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Writer Siri Hustvedt, 'The Shaking Woman'

After Hustvedt suffered several unexplainable seizure-like episodes that defied medical diagnoses, she decided to chart her experiences -- and the murky intersection between mind, brain and body -- in a new book, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves.


Other segments from the episode on March 3, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 3, 2010: Interview with Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster; Interview with Ricky Gervais.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Writer Siri Hustvedt, 'The Shaking Woman'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In spite of all the advances of modern medicine, the human body still poses
mysteries that have no obvious solutions or even explanations. My guest offers
her own condition as an example. Siri Hustvedt is the author of the new book
"The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves." She's a novelist who's had
several inexplicable episodes of violent shaking. It's not epilepsy. It's not
panic attacks. And during a seizure she can still think and speak clearly.

Hustvedt also has a long history of migraines. One of them lasted a full year.
She writes: Neurological and psychiatric illnesses seem to attack the very
source of what one imagines is oneself. Her memoir is in part about how her
migraines and seizures have affected her sense of self. Her book also
investigates her condition from the perspectives of psychology, psychiatry,
neurology and literature.

The second time she had a seizure, it was while giving a speech. Her husband,
the writer Paul Auster, was in the audience. So we asked Paul Auster to join us
for the very first part of the interview.

So Paul, I'd like to start by asking you to describe the first time you saw
Siri having a shaking seizure. What did it look like? What was your experience
of that?

Mr. PAUL AUSTER (Writer): Well, I knew it had happened once in Minnesota, but I
wasn't present. And then about six months later, Siri and I were invited to a
literary festival in Key West, Florida. So it was early 2007, January. Siri had
written a piece about her shaking. It was actually the kernel of the book that
has now been published, and she wanted to give a lecture about this.

There was a large crowd in the hall, a few hundred people, and she got up to
begin speaking, and out of nowhere her body started to shake. And I'm not
saying tremble - these are not tremors - this was violent, almost epileptic,
seizure-like movements. Her arms were flapping. Her legs were – seemed to be
knocking together. But what was so uncanny about what I was seeing was that she
was able to go on speaking. It seemed that what was happening from her neck
down was very different from what was happening in her head. So she gripped the
podium very tightly and went on talking and said – and this is where it got
really bizarre - I'll get to the shaking in a minute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUSTER: Because there were people in the audience saying, she's having a
seizure. And there was a lot of alarm. I myself was so terrified to see her in
this condition. I was sitting next to Ian McEwan, the English novelist who was
at the festival as well, who's an old friend. And I leaned over to him, I said,
I have to go up on stage and take Siri off 'cause this is horrible. And Ian,
cool Englishman that he is, just said, no, no, I think she's going to be okay.
Give her a minute or two and let's see what happens.

And it is true that by gripping the podium and continuing to speak, she did
settle down. And by the middle of the speech, she was pretty much under
control. But it was a horrifying thing to see in someone you love so much, in
public no less. And I'll never forget it.

GROSS: Well, Paul, thanks for that description. We'll let you go now so that I
can talk with Siri. Thank you.

Mr. AUSTER: Thank you.

GROSS: Well, Siri, now that we've heard your husband Paul Auster describe what
it was like to watch you, tell us what your experience was of having that
seizure on stage.

Ms. SIRI HUSTVEDT (Author, "The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves"): It's
hard to describe how surprising it is, for one thing. It comes out of nowhere.
And the first time it happened I opened my mouth to speak, and suddenly my
whole body is shuddering violently. I had index cards in my hand, my arms were
flapping, my legs were shuddering so hard that I thought I was going to fall
over. It's a very dramatic physical event.

But what was fascinating and has always been fascinating about this for me is
that cognitive abilities, in other words, my thoughts, my ability to talk,
continues. I don't feel cloudy or anything. It's simply that my limbs have gone
out of control.

GROSS: And your mind, being cognizant at the time, must be thinking, make it
stop, how do I control it? And of course you can't control it.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: You can't control it at all. In fact, I just clung to the podium
to keep myself upright. And I did say to the audience, well, you know, I'm
going to discuss this shaking problem and what it might be later in the

GROSS: I love the way you postponed it until later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HUSTVEDT: So I said, yes, you know, I'm getting to it if you'll just bear
with me. And fortunately, it did subside and one of the strange questions is:
Did it subside because, you know, these stress hormones were ceasing to rush
through my body and that was triggering this seizure-like activity? Or did the
seizure just last for only a short time?

GROSS: How many times has this happened to you?

Ms. HUSTVEDT: It's happened four times. And I began to think that I was having
some kind of hysterical seizure activity. In other words, that I had no control
over it, but that it was maybe completely related to some emotional drama
inside me that I had no awareness of. Especially because the first time this
happened was when I was giving a speech about my dead father, at a memorial;
they were planting a tree in his honor at the college where he had been a
professor. And I thought, oh my goodness, you know, this is coming out, you
know, some unconscious emotional conflict, and what's going on?

However, later I had a seizure when I was climbing a mountain. I think I
hyperventilated and it triggered a seizure. So that seemed to suggest that it's
not only emotional material or fear of public speaking that initiates this.

GROSS: You've also had severe migraines most of your life and you suspect that
it's connected. You write that people with migraines are often prone to other
peculiar sensations and to sensitive nervous systems. In your 30s you say that
you started to get this strange tingling in your arms and legs with shocks of
varying degrees going up and down your limbs and your face. Do you think all of
that is connected? That and the seizures?

Ms. HUSTVEDT: I have a feeling that it is. I don't think that neurology can
explain exactly how these are related. They do know some things. For example,
that if you have either migraine or epilepsy, you have a much greater chance of
having both of them. In other words, there has to be some kind of connection,
but they're not certain how that works. It does seem that something like
migraine is inherited, that there's a strong genetic component to it, and
probably with epilepsy as well.

Although I have to say, I – epilepsy too can be triggered by emotional content.
I read after I had finished the book, a wonderful little medical story about a
man who has epilepsy and he has a seizure every time he lies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HUSTVEDT: It's amazing.

GROSS: So, what kind of difficulty have you run into getting a diagnosis for
your seizures when it doesn't fit any of the symptoms of known illnesses.
They've ruled out epilepsy. It doesn't seem to be stage fright. It doesn't fit
any of the official illnesses and disorders. So where does that leave you?

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Well, it leaves me, I think, with the fact that I do take beta
blockers, or Propranolol, every time I have some public event. And this seems
to inhibit the seizing activity. So that's a good thing. So that leaves me at
least with a crutch. The interesting thing about this is that there are a lot
of illnesses that are either misdiagnosed or seem to fall outside the
categories of medicine. That's simply a truism.

I feel that my journey and part of the writing of this book for me was a sense
of mastering not the illness, not curing it, but being able to think very
clearly about what had happened to me and also saying to myself, this is part
of you. This is not only part of your story, but it belongs to your nervous
system. It may never go away. And it became very important for me to own it, to
take it into myself as part of myself and not as an alien invader.

GROSS: Well, let me quote something that you wrote. And this is actually in a
New York Times article that you wrote a couple of years ago about migraine. You
wrote: Chronic headaches are my fate and I have adopted a position of
philosophical resignation. I am aware that such a view is resoundingly un-
American. Our culture does not encourage anyone to accept adversity. On the
contrary, we habitually declare war on the things that afflict us, whether it's
drugs, terrorism, or cancer. The very moment I stop thinking of my condition as
the enemy, I made a turn and began to get better. I wasn't cured. I wasn't
forever well, but I was better. Metaphors matter.

Can you talk about how you tried to, instead of, like, conquering and fighting
whatever this affliction is that you have, just kind of trying to accept it and
why you think that made a difference?

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Well, I think for one thing, acceptance, even physiologically,
has a calming effect on the body. In other words, if you are in a state of
resignation or acceptance, you're less tense than if you're going to war. And I
think with a number of illnesses, this is probably a somewhat healing factor.
At the same time, I think, you know, diagnosis is really a way to abstract an
illness from a person. And that can be quite easy, say, with a cancerous tumor
that can be removed or with the measles that come and go. You have spots and
then the spots leave you.

With neurological illnesses, it's much more difficult to separate the illness
from the person. And I do note in the book aspects of personality that seem to
be very strongly related to the nervous system, including religious feeling,
the need to write. Certain temporal lobe epileptic people get something called
hypergraphia, which means that they just have to write a lot. And this is
probably part of Dostoyevsky's story as well. So I think where the nervous
system begins or ends, and personality, these are very complicated questions.

GROSS: My guest is Siri Husvedt. Her new memoir is called "The Shaking Woman,
or A History of My Nerves." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Siri Husvedt, and her new
book, "The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves," is a memoir about how
she's coped with an unusual shaking seizure disorder that she developed a few
years ago, as well as a long history of migraines. And it's a kind of medical,
philosophical, introspective look at what it's like to live with this
mysterious disorder and try to make some sense of it.

Well, you know, you say that once you wanted to make peace with your nervous
system instead of, like, being in this constant state of combat, fighting it
and worrying about it, you needed a deep reset. What was the reset button that
you used?

Ms. HUSVEDT: Well, I think it has to do with these questions of who we are,
what we are. I think very much we all have a story that we tell ourselves about
ourselves. We are always building narratives out of memory all the time. And
those narratives are probably not exactly the truth. Memory is not something
that is perfect. It's an imperfect business. But we need some kind of narrative
in order to live with ourselves.

And the narrative that I was trying to construct for myself, the reset button,
if you will, is that this story of illness is one, first of all, that's not
killing me. I have to say, that's a good thing so far. And - but it's also a
story that is not altogether horrible and negative. And I do think that aspects
of my nervous system that have given me a lot of trouble, certain kinds of
hypersensitivity, have also been an aid to me in my work as a writer and
novelist. So there are often two sides to what appears to be a wholly negative

GROSS: Okay. So you know, you were talking about the story you tell yourself of
who you are when something's gone wrong inside your body.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: So when something goes wrong, your narrative kind of becomes, I'm
scared, I'm vulnerable, maybe I'm kind of a freak 'cause no one can even
diagnose what this is. So how did you get rid of that tape loop in your head?

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Well, I think possibly because I had suffered from migraines for
many years and they are chronic, I don't believe they're ever going to go away,
that maybe in some sense I was slightly better prepared than someone who had
never had any neurological problems. But I think, you see, this question of,
you know, vulnerability is very important because everyone who gets sick feels
vulnerable, whether you have the flu or whether you're diagnosed with some, you
know, terrible ongoing illness.

And I think that it's very easy to feel victimized by illness. But you know,
everybody does have – is ill at some point or another. And how we think about
the illness, even if it's chronic, it seems to me, is essential to how we live
with it. And so my search here was to try to find a sense, a narrative, a story
that I could live with and I could say at the end of the book, I am the shaking
woman. She is part of me.

GROSS: One of the things that has helped you with the pain of the migraines and
the uncertainty of the seizures is biofeedback.


GROSS: Would you explain what it is and why you think it's been helpful?

Ms. HUSTVEDT: I will. I had suffered a migraine for a year. This is a long time

GROSS: A year-long migraine.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: A year-long migraine. I was very ill. I was ill all the time. And
finally the doctor put me in the hospital at Mount Sinai in New York, gave me
Thorazine, which is an antipsychotic medicine - heavily sedates you. And I was
supposed to be in for 10 days. I actually continued to feel the migraine under
this huge drug. And I left after eight days. Then the neurologist, who I think
was quite tired of me because I refused to respond to any medicine, suggested

Biofeedback is essentially monitored meditation. You are hooked up with
electrodes to a machine and the more tense you are, the faster this machine
beeps. So when you are very tense it goes beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep,
beep. And the more you relax, the slower the beeps. And when you're extremely
relaxed, or as the psychologist who taught me how to do this called it, Buddha-
land, the noise stops.

Well, it took me about eight months. But I really trained myself to do this.
And I can warm my extremities now by doing this deep relaxation. And also take
away some of the pain of my migraines. So that's been a genuine tool for me.

GROSS: And it's maybe given you some sense that you can control the nervous
system that always seems out of control.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: That's right. I think the sense of control, even a little bit of
control, or even being able to have some intellectual sense of what's going on
with you, all of those are helpful.

GROSS: Being a writer, naming things must be very important. For you finding
the word that best describes something. And there isn't a name for the seizures
that you have 'cause the name isn't epilepsy, the name isn't panic attack; no
one really knows what the name is 'cause there isn't a diagnosis yet. The title
of your book is "The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves." 'Cause the
closest you've come is to saying, yeah, I'm the shaking woman. Do you wish that
there was, like, a name for it so that you could say, I have this - this is the

Ms. HUSTVEDT: I think there is comfort in naming. And most of us feel it when
we're diagnosed with something. We say, oh, that's what it is. Either relief or
fear response, whatever. But it's kind of nice to have it framed. Part of what
I was trying to do in the book was to show how frail many of those frames,
boxes, categories that we have are. In other words, there is no single,
absolute answer often for many illnesses. And what was called something in the
19th century is called another thing in the 21st. And it doesn't necessarily
mean that the 21st century explanation is superior to the 19th century one. So
I am in a way creating ambiguities inside the book. I wanted to show how hard
it can be with all diagnostic categories.

GROSS: So you were saying that before public speaking appearances now you
medicate? You take a medication that's basically like a beta blocker, like

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Which a lot of people take for stage fright.

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Absolutely.

GROSS: So if you don't mind my asking, did you medicate before the interview
that we're doing now?

Ms. HUSTVEDT: Yes. I'm fully medicated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HUSTVEDT: I did. I have Propranolol in my system, which I think, you know,
shuts down these eruptions of stress hormones, which I have a feeling are, you
know, putting me into seizure mode. And so I am completely beta blocked talking
to you.

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

Ms. HUSTVEDT: I had a great time. Thanks for having me. I really - I had fun.

GROSS: Siri Hustvedt is the author of the new memoir "The Shaking Woman, or A
History of My Nerves." You can read the first chapter and see how Siri Husvedt
spells her name on our Web site

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Ricky Gervais Has An Animated Post-'Office' Life


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Ricky Gervais became famous worldwide for
starring in and co-creating a British TV series that only a few million
Americans have seen, the original version of "The Office," which was first
shown in England on the BBC. The American version, starring Steve Carell on
NBC, is one the eight international versions of "The Office," with more on the

After "The Office," Gervais went on to create "Extras" with his writing partner
Stephen Merchant, and he co-wrote and stars in the film "The Invention of
Lying," which just came out on DVD.

Our TV critic David Bianculli spoke with Ricky Gervais last week. They began by
talking about his latest project, an animated HBO series, "The Ricky Gervais
Show," which airs Fridays. It features the freewheeling conversations which he
recorded with Stephen Merchant and a radio producer, Karl Pilkington, who's the
real star of the show. These were initially produced as podcasts, podcasts
which made it into the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records as the most
downloaded podcast on the Internet.

What did they talk about? Here's an example. Stephen Merchant is posing this
hypothetical question to Karl Pilkington. If you could choose any super power,
what would it be?

(Soundbite of "The Ricky Gervais Show")

Mr. STEPHEN MERCHANT (Writer): Remember, you've already got opposable thumbs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MERCHANT: Cross that off the list.

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS (Actor): I can't, Karl.

Mr. MERCHANT: There's so many to choose from: telepathy, x-ray vision
(unintelligible) invisibility; choose it wisely, strength, intelligence.

Mr. KARL PILKINGTON (Radio Producer): But why have I been picked?

Mr. MERCHANT: Oh, for God sakes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PILKINGTON: No, no. But..

Mr. MERCHANT: It solves the question for you.

Mr. PILKINGTON: But I just say, does anyone else want this?

DAVID BIANCULLI: Ricky Gervais, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. GERVAIS: A pleasure to be here.

BIANCULLI: I love that he's immediately questioning the premise.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, of course. He doesn’t - he's quite cautious and he asks
questions that you never dreamt he would ever ask or need to ask. He hasn’t got
a pretentious bone in his body. I think it’s impossible for him. The concept of
pretension does not exist in his world, so everything you get is unfiltered and
honest. He downloads his brain for your pleasure.

I mean I think what it comes down to eventually, when pressured, is
invisibility. And we ask him what you do with this and he decides that he'd go
into a shop and, you know, be invisible, wait for the shop to shut, and then he
would shop at his leisure, buy some records, pay for them, and leave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: That's what he would use his super power for. I mean we were doing
one audio book, I think it’s "The Ricky Gervais Guide to Philosophy," and I
posed him the Robert Nozick scenario where if you could script your life,
perfectly preprogrammed your life, you could get into a float tank and you’d
live a virtual life, a perfect life...


Mr. GERVAIS: You know, would you chose that or reality with all the pain and
suffering but it’s real? And I think most people would probably choose a real
life. Karl pondered this and his virtual life - his perfect existence turned
out to be exactly the life he's got now, but his boiler would work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: And again, I don’t think he was making the most of the

BIANCULLI: Well, you know, I always look at it thinking, is he putting you on?
Is he putting me on? And then I finally decided, tell me if I'm right or wrong
about this, that Karl Pilkington is to you and Stephen Merchant what Margaret
Dumont was for the Marx Brothers. I mean someone who has no clue how funny you
are, much less how funny they are.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah. I mean Karl, I don’t know what Karl laughs at in his own
life or what he finds amusing. He's quite a serious - you'd think he was a
tortured, troubled soul, but he's not. He's just quite happy doing the stuff he
does. The only time he's not happy is when he can't get to do the same stuff he
does every day. He likes puttering around. He likes doing nothing. He likes
sitting in tea shops eating cake with his girlfriend. He's just - he's totally
happy with that. He actually said he's looking forward to being old. He said,
one, he said old people are no trouble. I don’t know what that meant. They're
no trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Like you can wrangle them easy or they don’t get into fights. I
don’t know. But he says he looking forward to being old because then you could
just sit out in the street in a chair and no one gives you dirty looks like
you’re lazy. I mean that's an ambition. That's a hell of an ambition, isn't it?

BIANCULLI: I have one last question about "The Ricky Gervais Show," and that's
the animation style. I know that there were fans who were sort of doing
animated versions of some of the podcasts and then you come out with a TV show
version of it which is brilliant recycling, if nothing else.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: I'm wondering is the animation style, is it based more on
"Flintstones," Hannah Barbera, or "Rocky and Bullwinkle"?

Mr. GERVAIS: Certainly, that was the (unintelligible) I did a sketch of myself
initially for the animation house and I wanted it to be a cross between Hannah
Barbera and 1950s children's comics of Britain like the Beano and the Dandy.
And there was a very good reason for that. I wanted it to be warm and
approachable and not spiky and trendy and (unintelligible) in that sense,
because for two reasons: I wanted people to know that this is a quite a nice
cuddly show, because on the face of it it’s quite challenging.

We're talking about, you know, there are no taboo subjects. We talk about race,
disability, and I wanted people to know it was like safe and sweet. And Karl is
quite childlike. Anything he says is not malicious. He doesn’t wish harm on
anyone. I mean he's fascinated by difference, but I think in the best way, in
the same way that a child is. A child stares because he hasn’t seen it before.
There's no malice. It’s the parents that are embarrassed when they say don’t


Mr. GERVAIS: They're the ones that are embarrassed socially. A child's just
looking at stuff, and Karl's like that. Karl is like that. Karl is asking
genuine questions without prejudice. The fact that he comes out with horrendous

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I have to explain to people that this - he's an idiot. This is - I
mean he thought that Anne Frank...

BIANCULLI: How nice of you to explain that.

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, of course. I have to. It's my job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: But he thought that Anne Frank was just avoiding paying rent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: We had to explain to him that she was hiding from the Nazis
because he has no formal education. He doesn’t, you know, it’s like people take
things for granted because we’ve been learning all our life and from an early
age and now we think everyone knows these things. But Karl doesn’t. Karl
doesn’t know these things. Throughout the podcasts, throughout the five or six
years, there's things that seem so obvious to us that are revelations to him,
and I think that people should know that - that they're going to see over this,
you know, these - however many seasons we do, we're going to see Karl get
slightly more educated - I mean even arrogant in his stupidity sometimes where
he gets more confident, which is my favorite, like a la Homer Simpson.

There was one point I was trying to explain evolution to him.

BIANCULLI: Oh, yeah.

Mr. GERVAIS: And he went yeah, yeah. He said I've got the gist of it. I go, go
on. He went, I know it went germ fish mermaid man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Mermaid. Unbelievable.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with Ricky Gervais, co-star and co-creator of BBC's
"The Office" and of the HBO series "Extras" and the new "Ricky Gervais Show"
which premiered last month and airs Fridays on HBO.

Here in the states, "The Office" was shown on BBC America and seen by a couple
of million people. So most people haven't seen you in America for the role for
which you are so internationally famous. They know the NBC version, but they
haven't seen you as David Brent, and I thought that I'd start off this section
by playing a clip from "The Office."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Office)

Mr. GERVAIS: (as David Brent) There's good news and bad news. The bad news is
Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs.
Yeah. Yeah. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if
you want to - stay. I know. I know, gutting, gutting. (Unintelligible) On a
more positive note, the good news is, I've been promoted. So every cloud -
you’re still thinking about the bad news, aren't you?

BIANCULLI: I do think that's one of the most pitch perfect characters in
comedies ever done for television. And...

Mr. GERVAIS: Thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: seemed fully formed at the beginning. And I'm wondering if you
really had that sort of confidence going in, in both the character and the
presentation from the very start.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, I was confident in the character. It didn’t feel like an
acting job. It felt like I was doing an impression of someone I'd never met
before, which I suppose is what acting is really. But I was much more worried
about the realism of the piece.


Mr. GERVAIS: I wanted to keep in all the fluffs, all the mouth touching, all
the things that rustled the microphone. Just directorially, the realism, the
motivation, the players. I always hated exposition. You know, when people would
come in and say, John, you know your sister, the one who went to the Gambia?


Mr. GERVAIS: Yes. Of course I do. She's my sister. Why are you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: You know, you want to go and look at the camera. And so we tried
to avoid that and we tried to make everything organic. We didn’t want people
entering, doing a scene, then leaving in opposite directions. So we had to find
them, and I think that's what people connected with initially, was the realism
of the piece, saying I know someone like that. And then we peppered them with
the annoyance of mundane life. You know, some people say that is drama is real
life with the boring bits taken out. Well, we left them in and we made a
feature of them, and the aftermath was so much more tantalizing to us than the
event. You know, what happens after someone's told a bad joke that didn’t go
down well?


Mr. GERVAIS: That's a bit of an awkward moment, you know, moment.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with Ricky Gervais, co-star and co-creator of
"Extras," BBC's "The Office," and "The Ricky Gervais Show."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with Ricky Gervais, co-star and co-creator of BBC's
"The Office" and of the HBO series "Extras" and the new "Ricky Gervais Show,"
which premiered last month and airs Fridays on HBO.

"Extras" was the series that you did after "The Office." And you play Andy
Millman, a film extra who desperately wants to get speaking lines in the films
in which he appears. And as the series goes on, he succeeds in that quite
wildly. But I want to play this early clip. This is one of my favorite moments
from the series. He's an extra in a movie about the nun who hides Jews from
Nazis during World War II. And your character Andy is dressed as Nazi. And the
movie's star, Kate Winslet, is in costume as a nun. And between scenes they
have this little chat.

(Soundbite of HBO series, "Extras")

Mr. GERVAIS: (as Andy Millman) I'd just like to say I think, you know, you
doing this is so commendable. You know, using your profile to keep the message
alive about the Holocaust.

Ms. KATE WINSLET (Actress): (as herself) Thank God I'm not doing it for that. I
mean we don't really need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It's like,
how many have there been? You know, we get it - it was grim, move on. No, I'm
doing it because I've noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust -
guaranteed Oscar. I've been nominated four times - never won. The whole world
is going why hasn’t Winslet won one?

Mr. GERVAIS: (as Andy Millman) That's it?

Ms. WINSLET (Actress): (as herself) That's it. That's why I'm doing it.
Schindler's bloody list, "Pianist," Oscars coming out of their ass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: You know, it’s absolutely hilarious, and what makes it even funnier,
of course, is that, you know, years later...

Mr. GERVAIS: Life imitating art.


Mr. GERVAIS: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: She actually won an Oscar for "The Reader" and, which was a
holocaust film. And we know, because you were on the Oscar's as a presenter,
what you said to her that night. What did she say to you?

Mr. GERVAIS: She - she just laughed. She laughed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: We’ve actually done a retrospective that's coming out in April in
England about "Extras" and we’ve got all the stars to chat about their
episodes. And she says on there Ricky Gervais thinks that Oscar's half his;
it's not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: What do you think the percentage is?

Mr. GERVAIS: I think about 50/50. She can have – (unintelligible) keep the

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: But, you know, again, here was an idea - a really different idea for
a television series, where you get to show pieces of these actual films and
therefore it’s the perfect excuse to bring in guest stars. But the series is
not about those movies at all; it’s about your ambition and your friendships

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah. That's why it’s - yeah, I think people, you know, obviously
the big names got the press heat that, you know, I think it was remarkable that
we got Kate Winslet and Sam Jackson and Robert De Niro and David Bowie...


Mr. GERVAIS: pop up in a little sitcom. I mean, it was remarkable. But, I
think – I'd rather do stuff that make a big connection with a few people than a
small connection with loads. I’d rather this be a few people’s favorite show,
than, you know, millions and millions of people’s 10th favorite show. Because
what’s the point otherwise? And that’s what I want to do.

And also, even though the backdrop if it looks like it’s major, it’s not. Just
like “The Office” wasn’t really about selling paper, it was about a few people
thrown together, you know, an arbitrary existence walking the same carpet every
time. And “Extras” wasn’t really about film making and film stars. It was about
a group of friends trying to get on with different ambitions. And it was
important that we made them the bottom rung of the ladder because no one wants
to see, you know, unfeasibly handsome, brilliant people doing brilliant things.
Where's the fun in that?


Mr. GERVAIS: We want to see a struggle. We want to see people falling over but
getting themselves back up on their feet. And that’s what’s extraordinary.
Ordinary people, their struggle; there's nothing as interesting as real life
out your window. You walk down the street for half an hour, I'll give you half
an hour of drama.

BIANCULLI: Religion is a continuing theme in your work. And especially the way
that you espouse opinions through your characters about atheism. This is during
an episode of “Extras,” the same one with Kate Winslet. And in this one you
have nuns and Nazis walking around in costume as extras, and Andy, your
character, is talking with his best friend, a fellow movie extra played by
Ashley Jensen. She is now on the TV series “Ugly Betty” here in the States. In
this scene she pays Maggie, a sweet but not very bright young woman, who tells
Andy there’s something about the movie they are filming that bothers her.

(Soundbite of TV series, “Extra”)

Ms. ASHLEY JENSEN (Actor): (As Maggie) All these people going about pretending
to be nuns.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) What do you mean?

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) Do you think that’s right?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) It’s a film.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) I know. But they’re all wandering around as holy
ladies. Wouldn’t that offend God or someone?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Offend God or someone?

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) Do you not worry you a bit?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) No. What, offending God? I’m an atheist.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) What one’s that? Is that the one where you haven’t
decided what you want...

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) No, that’s agnostic. I’m an atheist. I firmly
believe there is no God.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) Why?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) The burden of proof is not on me. The burden of
proof is on the people who say there is a God. I don’t believe in God, I
believe in science.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) So do you not believe in anything like ghosts or
spirits or anything?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman): No, I don't believe in ghosts or spirits or
elves. Certainly not God, no.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) So what do you think happens when you die?

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman) Well, if you’re buried, you go in the ground and
you’re worm food.

Ms. JENSEN: (As Maggie) See, I don’t like that. I would rather believe that
there is a God and your soul just floats away on to eternity. And all your
friends from school will be there, all the ones you haven’t seen for ages and
all your dead pets and just, like, all nice people. You don’t have to worry
about worms.

Mr. GERVAIS: (As Andy Millman): You believe in God then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Now, what are you thinking as you replay this?

Mr. GERVAIS: I think that was a very sweet, funny clip that actually housed a
very important point. It was someone who - that was genuine, and her reasons
for believing in God were that the alternative wasn’t very nice. And I think
that’s a lot of people’s reason for believing in God. That – if there is no
God, what’s the point? Why are we here? Why are we born? And we live this life
of struggle and pain if there’s nothing at the end of it? Well, I wish there
was a God. But I can’t believe in something that I don’t. And I suppose that is
personal in a sense. Although it’s not personal to talk about religion because
of the effect it has on society as a whole.

BIANCULLI: I don’t know what your own upbringing was. I know that you were one
of four children, but I don’t know if you grew up in a religious household, if

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, very working class upbringing. My
dad was a laborer, my mom was a housewife. And I don’t know how much they
believe, but I know for a working class mother, Jesus is like an unpaid
babysitter. If she is not watching me, someone is. And also I think that, you
know, the best you can hope for in a poor working class accommodation is not
that your son becomes an international comedian but that he doesn’t die in a
barroom fight...


Mr. GERVAIS: ...before he’s clever enough to take, you know, care of himself -
and that, you know, I think that if you’re a God-fearing person and do live,
you know, your life by Christian values as a good rule of thumb, then you'll
probably be okay. And so, you know, she did her best. And I believed in God
till I was eight, and I’m remember I was doing some homework from the Bible.
And my brothers, a lot older than me, he was 11 years older than me, he was
about 19, he came in and he just said - why do you believe in God? And my mom
went, Bob. And I knew that she had something to hide and he had something to
tell me.

BIANCULLI: We’re speaking with Ricky Gervais, co-star and co-creator of
“Extras,” BBC’s “The Office,” and “The Ricky Gervais Show.” More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We’re speaking with Ricky Gervais, co-star and co-creator of BBC’s
“The Office,” and of the HBO series “Extras,” and the new “Ricky Gervais Show,”
which premiered last month and airs Fridays on HBO.

Now, watching television in the States right, you know, during the Olympics, it
was unavoidable to see promos for Jerry Seinfeld’s new series, “The Marriage

And at some point you started getting promoted on that as a guest. Now, it
looks like it’s a panel show with comedy, and you’re famously not married in
real life, correct?

Mr. GERVAIS: Well, yeah, I’m not. You'd say I wasn’t married in the eyes of

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Or in the eyes of a civil...

Mr. GERVAIS: Yes. Although, you know, I’m with the same woman - we’ve lived
together for 25 years. So I think we’re probably most stable than most


Mr. GERVAIS: I think that’s probably above average...

BIANCULLI: And my question was...

Mr. GERVAIS: terms of longevity.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, okay, and my question was not – I was not trying to question
your personal relationship so much as to question your experience on “The
Marriage Ref.”

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: What was that like? Who are you with?

Mr. GERVAIS: Myself, Madonna, and Larry David. I mean...

BIANCULLI: Oh, what was the green room like for that show?

Mr. GERVAIS: Wow, it was the strangest show I’ve ever been on with
(unintelligible) or just giving. I mean I cannot imagine three more different
opinions. And it was great to see how the panelists interact as well. At one
point Madonna has to go at Larry David, accusing him of being a misogynist
because he's always coming down on the side of the man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I mean, Madonna arguing with Larry David. Well, I did lose it a
few times. I was saying this is weird, what am I doing here? I mean, look at –
Larry David, Madonna, and Ricky Gervais giving people advise. I mean, is that
the first point of call?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: People have trouble with their marriage. They get, oh, call
Madonna, call Larry David, call that fat bloke from England.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: But they do a good job. I don’t think you've ever seen a panel
show quite like it.

BIANCULLI: Well, panel shows as a TV critic is something that I miss and that’s
a troika that I really would like to see on television.

Mr. GERVAIS: I’ve never done them before. I never do panel shows. But Jerry
Seinfeld calls you on your cell phone and says, hello, it’s Jerry Seinfeld
here, do you want to do a show with Madonna and Larry David, the answer is yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: The answer is yes. I’ll never have the opportunity again.

BIANCULLI: When you do award shows, what’s your opinion afterwards about how
the people in those specific rooms react to what you’re saying, what comes off
better than you expected, what doesn’t?

Mr. GERVAIS: You know, I think you've got to assume when you do comedy, if it’s
go any edge at all or is worth anything, that as many people are going to
dislike as like it. You know, you can’t choose your sense of humor. It’s like
sexuality. You can’t pretend to laugh at somebody you don’t find funny. You
know, it’s very peculiar and very personal. So you can only do stuff that, you
know, you find funny. And I hope it’s entertaining. But with that, you know,
there are caveats. I don’t want to just go out there and do safe, anodyne
stuff that everyone will find mildly amusing, but you know, they can do it

Likewise, I don’t want to go out there and bring the room down. I don’t want to
go out there - it was funny because the Mel Gibson gag, when I said I like to
drink as much the next man, if the next man is Mel Gibson...


Mr. GERVAIS: There was one journalist in New York said, I noticed Mr. Gervais
had a go at Mel Gibson’s alcoholism but failed to mention his anti-Semitism.
Yeah, that was a nice half hour, wasn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, let’s talk about the Holocaust, and (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I mean it was in the forum for it. I wasn’t giving anyone the hard
time for their personal beliefs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVAIS: I was having a laugh. I was ribbing, you know, that the people who
are much more successful and famous and richer and more handsome than me, you
know, but it was all done a good fun. I had no targets. I've got nothing
against those people. But likewise to say I don’t want to go there and make it
very, very stuffy and safe and just anodyne. So you've got to it for yourself
and I think I pitched it about right.

BIANCULLI: Ricky Gervais, thank you so much for taking the time to be on FRESH

Mr. GERVAIS: My pleasure.

GROSS: Ricky Gervais spoke with FRESH AIR’s TV critic David Bianculli. Gervais’
new HBO animated series, “The Ricky Gervais Show,” airs Fridays on HBO. It’s
adapted from his podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington. You can
learn about Karl Pilkington’s theory of human reproduction and a clip from “The
Ricky Gervais Show” on our Web site,, where you can also
download podcasts of our show.

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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