Ricky Gervais: More than The Office comedian

Not content with the success of his TV series, Ricky Gervais is at the Fringe with Rubbernecker. Steve Jelbert meets up with the real David Brent
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The Independent Culture

Forty seems an advanced age for anyone to make their Edinburgh debut, yet Ricky Gervais, the star, writer and director of the acclaimed BBC2 sitcom The Office, has managed to sell out a week of shows on his fame alone.

Sharing a bill with his collaborator Steve Merchant, and fellow cohorts of the patchy 11 O'Clock Show, Jimmy Carr and Robin Ince, their Rubbernecker stand-up show ("a collection of idiots," he claims) has been packing them in at Edinburgh's less-impressive-than-it-sounds Café Royal. Not that this modest funny man – his short set is as tasteless and well-constructed a turn as you'll find on the Fringe, and he seems surprised to be told so - has a high self-opinion.

"I've done about eight stand-up gigs in my life. I was really worried," he admits. "I don't feel natural on stage. I don't feel I could control an audience if they weren't with me. I feel I've cheated slightly because I can deliver lines I've written and they'll listen because I've been on telly. I'm not the stand-up a hundred people are, and I feel guilty."

Don't put yourself down, man. You're an adult, for goodness sake. That must be an advantage.

"Am I too old for best newcomer? Fattest, oldest newcomer perhaps," he muses, though he understands the point about young comics sometimes displaying a worrying lack of knowledge of life's subtleties. "It's like Gomez singing these world-weary songs sounding like Tom Waits. I'm thinking 'Hold on! You're only 21!'"

Gervais is still learning. "I can't believe that comedians never have a drink before they go on. I had to find that out," he confides, quite shocked. Edinburgh does confuse him though.

"I'm not being cynical, I genuinely don't know why people spend a year writing an hour then coming to the Fringe to lose ten grand," he says. "I don't think you have to do it or otherwise only those who come would become successful and that's clearly not true." His own success is an obvious example.

He does have a past though. Once entertainment manager at the University of London Union, he booked plenty of comics there, before broadcasting on XFM and Radio 1 in a double act with Merchant. Then he appeared as a roving reporter on the 11 O'Clock Show who, straight-faced, asked members of the public the questions That's Life never dared use. (Such as, "How big an animal could you kick to death? A dog? How big a dog?"). His own spoof chatshow Meet Ricky Gervais followed to a mixed response last year, as his own personality was conflated with his on-screen role.

"The character I played was this confused, bigoted idiot," he explains. "I know there was some ambiguity because I used my own name, but I wasn't worried about people being offended, I was more worried about people agreeing with it. It was a piece of character comedy." So that's clear then.

His new character "Derek", debuted in Rubbernecker, a simple soul who attempts to entertain despite possessing no discernible ability, or even intelligence, seems guaranteed to wind some up.

"It's the innocence I like about him. He hasn't grown up. It's an excuse to see the world differently. It's not meant to be a piss take of the retarded or whatever," he pleads, instead comparing his creation to the millions of untalented Britons inspired by Sky 1's excellent Next! or The Spice Girls who believe that fame is inevitably around the corner for them. "He'll do anything to get somewhere," he says.

But it's The Office that has sealed his reputation, with its painfully familiar gloom and acute characterisations, such as his own role as the perpetually smiling but thwarted office manager Dave Brent.

"When I was at XFM I'd do sketches to make Steve [then his assistant] laugh. I had a character called Seedy Boss," he recalls. When Merchant became a BBC trainee, they arranged to film a sketch, which later turned up as the fifth episode's notorious job interview, as part of his course. A script was commissioned, and a mere three years later, the series hit our screens with the pair co-directing. The attention to drab detail was deliberate.

"We wanted it to look real, so we did it on film, bled the colour and filmed the title sequence on a grey day so people would see it and go 'Oh no, off to work again'," he proudly admits. (Strangely the Slough office building featured in the title sequence greatly resembles London's fashionable Sanderson Hotel. And my old school, still unfashionable.)

"Nothing's happening because it's real life," he says, alluding to the show's funereal pace. Their influences were a mixed bunch. Some are obvious – This Is Spinal Tap, The Larry Sanders Show. Some are more unexpected – Laurel and Hardy ("for their slowness"), Tony Hancock's The Rebel. There is something very Hancockian about Gervais, a short, disgruntled performer. (Away from the camera he's merely short.)

God is in the details, such as the cast's responses to office buffoon Gareth's foot-in-mouth moments. "So many sitcoms come up with amazing lines and characters, yet stop it where the joke starts," he explains, "For me it's not Gareth saying something ludicrous, it's [his colleague] Tim going" – he mimes an embarrassed tapping. You had to see it really.

Forthcoming projects include a sitcom about Seventies provincial types who completely missed out on the cultural explosion of the Sixties, and perhaps a documentary exploring "Derek" in more depth. Before that, Gervais and Merchant are back at XFM, filling the gaps between records with some entertaining banter.

"I make no pretence, I'm no John Peel. I can't stand the arrogance of DJs who think anything they say will be interesting," he says, "Why broadcast if you've nothing to say. It's easy doing the radio because if you run out of words you just go: "Here's Radiohead!" He shrugs. For him it's easy. But then, he's funny.

'Rubbernecker' is at the Café Royal, Venue 47, to Sat (0131-556 2549)