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Comedic Actor And Writer Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais appears in the new film Night at the Museum, in which insects come to life after a spell is cast at The Museum of Natural History. Gervais is the creator and star of the British TV comedy series The Office, which has been adapted into a hit show starring Steve Carrell. He's won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and three BAFTA Awards. Gervais also writes the Flanimals series of children's books.

38:21

Other segments from the episode on December 18, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 18, 2006: Interview with Ricky Gervais; Review of Fat Waller, Sonny Stitt and Andrew Hill Solo's CD box sets.

Transcript

DATE December 18, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Ricky Gervais discusses his career and the programs
"Extras," "The Office," "The Simpsons," and the movie "Night at
the Museum"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Ricky Gervais. He created and stared in the BBC series "The
Office" and is an executive producer of NBC's adaptation. Each version is a
mockumentary set in a small branch of a paper company that's headed by a
manager who thinks he's a generous, funny, and wise leader, but unfortunately
is none of those things. Gervais also co-created and stars in the HBO comedy
series "Extras," which begins its new season in January. And Gervais is in
the new movie "Night at the Museum," a comedy starring Ben Stiller as Larry,
the new night watchman in a natural history museum. He's horrified to
discover that at night, after everyone but him has gone home, all the exhibits
come to life: the dinosaurs, Neanderthal Man, and the historical figures like
Teddy Roosevelt and Attila the Hun. Gervais plays the museum director, Dr.
McPhee. In this scene from early in the film, McPhee is very upset because
children are touching the exhibits.

(Soundbite of "Night at the Museum")

(Soundbite of hand clap)

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS: (As Dr. McPhee) Please don't touch the exhibits.
Riffraff. Ms. Utman, I cannot tolerate this type of chaos. I mean, this is
a museum, not a...(clears throat). Do you know what museum means? It doesn't
mean, `Ooh, Daddy, there's a big tyrannosaurus thing. Can I touch it's leg?'
No! Work out, please.

Ms. CARLA GUGINO: (As Rebecca) Will do, sir.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Dr. McPhee): Thank you.

Ms. GUGINO: Dr. McPhee, the museum director.

Mr. BEN STILLER: (As Frank) Hmm. Seems like a fun guy.

(Soundbite of hand clap)

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Dr. McPhee) Control your young, please, can we--ahhh!

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Ricky Gervais, Carla Gugino and Ben Stiller. Stiller was a
guest star in the first season of Gervais' HBO series "Extras." I asked Ricky
Gervais if he took this small part in "Night at the Museum" because of his
friendship with Stiller.

Mr. GERVAIS: I got an e-mail from him out of the blue saying, `Doing this
film. There's a part for you. Do you want to return the favor? No
pressure.' And I did want to return the favor and I read the script, and I
thought, `This is fantastic.' It's not the film that I'd have thought that I'd
have done for my first Hollywood film. But it was fantastic.

GROSS: Oh, it's your first Hollywood film? Wow.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, sort of, in the sense that Hollywood
blockbuster. I had recorded "For Your Consideration" before but...

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. GERVAIS: By Hollywood, I mean Hollywood blockbuster. "For Your
Consideration" is a tiny, tiny budget, and it's fantastic. I love Christopher
Guest. He's probably the biggest influence on my work. But, yeah, "Night at
the Museum" was great fun. It was three days. I call it a cameo. I've
jumped straight to cameo now. I missed out the 20-years film career. I just
went straight to cameo. I'm like Roger Moore. And this is the difference
between Hollywood and a low-budget film. They flew me and my girlfriend first
class. We were in this beautiful hotel, this five-star hotel in Vancouver. I
went and my trailer was amazing. And Shawn Levy, the director, bounced over
to me and said, `Ricky, great to have you. Is everything OK? Is your trailer
OK?' I said, `The trailer is bigger than my hotel room.' He went, `Do you want
a bigger hotel room?' That's the difference, you see. That's the sort of
treatment I want.

GROSS: Now you mentioned that Christopher Guest has been such a big influence
on your work. I imagine what you mean is his version of mockumentary in which
it's kind of a fake documentary...

Mr. GERVAIS: Of course.

GROSS: ...kind of like "The Office" is.

Mr. GERVAIS: Absolutely. Direct influence on "The Office," "Spinal Tap"
Yeah. And...

GROSS: So did you talk with him about that when you were in his latest movie?

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, we actually became friends before the film, because he
was a fan of "The Office," and I understand him and his wife, Jamie Lee
Curtis, they gave "The Office"--the English version of "The Office" it's
presence. And I spoke to him and, you know, then he came over to England and
we met up. And I always meet up with him and we go to--and I--and we became
friends over the last couple of years anyway. And again, he wrote a part
especially for me, and there are some things you don't say no to, so, you
know, "The Simpsons," Christopher Guest, Ben Stiller. I don't do much but I
know when something very good comes along.

GROSS: Now, I want to ask you about "Extras," which is your HBO series that's
coming back in mid-January. And for any of our listeners who haven't ever
seen "Extras," I'm going to ask you to describe the premise of your series.

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, I play an actor called Andy Millman. In the first
season, he was a struggling extra just trying to get a line. But it's about
these sort of lost souls, really. And the second season starts with Andy
having got his pilot made and now he's making the series, which is a sitcom
called "When the Whistle Blows," and it's not turned out like he wanted it to.
It's lowest common denominator, it's got catch phrases in it and funny wigs.
And it's about him, really, you know, signing with the devil. He took it on
even though he knew it wasn't what he wanted to do, and now it's his struggle.
And I suppose it's, you know, be careful what you wish for because he's got
fame, but no respect.

GROSS: Yeah, I remember the last time you were on FRESH AIR, you talked about
how you didn't really understand why people just want fame. It...

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

GROSS: Like a lot of people. It's not even that they want to be great at
something, like they want to be a great actor, a great musician. They just
want to be famous.

Mr. GERVAIS: Absolutely true. And I think I told you at the time about that
survey, the university survey amongst 10-year-old children. They asked what
they wanted to be when they grew up and they said famous. You know, not
famous for something, just famous. And I think people, you know, they're
aiming at something else really. What they mean is, you know, acceptance, or
love, or even attention, and they think that that will sort everything out.
And, of course, it doesn't because fame, per se, I mean, I think fame per se
is worse than anonymity. Why would you want that? Why would you just want to
be recognized or looked at? And I think they sort of mistake it for respect.

GROSS: Yeah. So the new season is kind of about being famous for things that
are ultimately kind of embarrassing so...

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, exactly. He finds out that, you know, infamy is not a
good thing. Fame without respect is not a good thing, and he's made the wrong
decisions because the alternative at the time was scarier. He didn't want to
be a struggling extra, so when he stands at that crossroads, you know, and the
head of the BBC says, `What do you want to do? Do you want to make the sitcom
or do you want to go back to being an extra?' Against his better judgment, you
know--and this is, you know, I'm not really saying what's right for everyone.
It just turned out to be not right for him.

GROSS: Is the sitcom that you've created for "Extras" based on real sitcoms
in England?

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, yeah. It's a Frankenstein of things that have happened.
It's really that lowest common denominator comedy that tries to please
everyone. It's a bit, you know, it's based on things that have gone before.
It's very easy. It relies on just catch phrases that people are, you know,
pick up on. Like it's aimed at sort of like half-wits and their children.
It's gurning, it's funny faces. He's sort of like--he was led down the wrong
road. And we also make--as the reviews get worse and he gets more depressed,
the ratings go up and the merchandising starts selling. And he can't enjoy
any of it because he knows how shallow it is and he knows--he can't take it
back. He can't take it back. It's out there, you know.

GROSS: Now, you knew that you wanted this sitcom to revolve in a way around
catch phrases so you had to come up with a catch phrase for your character, a
catch phrase that would be like really stupid so...

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, exactly, and you know...

GROSS: How did you do it? How did you think of like, `What's the stupidest
catch phrase I can come up with for this?'

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, one that's very easy, that's sort of means nothing and,
you know, one that you would say anywhere. I think that's, you know, catch
phrases are easy enough, but ones that are just a normal phrase in the English
language is the laziest of all. So, `You havin' a laugh?' And of course, he
says it incessantly and he gets a laugh from the audience, but then he
realizes it's because the audience are morons, and he can never find any joy
or satisfaction in his work anymore, and he sort of all he craves now is
credibility. And, of course, he makes bad decisions based on that as well.
He says, `Get me a play,' but he's a fish out of water. He doesn't like the
people that hang around and shout his catch phrase at him because he thinks
they're idiots, so he tries to go up market. He tries to get into a VIP
lounge, but, of course, he's not accepted there because he's not respected, so
he has to go back. And he's just a fish out of water because he's made the
wrong choice.

GROSS: So you know people are always coming up to him begging him to do the
catch phrase. Have you actually seen that happen with people, they got stuck
with a catch phrase and they have to do it for everybody who they meet? I
don't think you've been in that position, have you?

Mr. GERVAIS: No, no. Although a couple of people--I was at Live Aid, you
know, the big concert.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERVAIS: And it was like a quarter of a million people there, and
someone shouted, `Do the dance,' and then a quarter of a million people
demanded I do the dance. And as it was for charity, I did the dance. But
that's all right. That's all right. It was for charity. But no...

GROSS: And you were on stage. You were on stage.

Mr. GERVAIS: Of course. Yeah. Oh yeah, I wasn't in the audience. No, that
would have been strange.

GROSS: You were supposed to be performing. You weren't having a quiet moment
in a cafe.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, yeah. I was actually introducing REM, so it felt right
to do it, and it was very funny and good humored. But no, no one really, I
don't do catch phrases. Although I noticed after "Extras" went out in
England, even though it was ironic and we were saying how often easy it was
and people who shout them are morons, people shout with it to me, `Are you
havin' a laugh?' And I had to go, `Oh yeah. Well done.'

GROSS: I didn't think of that.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah. Exactly. I go, `Right. Oh, you missed the point then.
Oh good. Oh, hi. Have a nice day.' You know? But what can you do there, you
know? It's all good. It's all nice.

GROSS: There's a great scene this season in "Extras" with David Bowie. And
in this episode, you've basically like bribed your way into sitting next to
Bowie at the VIP part of a night club. He's at the piano, and so your
character just starts complaining to David Bowie...

Mr. GERVAIS: But of course. And...

GROSS: ...about his like horrible sitcom that he's in.

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, he thinks he's got more in common with David Bowie than
the people there because they're both entertainers. And, you know, even the
bouncer points out that, you know, David Bowie is one of the most seminal
artists of the last 35 years doing work that's tantamount to genius. You've
come up with a camp catch phrase, base comedy where you wear wigs. And he
goes, like, `Brilliant, I've got a bad review off a bouncer.' And he spills
his heart to David Bowie because he wants a bit of, you know, sympathy. And,
of course, that we portrayed David Bowie as this strange, you know, genius,
who just takes in all this information and then just starts writing a song
about it, and of course it's less than flattering.

GROSS: It's incredibly unflattering.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

GROSS: How would you feel if we played a little bit of David Bowie singing
this song that he writes after talking to your character?

Mr. GERVAIS: I'd love it.

(Soundbite of "Extras")

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Hi.

Mr. DAVID BOWIE: Hi, hi.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Any Millman) I was just saying that I'm an entertainer,
too.

Mr. BOWIE: Oh yeah. What do you do?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Millman) I'm in a sitcom.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's called "When the Whistle Blows."

Mr. BOWIE: Yeah.

Woman #1: Have you seen it?

Mr. BOWIE: I haven't. No. Is it any good?

Unidentified Man: No, it's...(censored by network).

Mr. BOWIE: Oh.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Millman) Just riffraff everywhere.

Mr. BOWIE: Not going down too well, eh?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Millman) It's getting six million viewers. I mean, it's
not exactly how I meant it to be because the BBC interfered and sort of chased
ratings and made it the lowest common denominator sort of comedy, it's all
catch phrases and wigs. And I think I've sold out to be honest but...

Mr. BOWIE: Yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Millman) But it's difficult isn't it, to keep your
integrity when you're going for that first...

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) Little fat man who sold his soul...

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Millman) The little?

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) The little fat man who sold his dream. Chubby little
loser...

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) Chubby little loser, national joke.

(Speaking) No, not chubby little loser.

Mr. GERVAIS: No.

Mr. BOWIE: No.

(Soundbite of piano chord)

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) Pathetic little fat man, no one's bloody laughing, the
clown that no one laughs at, they all just wish he'd die. He's so depressed
at being useless, the fat man takes his own life.

(Speaking) No, no.

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) He's so depressed at being hated, Fatty takes his own
life.

(Speaking) Fatty? Fatso?

Woman #1: Fatso. I like Fatso.

Mr. BOWIE: (Speaking) Yeah, let's go with Fatso.

(Singing) Fatso takes his own life, he blows his bloated face off...

(Speaks) No.

(Singing) He blows his stupid brains out.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Words censored by network)...I'd probably be.

Mr. BOWIE: Yes, Linda, I like that.

Man: Yes, so do I. It's brilliant, Linda.

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) He sold his soul for a shot at fame, catch phrase and
wig, and the jokes are lame. He's got no style, he's got no grace. He's
banal and facile, he's a fat waste of space.

(Speaking) Yeah, yeah. Everybody sing that last line. One, two, three.

Mr. BOWIE and Group of People: (Singing in unison) He's banal and facile,
he's a fat waste of space

Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) See his pug-nose face. Pop, pop, pop, pop.

(Speaking) Again.

Mr. BOWIE and Group of People: (Singing in unison) See his pug-nose face,
yeah. Pop, pop, pop, pop.

Mr. BOWIE: (Speaking) Again.

Mr. BOWIE and Group of People: (Singing in unison) See his pug-nose face...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: So that's the song that David Bowie writes about your character, Ricky
Gervais, and of course, you wrote the lyric for the song. So you're writing
the lyric to the song...

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, and then we...

GROSS: ...mocking yourself, or mocking your character.

Mr. GERVAIS: The lyrics were done before, obviously, David put the music to
it, and we sent them off to him. And then he flew in the day before we
filmed, and he said, `This is the music,' and he played and it was just
fantastic and yeah. So a co-write with David Bowie, it doesn't get better
than that.

GROSS: My guest is Ricky Gervais. His HBO comedy series "Extras" begins its
new series in mid-January. He's in the movie "Night at the Museum," which
opens this week. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ricky Gervais, and he created
and co-starred in "The Office" and then had a hand in the creation of the
American version of it, which is on NBC. His HBO series "The Extras" starts
up again in mid-January, and he also has a small part in the new movie "Night
at the Museum."

You know, when I first heard that there was going to be an American version of
"The Office," I winced because I figured, `Oh, you know, the British version's
so good, like it's such a great series, and the American version is going to
probably get it all wrong.' And I am proud to say--glad to say anyways that I
was really wrong. It's terrific.

Mr. GERVAIS: I think it's fantastic. I think it's amazing. And when we
came out to do "The Office," we had no track record. We had nothing to, you
know, compare it to. There was no prejudice towards us, you know. It was a
little surprise for people. Whereas when they started trying to make it for
America, you know, the eyes of the media are on them, and they overcame that
brilliantly, I think. They stuck to their guns. We met with Greg Daniels and
we thought he's the right man for the job. And, you know, we certainly have
been proved right there. And Steve...

GROSS: Hey, how did he prove to you that he was the right man for the job?

Mr. GERVAIS: He was quiet. He was quiet and sensitive, and he really,
really liked the Tim and Dawn story. And, you know, he hated the idea of a
laugh track. He hated the idea of gagging it up. You know, he really loved
the idea of this ensemble piece, and he knew that it was about the mood. He
knew "The Office" was more to do with mood and realism and empathy than jokes
and convoluted plots. And he said all the right things and we liked him, and
we liked his, you know, the work he'd done before, and he was great. It was
fantastic and we knew we were in good hands there. And, you know, then it
was, `Will NBC let him do what we know he can do?' And they did. They were
incredible. You know, hats off. They could have panicked. They could have
watered it down. I think I got a really depressed e-mail from Greg early on
saying it scored really, really badly on the focus group. And I sent back,
`Brilliant! So did we.' We got the joint lowest ever on BBC too.

GROSS: Wow, really?

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, joint bomb with "Women's Balls," and so I thought that's
a great omen. What do focus groups know? You ask them a question, they think
they've got the answer, whether they've got an opinion or not. And NBC went,
`You know what? We're going to go with this again.' And they kept--they're
fantastic.

GROSS: Now how would you compare the character you played in "The Office,"
David Brent, with Steve Carell's character, Michael Scott, because they're
different?

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, I think, maybe, Michael Scott's a little slicker, he's a
little smarter, he's possibly even a little nicer than David Brent. But David
Brent, I think he's more troubled, in a way. I think he's a man free falling,
and there's definitely more of a underlying threat of breakdown with David
Brent than Michael Scott. But then, they should be different. America's
different to England. American offices are different to English offices, and
Steve Carell, he's playing a different character. He's playing Michael Scott,
not David Brent, and nor should he.

GROSS: Visually, one of the signatures of "The Office," both the BBC and the
NBC versions, is the pained looks that the people who work in the office
always have when their boss is talking.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And that kind of pained look, ever since you created "The Office,"
that kind of pained look has become an almost staple of other TV shows and
even of like commercials in America. I just see that a lot...

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, yeah.

GROSS: ...and I always feel like it's often just, you know, copying "The
Office."

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, I'm sure they're, you know, they're influenced by "The
Office" on some--I know the ones you mean, and I certainly think, `Oh, that
looks a bit like "The Office."' But, you know, we didn't invent it.
Documentaries are a real thing. You know, we emulate a documentary, and
sometimes people look at the camera. And, you know, in more post-modern
cases, from, you know, Laurel and Hardy to, you know, Gary Shandling, they
break the fourth wall, but we were doing it because it was meant to be a real
documentary. And also because empathy was the important thing. We had this
documentary. We had to keep reminding people, the reason why these people are
acting like this was because they were being filmed and they knew they were
being filmed. If you lost the documentary aspect, it would just be nothing.
It would be a very, very boring, poor sitcom without laughs or interesting
plot lines, so we had to remind people why these people were acting like this.

The other thing is that it drew people in, so it was a tool I used all the
time as David Brent to show that he was saying this because there was a
camera. Sometimes he'd say something in a philosophical or, you know, told
people, you know, he did a lot for charity and he'd look at the camera to go,
did you get that? That's what sort of guy I am. Also, if he was caught
lying, he would look at the camera going, `Oh, God, they caught that. Of
course, I'm being filmed.' So it was, you know, swings and roundabouts. Tim
used it to go, `Are you listening to this nonsense? This is the world I'm in.
Save me. And it brought the viewer into it, you know. When David went and
embarrassed himself and he looks at you, you go, `Oh, my god, he's looking at
me. What can I do? Oh, it's even worse. It's more excruciating.' When Tim
looked at the camera, you felt for him because Tim was you. Tim was you at
home watching. There has to be a normal person amongst all the madness, you
know, because, as I say, it's all about empathy, comedy and drama. You have
to engage with the audience.

GROSS: Ricky Gervais will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actor and writer Ricky
Gervais. He co-created and starred in the BBC series "The Office" and is an
executive producer of the NBC adaptation. He also co-created and stars in the
HBO comedy series "Extras." The new season starts in mid-January and the first
season comes out on DVD January 9th. You can also see Gervais in the new
movie "Night at the Museum."

Now, you wrote an episode recently of "The Simpsons." And this was a really
funny episode that it's Homer Simpsons--the Simpsons participate basically in
a reality show that's like a wife swap.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

GROSS: So Homer gets a different wife and Marge gets a different husband.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And you play the husband who, you know, the other husband who is
matched up with Marge, and you actually seem to really fall in love with her
and woo her.

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, yeah. I play this guy who's in a sort of loveless
marriage, and he's married above his station. You know, his wife's, you know,
more educated, higher class than him, and she sort of despises him for his
failure. And Marge is nice to him, and it's suddenly like, `Oh, my god,
there's a nice person out there. And, you know, he falls for her. But
really, again it's fun to have a swipe at TV. You know, it's what I've done
for my very short career and it's what "The Simpsons" do absolutely
brilliantly, so it seemed a sort of nice, natural fusion that we'd come
together over something to do with, you know, docu--sort of reality TV and, of
course, embarrassment, which seems to be the thing of the decade.

GROSS: Well, you get to do a song in this, and I love it when you write and
perform songs, so I thought we'd listen to this song that you wrote for the
character...

Mr. GERVAIS: Right.

GROSS: ...for this husband who's trying to, you know, woo Marge. And do you
want to say anything about it before we hear it?

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, again, it's like, you know, David Brent. I always try to
write a song in anything I'm in because I'm a frustrated and failed musician,
so this is a nice outlet. But just like the songs in "The Office," they
weren't spoof songs. They were inappropriate. So the fun is that this is
just an inappropriate song to sing to a woman you're trying to woo. So yeah,
that's where the fun is. It's just not the right thing to do.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Mr. GERVAIS: Oh, who left this here?

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. GERVAIS: Did I tell you I'm a bit of a song writer? Words and music.
Hold the applause. I wrote this song for a woman. You.

Unidentified Actress: (As Marge Simpson) Well, what an odd thing for a man
who's not interested in me to do.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yes. Not interested. Let me just breathe your scent for a
moment before I play.

(Soundbite of deep, noisy inhalation)

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. GERVAIS: (Singing)
Lady, when you came to me
I was feeling blue
Blue just like your hair, you see
Blue just like the moon
But only when the moon is blue
And not when it is cream
And now that you are here with me
I am in a dream.

(Speaking) Oh yeah, Marge. Your dreams can come true.

(Singing) Lady, when you go away
I feel like I could die
Not like dye, like your hair is dyed
But die like, Lady, die
And not like Di, like her name is Di
But die like when she died

(Soundbite of gulping water)

(Speaking) Ooh.

(Singing) But, lady, just like Lady Di,
Be my princess tonight
But don't die.

(Whispers) Don't die. No way.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Actress: (As Marge Simpson) That song was very nice.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Ricky Gervais singing in an episode of "The Simpsons."

Mr. GERVAIS: That's his best attempt.

GROSS: It was really terrific. In addition to all that Lady Di stuff what I
really love about that song is the "lady." I just...

Mr. GERVAIS: Of course, trying to be cool.

GROSS: I just hate songs that call women lady.

Mr. GERVAIS: Lady, of course. Yeah, that real Las Vegas mid-life crisis,
`Hello, yeah.' Yeah. Just imagine his shirt's undone down to his navel.

GROSS: Yeah. The songs that use the word lady, they're always just both so
condescending and narcissistic at the same time.

Mr. GERVAIS: Lady, yeah. Like, these people, they know about women. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: `I'll tell you about ladies. Yeah.'

GROSS: Do you still, like, perform musically, like, for real?

Mr. GERVAIS: Oh, no, no. Only behind the safety shield of irony. I'm too
embarrassed now to do it for real. I failed once. It's the public's fault.
I failed once. I'm not doing it again. Unless I'm taking the mike.

GROSS: What was your performing self like when you were doing it for real?

Mr. GERVAIS: I suppose I probably wanted to be a bit like David Bowie, I'd
say, as a rough and ready guide to my career attempt at singing. Yeah.

GROSS: Complete with gender bending?

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, within reason, yeah. Oh god, yeah, new romantic, oh
eyeliner, the lot. Back-combed hair. I didn't put on dresses or ladies'
underwear. But, yeah, you know. People get these pictures of me. In fact,
Conan showed one last night, and of course, people were laughing and it was
embarrassing because I was nine stone with cheekbones and eyeliner. But I
explained I'm not embarrassed about how I looked then. I'm embarrassed about
how I look now, and that just reminds me.

GROSS: My guest is Ricky Gervais. His HBO comedy series "Extras" begins its
new season in mid-January, and he's in the new movie "Night at the Museum,"
which opens this week. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ricky Gervais, and he's the
creator of "The Office," which of course now has an American version on NBC.
He's in the new movie "Night at the Museum." And his HBO series "Extras"
starts up again in mid-January.

Now, your writing partner is Stephen Merchant, who plays your agent on
"Extras."

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you guys first meet and start working together?

Mr. GERVAIS: I got a job at a local radio station, and I gave Steve a job as
my assistant, and he was fresh out of college and he wanted to get into
comedy, and so I remember consciously thinking, `Oh, I'd better show him I'm
funny, too.' And I had this character I used to do that could have been a
sketch character, and it was called "Seedy Boss," and it was basically David
Brent. And when Steve left the radio station, he did a course at the BBC and
he had to do a little training thing, and he said, `Oh, let's film your
character.' And we went back to my old office and we filmed for a day, we
just, you know--extras that were people who were actually working there and a
couple of friends. And we did a pilot, a 20-minute pilot of "The Office," and
that's how it started. And it was basically the scene in episode five, series
one, where I give the girl an interview and I'm quite lascivious and a little
bit creepy, and that was "Seedy Boss." Brent changed after that really. We
made him less creepy and less sort of sexist, because we thought he'd lose all
sympathy. But that's the hangover of when he was called "Seedy Boss." And,
yeah, that's how I met Steve and that was, I think, about 1997.

GROSS: So you and your writing partner, Stephen Merchant, along with a third
person named Karl Pilkington do these podcasts together that have become like
really popular.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like you're basically just improvising together, often
at Karl's expense.

Mr. GERVAIS: Absolutely.

GROSS: Who is he and maybe you could, like, for listeners who haven't heard
it, describe the kind of interactions that you have on these podcasts?

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, Karl is, I'd say, just a normal bloke. He was doing a
job of work at the radio station, and then when myself and Steve, you know,
just started chatting to him, we realized he saw the world differently to
other people, let's say, and he's fascinating. He's got an opinion on
everything, and it's, you know, what you think is the wrong opinion, to be
honest. He doesn't quite understand science or art, but he's got a
fascinating take on things, and we just chat and he's hilarious. He's just
one of the funniest people I've ever met. He's like a real Homer Simpson.

For example, we've got a Christmas podcast that goes live on Christmas Day,
and I was explaining to Karl, you know, the Wisemen, the Magi, the three
wisemen that brought gifts to Jesus. And Karl said, `Were those presents for
his birthday or Christmas?' And it's just things like that. And he was going,
`But the bloke who brought gold, what did he get him next year?' You see, he's
peaked.

And it's just fascinating how he sees the world. He always come down on--we
were talking about looking back on the year, going on about all the
fascinating things, like, you know, the growing violence in Iraq, you know,
the popularity of George W. Bush, all these of things. And we said to Karl,
`What stood out for you?' And he said, `I saw a grub eating a biscuit.' And we
went, `What do you mean?' And he said, `I was having a biscuit with my tea,
and I put it down and I saw this grub I'd never seen before. It was
see-through and it had legs. And I thought even though he couldn't be further
away from who I am, we both enjoy a biscuit.' And it's things like that that
captures his imagination. It's just the little things in life. And then, I
want to get inside his head.

Myself and Stephen see ourselves as like Anthony Hopkins in the "Elephant
Man," just taking around this strange oddity to the world and, you know, it
must have inflamed some people's imagination because, you know, they
downloaded it and he's become quite a cult phenomenon. You know, we're in the
Guinness Book of Records for the most downloads ever. And that's because
people want to hear Karl's opinion on things. He's incredible.

Talking about "The Elephant Man," there's a scene in that film where he's
stripped off in front of all these surgeons and doctors, and he's going, `See
the deformation of the skull and the spine and the legs and the arms. The
genitals are untouched. They're totally normal.' And Karl said, `Think of
that. The one thing you would want like an elephant and he gets the head.'

He's fantastic.

GROSS: You've compared Karl to Homer Simpson. That's never said as a
compliment, so how does he feel about the role he plays on these podcasts as
the kind of...

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, I think it is a compliment.

GROSS: ...like weird, not very smart guy? Yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: I think it is a compliment. Homer Simpson is my hero. I'm an
atheist and so Homer is the closest thing I have to god, and Karl Pilkington
is a bit like him. You know, he's just different. There's something in his
head that works differently to most people's brains. Talking about, he asked
me a question on one podcast. He said, `Are you in charge of the brain or is
the brain in charge of you?' And I don't know where to start with the
question, but he's always thinking. He's he's trying to teach himself now,
and he's fascinated by, you know, learning but he just--his questions--he's
quite a philosopher. You know, he just keeps asking why, why. And then, you
know, unfortunately, he tries to fill in the gaps himself sometimes. But it's
my favorite thing I do, sit in a room with Karl and ask his opinion on stuff.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GERVAIS: My pleasure.

GROSS: Ricky Gervais co-created and stars in the HBO comedy series "Extras,"
which begins its new season in mid-January. He co-created and starred in the
BBC series "The Office" and is an executive producer of the NBC adaptation.
And he plays the museum director in "Night at the Museum," which opens this
week.

Next week we're going to feature a special holiday series of our favorite
recent interviews with great performers who have written great songs like Ray
Davies, Iggy Pop, Tom Petty, Andre Benjamin of "Outkast," Leonard Cohen, and
Smokey Robinson. Here's Smokey with some shopping advice that's not about
holiday gifts.

(Soundbite of "You Better Shop Around")

Mr. SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing)
When I came of age my mother called me to her side
She said, `Son, you're growing up now
Pretty soon you'll take a bride.'
And then she said, `Just because you've become a young man now,
there's still some things that you don't understand now,
before you ask some girl for her hand now,
keep your freedom for as long as you can now.'

Mr. ROBINSON and Group of Singers: (Singing)
My mama told me...

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) ...`You better shop around.'
Oh, yeah, you better shop around.

Group of Singers: (Singing)
Shop, shop
Shop, shop
Shop around

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing)
There's some things that I want you to know
I guess as sure as the wind's going to blow now
The women come and the women gonna go now
before you tell them that you love them sole now
My mama told me, `You better shop around.'

Group of Singers: (Singing)
Shop, shop
Shop around

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing)
Oh, yeah, you better shop around.

Group of Singers: (Singing)
Shop around

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing)
You got to get yourself a bargain, son
Don't be sold on the very first one
A pretty girl come a dime a dozen
I'd try to find one who's going to give you true loving

Before you take a girl and say, `I do' now
Make sure she's in love with you now

Mr. ROBINSON and Group of Singers: (Singing)
My mama told me, `You better shop around.'

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) Ohhh, yeahhhh.
Try to get yourself a bargain, son.
Don't be sold on the very first one
A pretty girl come a dime a dozen
I'd try to find one who's going to give you true loving

Before you take a girl and say `I do' now
Make sure she's in love with you
Make sure that her love is true now
I hate to see you feeling sad and blue now
My mama told me, `You better shop around.'

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Our interview with Smokey Robinson will be broadcast Monday.

If you're still shopping for holiday gifts, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead
has a review of four box sets after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead recommends Fats Waller, "How
Low Can You Go," Sonny Stitt and Andrew Hill boxed sets

TERRY GROSS, host:

For his holiday gift picks this year, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead recommends
four new or recent boxes of three CDs each, two of them bargains, and none
quite expensive enough to break the bank. To get things rolling, here's some
Fats Waller.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Fats Waller on electric organ with Al Casey on guitar,
1941. One classy gift for the jazz fan this season is Waller's "If You Got to
Ask, You Ain't Got It," three CDs worth of tunes he recorded between 1926 and
'43. It ropes in all the Fats Wallers: the solo pianist, the band pianist,
pipe organist, cheeky singer of his own and other people's tunes, and
all-round winning personality.

One of the last century's great entertainers, Waller was also a fine
songwriter. 1938's "Hold My Hand" sounds like it was written for Fred
Astaire. With Astaire's kind of elegance, verbal wit and terpsichorean
bounce, but the delivery is pure Fats.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FATS WALLER: (Singing)
Am I happy, tickled pink?
There's no telling how I feel
Since I met you, I can't think
I keep wondering is this real?
Come on and hold my hand
Let's dance all night together
Hand in hand and lightly as a feather
Hold my hand, there's romance in the weather
You and me, merrily, tip tip tipping in harmony
Kiss me, dear...

Mr. WHITEHEAD: This Fats Waller anthology is one you can really spend some
time with. The handsome program book includes a long, long appreciation by
Dan Morganstern.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Another lavishly documented new three-CD box dealing with
music between the world wars is devoted to the string bass. It starts in
1925, when the bass fiddle was more rare on records than on gigs because it
was hard to record. The anthology "How Low Can You Go?" is on
Dust-to-Digital, a labor of love label with a weakness for old weird
Americana. The box casts a wide net, taking in famous and obscure jazz
groups, but also Latin, calypso, country, gospel, blues, Hawaiian, and jug
bands. A full disc is given over to bassist Bill Johnson, who led the first
nationally acclaimed jazz group, the unrecorded Creole band which plied the
vaudeville circuit in the 1910s. And there are two numbers by bass woman
Thelma Terry with a teenage Gene Krupa on drums.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: The music in the bass box was chosen with obvious care and
there's plenty of limber, percussive pluck and slap from Pops Foster, Walter
Page, John Kirby, and Milt Hinton. But sometimes an insomniac's tick-tock
beat is enough. Here's Carol Waldron on a 1933 blues by Dickey Wells Shim
Shammers.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Variety and a sense of fun make "How Low Can You Go?" a
painless history lesson. The same goes for saxophonist Sonny Stitt/"Stitt's
Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949 to 1952," on three CDs from Prestige. You
may not buy annotator Harvey Pecar's argument that Stitt was a pioneer of
1940s Bebop and not just the first of umpteen imitators of bop king Charlie
Parker. But Stitt ducked the comparison by moving away from Parker's alto
toward tenor and baritone saxes. The bigger horns let him find his own deeper
voice to complement the quick fingers. That's Shadow Wilson on drums.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: The Sonny Stitt box works because of the range of settings he
recorded in around 1950. He waxed pretty ballads and jumping blues, beefed up
his small groups with extra horns or mambo percussion, backed up singers and
engaged in many friendly battles with fellow tenor and baritone man Gene
Ammons. He's the set's featured co-star.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singers: (Singing)
Who but the...(unintelligible)
For 20 years or more.

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Sounds kind of like Dylan's basement tapes 17 years early. I
wonder if Ammons and Stitt got accused of selling out for that?

And finally, something totally else. Our last three-disc pick is Andrew
Hill's solo from the mail-order Mosaic label. It's three hours of singular
piano music from 1978, most of it unreleased till now. As composer, Hill has
a knack for embedding catchy phrases into haunting tunes. Here he obsesses on
his melodies, pouring over them for 15 minutes at a stretch and proceeding in
fits and starts. Every time he cycles back through a tune's form, it's as if
he starts from scratch instead of building on the last round. It sounds nutty
but he gives every pass the breezy informality of a pencil sketch.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Andrew Hill's solo method is so mysterious, the music's
texture so often oddly spare, he keeps pulling you back in. It's mysterious
but light on the years. One thing the Hill, Fats Waller, Sonny Stitt and
string bass boxes all have in common, besides blessedly ungimmicky packaging,
is that the music's so rich, it keeps yielding new details, new secrets every
time you listen. That way, a lucky recipient will still have plenty to
discover long after the tinsel is in the trash and the tree is on the curb.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American studies at the University
of Kansas and is a jazz columnist for emusic.com. You'll find a list of the
box sets he reviewed on our Web site freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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