Office, a mockumentary series that followed the lives of the employees at a paper company.
The show originated in 1998 when Merchant was tasked by BBC to create a short film for his training as a TV producer. The 20-minute film Merchant made was called The Seedy Boss and it starred comedian Ricky Gervais as David Brent, a narcissistic and delusional character who Gervais created himself and would often play to get a laugh out of his friends and co-workers. After Merchant turned in the short, BBC Two saw potential and commissioned a full-pilot script based on the film. The Office, starring Gervais, Mackenzie Crook, Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis, first aired on BBC Two in 2001 with low ratings and little attention, but thanks to word of mouth and DVD sales people realized how brilliant the cringe-inducing mockumentary was and it eventually became one of the most popular shows in the world, not to mention the first British show in history to win a Golden Globe for Best Television Series. It also won a Peabody Award the same year, and Gervais himself received acclaim for his portrayal of David Brent, an off-putting but empathetic boss from hell who was convinced everyone loved him even though everyone hated him. The show ran for a second series and a special on BBC One before coming to an end in 2003. Its popularity led to international versions from such countries as France, Germany, Israel, India, Brazil, Canada and the United States. Ricky Gervais even revived the character David Brent in the 2016 film David Brent: Life on the Road, which explores David’s aspiring rock star career which was first hinted at in The Office.
The same year The Office premiered, Gervais and Merchant returned to radio with the highly popular The Ricky Gervais Show alongside their producer and co-host Karl Pilkington, a comedian who hails from Manchester and who Gervais would regularly collaborate with in the future. Pilkington was almost the real star of the show with his off-kilter observations which often amused and bewildered Gervais and Merchant. The hilarious show was adapted into a podcast and also into animation with a TV series that aired on Channel 4 in the UK and HBO in the U.S., taking the audio from old episodes and combining it with Hanna-Barbera-style cartoons to bring the conversations to imaginative life.
Following the success of The Office, Gervais and Merchant would co-create another critically acclaimed comedy called Extras which ran for two series from 2005 to 2007 on BBC Two and starred Gervais as aspiring actor Andy Millman and Merchant as his incompetent agent. Not only was the show funny but it featured memorable guest stars in every episode, including Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Stewart and David Bowie.
Gervais and Merchant would co-create and co-star in their next TV series Life’s Too Short with Warwick Davis who Gervais and Merchant first met on the set of Extras. In this comedy, Davis plays a fictionalized version of himself (as do Gervais and Merchant) in a documentary about his life as he runs a talent agency for little people and faces the struggles that go along with it, as well as Warwick’s own personal struggles trying to get ahead in show business.
Gervais’s first TV series which he created, wrote and directed by himself was Derek, which ran for two series from 2012 to 2014 on Channel 4 and starred Gervais as a nursing home care worker named Derek Noakes who is ridiculed and ostracized for his social awkwardness but is likely the most selfless, kind and naive character Gervais has ever played.
His next show as the sole writer and director was After Life which ran for 2 series from 2019 to 2022 on Netflix and stars Gervais as newspaper writer Tony Johnson who contemplates suicide after his wife dies from cancer but instead decides to stay and do anything he wants whenever he wants regardless of how uncomfortable it makes other people feel, as a way of punishing the world for his wife’s death. The show blends dark humor with bleak drama and television critics gave a mixed to positive response.
Since hitting it big in America due to the success of The Office, Gervais has also made appearances in The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, SpongeBob SquarePants, Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Family Guy, BoJack Horseman and Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? He has also appeared regularly in the Night at the Museum films and the movies Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying, Muppets Most Wanted and The Willoughbys as well as the video game Grand Theft Auto IV where you could hear him performing stand-up comedy on the car radio.
Most of these shows and movies are funny but I like Gervais the most when he is just talking, tweeting or being himself during a talk show interview or on stage doing stand-up comedy. The stand-up specials that I’ve watched like Out of England (HBO) and Humanity (Netflix) are just as dark, twisted and hilarious as his television shows but like those shows, they are also layered and deeply observant about the flaws and even the beauty of humanity. As someone who loves Twitter, I relate to many of his observations about outrage in the social media era and how everyone is too offended by jokes. And I’m not talking about the comedians who punch down, which I never find funny. I’m talking about the comedians who tell the truth. People often mistake those who say out loud what everyone else is thinking for being radical, but sometimes it just means they are the only honest people in the room. I have said this before but it’s worth repeating. I have deep respect for comedians, not only because I could never stand on a stage and tell jokes, but because comedians are often the only people in the spotlight willing to tell the truth. But laughter really is the best medicine so it often goes down easy when someone like Gervais is able to constantly remind us that we’re just here to have fun while raising a glass.