David Brent from The Office, stand up star, Night At The Museum’s Dr McPhee – Ricky Gervais is a lot of things, and most of them are hilarious. But how did he discover his talent for making people laugh, and what drives his funny factory? RISING asked him: can you think yourself funny, or do the jokes just drop into your head?
RISING What makes you funny?
RICKY GERVAIS ‘Me personally? You’re probably asking the wrong person there. I think the reason I was funny in the first place was that I had a desperate fear of not being funny, although it was difficult not to be funny when finding myself growing up soaked in laughter, given that my Dad was a very measured, dry person with a wicked twist, while my mum was more Alan Bennett. The genetics involved in that meant my older brother had an appreciation for most humour across the board, so it was enchanting to see him meet people, suss them out and tick the boxes of what engaged them. Then I found my own little niche – what tickled me. I think, for anyone, making yourself laugh is the best feeling even when you can see others don’t get it at all. But the funniest person you know isn’t a comedian – he’s your mate. I guarantee it!’
RISING You must get a lot of offers of work – how do you choose what to do?
RG ‘Whatever it is, for me, it has to be what’s already a passion, what already excites me, otherwise how would I do it justice? Why embrace something that doesn’t mean anything to you? I’d never try to do something that I didn’t know about or care about. I’d never go: “I know what’s cool now, I’ll do a film on vampire porn.”’
‘I’d never go: “I know what’s cool now, I’ll do a film on vampire porn”
RISING You’ve admitted to losing your shit occasionally – what would happen to your work if you were calm all the time?
RG ‘Well, I think there’s a fine line between calmness and laziness, wouldn’t you say? Steven Merchant has, on more than one occasion, said that I’m so lazy he can’t actually hear what I’m saying because I’m cutting off the air to my throat! At times during the podcast I would knock the microphone… because it’s sharing a table with my feet. And it’s true, I have been known to change lines in films so that I can do a scene lying down instead of having to get up and walk around. But in reality, I’m a workaholic.’
RISING How has the way you work evolved?
RG ‘A few years ago I changed my perception so that instead of just getting a job done I would pore over it. Sometimes it’s the detail; sometimes it’s trying at the right line for two hours instead of one – it’s all about the investment you put in. I’m not sure I could go back to being that person from before, and that person wasn’t even calm, so I don’t really know how to relate to a question of calmness, other than to say I’d be even more relaxed than I am now, and probably verging on useless.’
RISING Comedy has its own logic – so can you ‘think yourself’ funny?
RG ‘I do think a comedian’s mind relies on science as well as creativity. It can’t just be one without the other. A comedian takes a premise and tries to prove that right or wrong, and it’s all quite methodical. I’ve said it before, but you want your audience laughing at how wrong you are as well as how right you are. Put another way, comedy has to be personified; there has to be a human aspect. You can’t laugh at something inanimate, it’s about empathy, it’s about being there. Scientists think the first expression of humour was one caveman watching another caveman trip over. I can well believe that.’
‘Scientists think the first expression of humour was one caveman watching another caveman trip over’
RISING Apparently social media is rewiring our brains – but as a stand-up you observe people, so do you think technology is changing human nature?
RG ‘Human nature is fantastic, and there are constants. We’re still worried about what happens to ourselves and others, just as we would have been 10,000 years ago. And let’s not kid ourselves. You can have the most amazing piece of technology in the world in your front room, but if you hear your neighbour having a scrap out in the street, you’re straight up at the curtains! Admittedly, with technology today, you might press pause on Sky Plus first – why would you want to miss a second of Big Brother, after all? – but straight afterwards you’re up there having a bloody good look, aren’t you?’
RISING Who do you think is the funniest person alive?
RG ‘I’d probably say Louis CK, but the likes of Billy Connolly and Stewart Lee are right up there. It’s about extreme intelligence and observation in equal measure; it’s about authority and clumsiness. It’s a real art.’
WHAT NEXT? The line between public speaking and stand up comedy is thinner than you might imagine, and being good at either can massively boost your self-confidence. So the next time you need to persuade a group of people to listen to you, work a gag into your delivery that you know will resonate with them – you may be surprised by how this changes how confident you sound, and how receptive they are to what you have to say…