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Ricky Gervais on Atheism, Donald Trump, and the Return of David Brent

Variety logo Variety 2/1/2017 Jenelle Riley
© Provided by Variety

It’s been over 13 years since Ricky Gervais bade farewell to David Brent, the middling middle manager on the original U.K. version of “The Office” that launched his career. Since then, he’s had other successful series (“Extras,” “Derek”), dabbled in movies (“The Invention of Lying”), and sold out venues with his standup tour. Yet the character who considered himself “friend first, boss second…probably entertainer third” has never really gone away. “There wasn’t a day that went by where I wasn’t managing the estate of David Brent,” Gervais notes. “There were remakes around the world, I would get requests every day to show clips, or something would could up with licensing.”

After short appearances on the American version of “The Office” or at “Comic Relief,” Gervais has brought Brent back in full force with the release of “David Brent: Life on the Road.” Written and directed by Gervais, the film hits American theaters and streaming platform Netflix on Feb. 10. It follows Brent’s attempts to extend his modicum of fame by launching a music career with typically uncomfortable results. As Gervais puts it, “If you went on Facebook and found out the most boring man you went to college with was trying to be a rock star, you’d have to watch.”

We spoke with Gervais on the phone from England the morning of Donald Trump’s inauguration, mere minutes after Trump was sworn in. The outspoken comedian noted some parallels between his fictional character and the new president.

Thank you for bringing David Brent back, I didn’t realize how much I missed him.

That was sort of the point, really, for people to catch up on an old friend. It’s a fake documentary but I deal in realism. And I suppose there’s parallels to real life where everyone wants to be famous. He had a bit of fame at the turn of the century, and we thought he’d go away. But now fame is a different beast and people don’t give up. And it’s easier to be famous because people are willing to do anything to be famous. There’s no difference now between fame and infamy. We’ve just seen the host of “The Apprentice” become President of the United States.

Did you see some news reports are saying he lifted parts of his speech from Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”?

And I’m not shocked. A year ago, I would have been horrified. But then again, the things he said running up to this…if any other politician or any other world leader had said it, he would have resigned. He confessed to abusing women and that wasn’t enough. There is no greater role model in the western world arguably, so what happens when a guy is caught for attacking a woman and says, “My president said it was all right?” It’s off the charts. I do sort of blame reality TV in a way because we are all made from our input. He’s a man who wants to be famous. Donald Trump has more in common with David Brent than he does with JFK or Lincoln or Roosevelt. He’s not even a smart man who had to work for it. He’s not particularly erudite or educated or caring. He wants to be famous, he wants to be loved. I’m not saying that makes him a terrible president or it’s the end of the world, I’m just saying he is different from other presidents and he is a product of the last 50 years of people wanting to be famous. It’s like he wasn’t satisfied with having $5 billion and running companies, he had to be on telly every possible moment.

When thinking of ideas for a David Brent movie, did you ever imagine a storyline where he or someone like him ran for president? It would seem too outrageous. That’s exactly right, nothing is fiction now. It seems like the way it first started was a little bit like one of those ’80s movies where two old billionaires in a gentleman’s club make a bet that they can make any idiot into the president of the United States. One says, “Where are you going to find someone that stupid?” And it cuts to Trump and the one says, “You’re on sir!” It’s like “Pygmalion” in a bad, Hollywood 1980s genre movie. And it worked.

Do you still watch reality TV? It’s been good to me. I’ve watched it and found it enjoyable and laughed at some things and been angry at others but I have studied it, it has been my muse. I wrote “The Office” based on my experiences as a middle manager, I worked at an office for 10 years. I also watched a lot of those quaint docu-soaps in the ’90s that followed someone at work and they sort of became a household name for 15 minutes. But now it’s different. Now you get on “The Apprentice” by saying, “I’ll destroy anything that stands in my way.” They choose the people who are willing to do anything, and people get on by promising to behave badly. And they’re rewarded for it. Though I don’t think it ever ends well.

You seem to be drawn to the subject of fame in a lot of your work

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“The Office” was about a man who wanted to be famous. “Extras” was about a man literally on the first rung of being famous. The Golden Globes was a study in fame to me. I was shocked by how worried everyone was about what I would say. I just don’t get it. It was a shock that people were that sensitive or that worried about what a little fat guy from Reading said about them. I always like to sort of play with that. I think its staple of British comedy, even more than American, we always try to bring down authority. There’s something we’re trying to undermine when people take themselves too seriously. It was reflected in the remake of the American “Office.” It’s more hopeful. Americans are told you can grow up to be the next president of the United States. Brits are told to not even try, who do you think you are? It’s funny because my sense of humor is British but my comedy is American. I embrace both things.

What do these characters or someone like David Brent hope to get out of fame? I’ve always been fascinated with what people think leading a good life is. Good people do bad things, for many reasons. For money, for fame, because they think it will make them happy. They should just cut out the middle man and just be happy. So I’m always on the side of the deluded, if they’ve got a good heart. David Brent isn’t an evil person. Now he’s 55, not 39, he’s not the boss. He’s not doing a job that anyone ever dreams of as a child. So he believes, like most people, that fame will sort their life out. He’s putting all his money on one number and cashing in his chips to buy fame. He’s looking for the wrong thing and he’s certainly looking in the wrong place. We see sort of a more sympathetic side of him.

It would be easy to mock David Brent as a musician, but the music in the film actually isn’t bad. Well, David Brent is paying for it so David Brent would get the best musicians he could. He’s hemorrhaging money because he wants a real band. But at least he’s trying and it is his money, he’s not stealing or conning anyone. He’s following a dream, no matter how deluded that may be and that’s admirable. That’s the staple of comedy. Comedy at its essence is the normal guy trying to do something he’s not equipped to do. And when we’re snickering at him, we’re only snickering at ourselves. When we laugh at David Brent we’re sort of going, “Oh, I’ve done that.”

But the album actually charted internationally, it hit number three in Britain and number one in New Zealand. Yeah, but people are in on the joke—they know they’re not buying a cool album. It’s David Brent, not me releasing my songs. When you see “Ricky Gervais Sings the Blues,” shoot me. That’s when it’s all over. The problem is in the narrative, David Brent isn’t as successful as he is in real life. When we do gigs, we sell out huge venues. I have to keep the narrative piece not a huge success otherwise it’s a bit too far-fetched.

Wait, so you as David Brent is selling out concerts? Yeah, that’s how it all started. I brought David Brent back for a Comic Relief sketch and he did a track called “Equality Street.” It went really well and I did a couple gigs and people went crazy. We had 110,000 ticket requests for these small venues. They called and said I could play Wembley Stadium. I said, “This is mad. Why would David Brent play Wembley?”  That’s when it hit me; he paid top musicians, he’s booking venues, and that’s where the idea for the movie came.

“The Office” spawned a lot of comedies that used the fake documentary format or played up the comedy of discomfort. How does it feel to have been at the forefront of that? I don’t think I started it, but I fused a few genres so it looked original. I wasn’t the first to tap into that stupidity and those idiot characters, Laurel and Hardy did it. I wasn’t the first to do a naturalistic fake documentary, you could point to “This Is Spinal Tap.” Awkwardness and discomfort were done in “Seinfeld.” What I did do was probably up everything a notch. Mine was slower, more uncomfortable, more desperate.

In addition to your performing, you’re an outspoken animal rights activist and atheist. How does it feel to be almost as well-known for your causes as for your work?

It’s funny isn’t it? Those things have always been my passion but you get a bigger platform. As your fame grows, those things about you grow as well. With the invention of social media, the more famous you get and the more access people get to you, the more you’re loved but they more you’re hated as well. But that’s no reason to not still give your opinion and tell the truth. It’s never worried me to have a popular or unpopular view. One of my favorite tweets I’ve ever got said, “Everyone’s entitled to believe what they want, so shut up about your atheism.”

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