It's his first television series in 4 years and After Life, which launches Friday on Netflix, might just be his best work to date, so it was only right that I caught up with him for a chat.
“I've always discussed taboo subjects, I've always tried to be honest, I've always championed freedom of speech.”
Ricky Gervais plays Tony, a man who loses his wife Lisa to cancer and contemplates taking his own life, having already lost the most important thing in his life, his wife.
Thankfully he doesn't, choosing to stay alive in order to can look after his dog and utilise his new found superpower - saying and doing whatever he wants. Not caring about who he hurts in the process. But it's tricky when everyone is trying to save the nice guy they used to know.
At its funniest, it’s hilarious and at its saddest it's heartbreaking. And it's most definitely a series best-enjoyed as a three-hour binge.
After Life has the comedy cast to die for with Kerry Godliman playing Tony's wife, David Bradley playing his father, Ashley Jensen playing his father's nurse, Tony Way, Diane Morgan and Mandeep Dhillon playing his co-workers, Tom Basden playing his boss/brother-in-law, Paul Kaye playing his psychiatrist, Joe Wilkinson playing his postman, David Earl playing local resident Brian Gittins, Roisin Conaty playing a sex worker, Penelope Wilton playing a widower he encounters called Ann as well as a fair few names I've missed!
I recently caught up with Ricky Gervais in a London hotel room for a one-on-one chat about his new series, his use of the c-word and why he believes Netlfix is the perfect broadcaster.
What was it like watching the series on a big screen at BAFTA and hearing the reaction from the audience?
It was great! That's the first time I've seen it in front of a real audience. We had a cast and crew screening, but it was nice to see it with an extended audience, it was packed out. But also sometimes they were laughing so hard that they missed another joke. Which is great, because when they watch it at home they won't miss it, it's just the atmosphere in that room. I was absolutely blown away!
So far I've had the best reaction to this series than anything else I've done. Even just off the trailer! Someone ripped the "tubby little ginger cunt" line and that got millions on its own. It was crazy. And the reviews have been amazing.
Lots of people, including myself, are saying that this is your best work yet. Would you agree?
Oh thank you. It's certainly the most ambitious thing I've done. While I was writing it, I imagined it working but I kept thinking "what if it doesn't work?" What if people literally can't go from someone crying over their dead wife to him calling a ten-year-old a "tubby little ginger cunt".
I loved that light and shade. Especially when Tony goes to visit the man who'd received five identical birthday cards. Initially you're laughing but then he reveals about his dead wife...
Oh how sad is that? That scene also made my character realise that he was feeling sorry for himself. Everyone has gone through stuff, that's human nature. If you're not happy, you think you're the unhappiest person in the world. You don't care about other people. You just think, "No, I'm in a bad place."
He was great. The acting is amazing. It's the comedy cast of the century.
I was going to say. It feels like a who's who of people you've worked with before, some newer names and Penelope Wilton!
Yeah exactly. That's exactly what it is. Penelope Wilton I've loved for years and years ever since Ever Decreasing Circles. What class!
It's funny, because as a writer you write these things and sometimes if you don't say them out loud and the wrong person says them, they can be bullshit. But when the right person says them. Oh my God! Those scenes with Penelope Wilton on the bench. It's effortless.
I loved her swearing in the final episode...
I know! And it's such against type as well. She I think, is one of our classiest actresses ever.
It's been four years since your last TV series, how long have you had this in the back of your mind?
Usually I do have a backlog. I had Derek for about ten years before I did it. The Office took a while and I had David Brent before The Office. It usually comes from character. Most of the things I've done have come from someone within me or an idea I had.
But this came with the concept first. I think for two reasons. One, as you get older you just want to be braver and more honest. That's all you can do really. You can't really get better. You can hone your craft but you've usually done that within ten years.
You can suddenly get more honest and do what worked. I've always discussed taboo subjects, I've always tried to be honest, I've always championed freedom of speech, I've always said "Why can't it be done like this?" So I just did that even more.
I suppose this is the darkest, but I probably got the idea and then started writing it and it took about 14 months. The first idea I had was - imagine a guy who lost everything, so he had nothing more to lose. He could do what he wanted. And that was it. That was the one line, high concept and everything came from that.
The series is going to be available on Netflix. Most people will binge their way through the series. Does that change the way you write it?
It sort of does. I didn't have to do recaps or remind them of the character. You don't have to set up little bits. I pop up a character in episode three and then he doesn't have to come back until episode five because that's only 30 minutes ago. It's not been a week or two weeks so there's no filler. It's like adrenalin TV. Even though it's comedy.
You can't watch them out of order or miss one, everything comes back. It's perfect for binge-watching. Netflix are the perfect broadcaster, they tick every box slightly better than anyone else.
Also, I haven't watched a traditional sitcom for twenty years and I haven't watched telly for two years. TV has been beating films for twenty years - The Sopranos, The Wire. But I've been watching Scandi Noir! I've found the best serial killer dramas from around the world - The Bridge, The Killing, Black Lake, Before We Die.
Now I watch less TV, but it's the best two hours of TV from around the world. It's on Netflix, Walter Presents and Amazon. And I can't wait to get home and watch more. It's great.
Do you think that it's because you don't watch TV comedy that your shows feel so original and authentic in tone?
Absolutely. I'm not borrowing from something that was on telly last night. Everything comes from personal experience. I think the problem comes when someone tries to be too ambitious. They try and tackle a dark subject that hasn't been done before and marry drama with comedy.
They start off with good intentions, but then they panic. They think "Oh that's too much." What they mean is that's too much for telly, but it's not too much for people, it's because it hasn't been done. If you keep giving a kid sugar sandwiches, they're never going to like carrots!
What I like to think I've done with After Life is ensure that the drama is uncompromised and the comedy is uncompromised. I think people will lighten up more. I think we'll see more people having a go. I don't think I've ever heard the word "cunt" in a trailer before!
Let's talk about the c-word then because you do use it so brilliantly and anyone at any point can say it. Why do you choose to use it?
Because people do. People do. We don't live in TV land. We get on buses and we walk past building sites and our granddad says it. Why would we just cut out that for telly? It just doesn't make sense!
It's real. It happens. People die of cancer, it happens. That's real. My mum did. That's no reason not to put it in a drama. Or a comedy. Or in stand-up. You're patronising audiences. If someone was to go to me "Oh, I was gonna say something then Rick, but you're too weak to hear it" I'd go "Fucking what?!" (Laughs)
He doesn't really have a best friend or group of friends does he?
He has Len, who's sort of his best friend. He's got his brother-in-law - although you don't choose your family.
But you're right and he explains that when he says to the new girl "It's not a waste of time. I didn't bother getting a promotion or moving town or be overly ambitious, because I wanted to spend every available moment with my wife." He put all his eggs in one basket. He didn't need a network of friends. He had everything. But he lost everything.
But now he's got the dog...
Which saves him. Dogs will save humanity. It is about that mundanity of life that's a distraction. It keeps you alive and it helps you heal. It doesn't matter how depressed you are, you've still got to go to work. You've still got to earn money. He's got to get money to get drunk!
Why did you choose for him to work at a local paper?
For two reasons. One, because it's the worst place to put a depressed misanthrope. Two, I wanted it eventually to save him as well. For him to realise that this is a good job and he just wasn't feeling well.
Did you always plan for such an uplifting final episode?
I'm an optimist. In fiction we create our own heroes and villains as role play for the soul. We can make the world a perfect place. We can make heroes get their comeuppance or redeem themselves - which is just as good.
Forgiveness is amazing. And we can reward good people. You can't always do that in real life and that's why I think fiction is great. Take them through all the things they go through and give them hope.
And it's the people that Tony would usually look down to that give him hope isn't it?
Yeah. I think it's about people who need you, save you. There's a wonderful bit in It's A Wonderful Life when George is going to kill himself, but the angel jumps in because he knows George has got to be saved. How beautiful is that?
Do you have any favourite scenes that you particularly enjoyed filming?
I really liked the home videos because of the dramatic effect of them. It sets them up. When you see that Tony used to be a good bloke, he was having a good time with his wife and that relationship was real, it wasn't a coffee commercial. They were getting drunk and they fucking loved each other more than anything else. It was real. So that was really important and I enjoyed filming those.
I loved the scenes with Penelope Wilton. I think she's great. And I love the fun! I love the fun in the office. The light-heartedness of it. I loved working with Ashley (Jensen) again and David Bradley as my dad. I think they're really important scenes. That's a big issue. The fact that I treat it like a chore that I have to go and see my dad. It's real.
He keeps asking "How's Lisa?" - "She's fucking dead dad!" - and then you feel guilty that you were angry at someone who didn't know what they were doing.
Out of all the work you've done, would you say you're most proud of After Life?
I think I am. That might be because it's the latest thing I've done. So it's where I am now in my artistic life, but I'm proudest of it because it's the least compromised thing I've ever done.
As I say, you get good at your craft and then you don't try to be the biggest or best or richest or most awarded - they're great and they're great fun - but what drives you as an artist is to just be more honest and braver. That's it. That's all there is. That's what art is. Art's a personal expression for its own sake.
What would you like people to take away from After Life?
That life is an amazing opportunity and we all die so you have to make the most of it and be kind to everyone because you don't know what they're going through.
If there was one line of dialogue in the series that sums up the series, what would it be?
The first thing I thought of that I think is real, is when Penelope Wilton says "I'd rather live missing him than have him live missing me." That's proper love and altruism I think. We're all selfish. We think we're being kind when we say "Oh I hope I go first" but we're not.
After Life launches this Friday on Netflix