Meet Ricky Gervais, the worst boss ever. How the fame-shunning Brit became an international name

By Daniel Fierman
November 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Ricky Gervais Photograph by Alastair Thain

Americans, apparently, don’t get irony, satire, or nuance — beyond someone getting a boot to the balls. That’s what the British think. Ricky Gervais thinks that’s crazy. And he should know, being pretty much the funniest man in all of England. ”There’s this fallacy that Americans don’t understand comedy,” he says. ”It’s ludicrous! They do it better than us. The influences on ‘The Office’ are as much American as British.”

It makes sense, as the concept of dead-end, soul-sucking jobs is universal. Created for the BBC by Gervais and Stephen Merchant, ”The Office” is a groundbreakingly awkward, uproariously painful, devastatingly dead-on mock documentary that follows drones in a paper-supply company in the London suburb of Slough: crying clown Tim, put-upon Dawn, mad-eyed Gareth, and their simpering boss, David Brent (Gervais). It’s become a phenomenon on both sides of the pond, thanks to the DVD collection and frequent airings on BBC America. The Britcom has also made an unlikely star out of a man who wants nothing to do with celebrity and who looks more like a pub punter than the heir to the mantle of John Cleese and Terry Jones. ”Forget the fame,” says Gervais, who’ll raise his American profile further with a guest spot on an upcoming episode of ”Alias.” ”I just want to write forever and win BAFTAs.”

He’s already got four British Emmys — two for best comedy actor and two for best sitcom; as for the writing dream, he might get his chance. The son of a laborer who grew up in public housing in Reading, England, Gervais didn’t take long to uncover his twin talents: comedy and sloth. After switching majors in college — biology was far too taxing — he formed a band (Seona Dancing, which had two singles that reached Nos. 117 and 70 on the charts), managed the rock outfit Suede, became the director of entertainment at University College London, and, ultimately, fatefully landed at the radio station XFM. The first thing he did was demand an assistant. The man who walked through his door was Stephen Merchant. ”He called me up for the interview and said, ‘Will you do all my work?’ And I said, ‘Uh, yes,”’ recalls Merchant. ”And, rather quickly, I was hired.”

Their friendship blossomed, and one day, as Merchant pushed Gervais around in a wheeled office chair (part of his regular duties), he suggested they be a double act. And when he landed a job at the BBC, Merchant shot the beginnings of ”The Office.” Market testing almost killed the show — ”We did the joint lowest ever on a focus group,” sighs Gervais. ”We were bottom with women’s hockey or something awful” — but the BBC loved it. Season 1 averaged 1.8 million viewers. Season 2 averaged 4.2 million, a 20 percent share of total viewership in the U.K. Rumors started flying that Spielberg wanted to make an ”Office” movie. And suddenly Gervais was a national figure.

He still wants none of it. The 42-year-old says he has little use for money, and on a break from editing the two ”Office” Christmas specials that will serve as a finale for the series, he says he’s done playing Brent. Almost. An American version is in the works, under the purview of ”King of the Hill” cocreator Greg Daniels — and Merchant and Gervais are helping their Yank cohorts parse the difficult questions of where the American Slough should be (they’re thinking Newark) and who should play Brent (Gervais likes character actor and ”City Slickers” star Bruno Kirby).

There is one additional ”Office”-related project that he’d be delighted to consider. ”I mean, Steven Spielberg calling me would be news. It just falls down on one little thing: It’s totally made up,” says Gervais, with his now-famous high, hiccupy laugh. ”It’s a good story, though. I said, ‘Steven, could you call back? I’m watching telly, mate. I’m busy.”’