The ''Extras'' star laughs in the face of fame

”I don’t get any joy out of seeing my fat face on screen.” That’s Ricky Gervais’ excuse for turning down roles in, oh, only three of the biggest blockbusters of last year: Mission: Impossible III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, and The Da Vinci Code. ”I met with [Da Vinci director] Ron Howard and said, ‘Listen, I’m very flattered, but I’m a comedian,”’ Gervais recalls. ”’I’ll ruin your film. This is a very serious film. People will laugh and go, That’s the guy from The Office.”’

Best known as awkward, underachieving boss David Brent on that seminal BBC series, the 45-year-old Brit has received his share of acclaim and could legitimately be a comic superstar. But Gervais does what he wants. In the past year, that’s meant appearing in Christopher Guest’s Oscar-campaign satire For Your Consideration and the Ben Stiller special-effects smash Night at the Museum; writing himself into an episode of The Simpsons; co-penning a night of the American Office; and co-writing and starring in the celebrity-cameo-heavy, behind-the-scenes comedy Extras, now wrapping up its second season on HBO.

”The best way to keep a good batting average is not to bat very often,” Gervais says while reclining — on account of a bad back — in HBO’s midtown Manhattan offices. ”I could have been in 19 films playing the butler…. Now I’m getting offered excellent films, but what’s the point? There’s got to be a reason to do it. And it’s never profile, never money, never fame.”

For Gervais, it’s always laughter — cringing, uncomfortable laughter. And he’s masterful at eliciting it, especially from himself. You know it’s coming when his lips nearly disappear, unveiling a pair of vampire-sharp canines before a shrieking mad cackle bursts forth. Gervais even cuts himself up while explaining the concept he’s been kicking around for his next TV show, which isn’t a comedy. ”I’m going to play a cop who’s going to quit drinking to get back his kidnapped daughter.” Cue guffaw. ”No, just kidding…. It’s this idea of an urban conspiracy theory: What if a group of people got together and targeted you for some unknown reason?”

The youngest of four kids in a working-class family in Reading, England, Gervais attended University College London, where he met Jane, his girlfriend of more than 20 years. He then spent a number of years booking concerts at his alma mater and donning eyeliner and lipstick as the androgynous lead singer of the early-’80s new-wave band Seona Dancing. ”It started and was over in five minutes,” Gervais says dismissively. In 1997, the budding comedian scored a gig as a host on London radio station Xfm. Not long after, he and his former assistant Stephen Merchant teamed up on a 20-minute demo tape that, after a couple years of development, became The Office on the BBC. The show’s breakaway success — which resulted in the critically acclaimed NBC spin-off — made Gervais a cult comic icon Stateside.

That status has catapulted his podcast, The Ricky Gervais Show, into the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most downloads ever (more than one million worldwide in its first month). Begun in December 2005 and now on hiatus, the show is a surreal, never-ending conversation among Gervais, Merchant (who also co-created Extras), and their comic foil, producer Karl Pilkington. Each broadcast includes such absurd bits as ”Monkey News” and Merchant’s readings from Pilkington’s minutiae-laden diary.

These days, Gervais’ genius can be experienced on stage, in his latest U.K. comedy act, the sold-out Fame. ”Seeing and knowing Ricky as a TV writer and performer doesn’t give any indication of how brilliant a stand-up he is,” says David Bowie, an idol of Gervais’ and a recent Extras guest star. ”He has the audience — and himself — collapsing in tears and wails of laughter.”

One of the few things Gervais is serious about is his distaste for celebrity. ”I don’t even like the word,” he protests. ”I try to stay out of the limelight whenever I can…. I don’t phone the press when I’ve got a toothache. I don’t go to premieres of movies I’m not in. I don’t do adverts, I don’t do panel shows.” In fact, his cynical Extras might be described as the anti-Entourage. ”What we wanted to do was show that fame and success without respect is nothing,” Gervais says sincerely.

Gervais declares that Extras‘ second season may be its last. By American standards it would be an unusual move of creative control (see Seinfeld‘s nine seasons). ”We’re always let down by the third season of something we like, usually by the second season,” he explains. ”John Cleese did it perfectly. He went out with 12 [episodes], and no one slags off Fawlty Towers. I’m not going to say never, like [with] The Office, but probably not.” For once, Gervais’ fans aren’t laughing.

Ricky Gervais’ Must List

Unforgivable Blackness 2005
This doc about barrier-breaking boxer Jack Johnson ”just jumped to No. 1 on my list.”

Jesus Is Magic 2005
”Unbelievable,” Gervais marvels over Sarah Silverman’s film. ”I’ve never seen a comedian talk like that.”

”It keeps surprising me. There’s nothing they won’t do. It’s like nothing that has gone before it.”

Mat Kearney
”This singer-songwriter does spoken word that sounds like French hip-hop.”