RICKY GERVAIS ON THE PRINCIPLES OF COMEDY
Funnyman Ricky Gervais is known for his dry wit, dark humor, and politically incorrect jokes. Whether he’s acting in a movie, creating and starring in a television series, voicing animated characters, or hosting awards shows, he finds a way to keep audiences laughing. Although he may offend, he’s not one to apologize for any of his punchlines. And, he’s earned two Emmys and a Golden Globe with this comedic approach. Gervais has shared aspects of his philosophy of writing and performing comedy throughout the years, and here are some of those guiding principles:
Write what you know
Gervais worked in an office setting for seven years before writing the British mockumentary series “The Office.” All those years, he closely observed his co-workers and the clients. So, he says, “When it came to writing it down, I just had a big bag of observations really about office life. And it’s not really about office life as such—it’s not about selling paper or the politics of the office—it’s more about relationships. I think that’s why it’s sort of taken off around the world, because the themes are big. You know, boy meets girl, a decent job of work, making a difference … [It’s] about [feeling] trapped and wasting their life really … It’s quite sweet and sad at parts, quite existential, I think, but very funny, I think.”
Gervais’ biggest influence on his creative approach
Gervais learned the importance of writing about what he knows from his middle school English teacher. He recounted the story during a Fast Company interview when he was asked about the single biggest influence to his creative process. As a teenager, all he wanted to write about was a maverick cop with plot lines loaded with action. He said: “I always got [my writing assignments] back: ‘Too melodramatic. Write about what you know.’ And this was frustrating … All the other kids were getting Bs and As writing about what they did.
Then one day I just got fed up, so I thought I’d teach [the instructor] a lesson, and I tried to do the most boring story in the world. My mom used to go to a neighbor’s house, she was an elderly lady in her 80s, and my mom would go around every day and clean up, do a bit of shopping and cook her a meal. And sometimes I would go around there and sort of watch because I was bored. It’s not an exciting thing for a 13-year-old boy to watch his mom clean up after an old lady. That isn’t my idea of fun. So I thought, ‘I’ll write a story about that.’ … ‘When we came in, there was a smell of tea and lavender and mold, and my mom first started to clean the floor …’ And I handed it in and I thought, ‘That’ll show him!’ The next day, he’d marked them all, and he got mine, and he just threw it at me like that. And I opened it up and ‘A.’ I looked at it, and he just [smiled] and went, ‘Uh-huh.’ And it was the proudest moment in my life. It sort of taught me that being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary is so much better than starting with the extraordinary because it doesn’t really connect. You watch those short shows, and it washes over. You don’t think about it the next day, whereas if something is real for one person, it’s touched their life. I think as a creator and a director, it’s your job to make an audience as excited and fascinated about a subject as you are, and real life does that.”
Make people think
For Gervais, it’s not enough to just want to make people laugh. He thinks that’s too simplistic. “You see some comedians; it’s the rhythm. They could even throw in a fake punch line; they get a laugh. I think it’s about making people think about [the joke] and why it’s funny. I think comedy is about empathy. I can’t laugh with people I don’t like. I think you should never be above the audience,” he said in a Big Think interview. He encourages creatives to not shy away from taboo subject matter. Understanding the human condition—knowing that people are suffering in one way or another, often privately, as they go about their daily lives—he makes a point to not stop himself from delving into “forbidden” topics in his work. He believes humor can add lightness to the dark moments in life and help people to feel they’re not alone.
Play versions of yourself
The comedians who inspired Gervais—Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, for example—always played different versions of themselves, never straying too far from their type. Similarly, Gervais feels no obligation to play a wide assortment of personality types. “Stand-up is a persona. I play a brasher, more arrogant, more confident version of myself. And then, there’s another level on that, that I usually play the guy who says the wrong thing. The target of my stand-up scene, likely soft targets, but, of course, the target is the audience’s own prejudice and middle-class angst and me. I mean, I’m always the butt of a joke—I’m ignorant. I come down on the wrong side.” He co-wrote and co-directed both the British mockumentary “The Office” and the sitcom “Extras,” and he played leading roles in both series: David Brent and Andy Millman, respectively. “So I play getting it wrong,” he continues. “And then, in the characters I play, from David Brent to Andy Millman, Dr. Pincus in ‘Ghost Town,’ they’re variations of each other. I always play that putz, that wisecracker in the face of adversity. And I don’t apologize for that.”
Don’t try to force creative inspiration
When he’s trying to get in a frame of mind to create, Gervais does his errands and daily activities, gets some exercise, sits and does nothing for a while, allows himself to relax and think, and watches TV. This practice allows his mind to wander throughout the day and reduces any pressure he may feel to create. He won’t station himself in front of a laptop for endless hours during the day in hopes of finding inspiration. He finds that approach to be restrictive and it doesn’t work for him.