Ricky Gervais: The Joker

So how is fame treating Ricky Gervais? Well, there's a multi-million pound house in Hampstead, of course. The schmoozing with David Bowie. The queue jumping at airports. But apart from all that, is it business as usual for Britain's funniest man? Portrait by Immo Klink
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I meet Ricky Gervais at The Hammersmith Apollo, just before he is due to appear on stage as part of his Fame tour, and even though he'll say fame hasn't affected him, that he's still the same bloke from Reading he has always been and blah-de-blah, you should see his dressing room, which contains not one, but all – yes, all – of the following: a battered red sofa (which also smells a bit); half a sandwich (M&S, cheese salad); one four-pack of apples (also M&S); one vast bouquet of flowers (dead, very). And that's it. Actually, this is rubbish, isn't it? Honestly, Ricky, you schmuck, you've won six Baftas, two Golden Globes, one Emmy and this is your dressing room? You can't be bothered to demand white lilies and gourmet platters and Fijian mineral water fresh from the fresh, fresh waters of Fiji? What's wrong with you, fella? "I just don't care about any of that stuff," he says.

In that case, I say, I'll accept the dead flowers are a nice touch. Fair's fair. "They're from my American agent," he says. "I wanted to take them home but we're moving so there wasn't any point." He and Jane – his girlfriend of about a billion years, or make that 20 – are moving to a house in Hampstead which may be worth £2m, but then again may be worth £3.5m (it really does depend on who you believe) and, apparently, he has already made all his neighbours very cross by excavating beneath the property to build a swimming pool. This is terrible of him, disgusting, or at least would be if annoying the good folks of Hampstead didn't seem so worthwhile somehow. "I don't know why he just doesn't buy a place in Essex," one neighbour has complained. Oh come on, love. Where would the fun be in that?

We settle on to the battered red sofa (actually, it smells quite a lot). As ever, he is wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. He is now 46 and a little bit fat but not that fat. Later, in the show, he says that so long as Johnny Vegas is still around and working he doesn't feel he has to be that worried. "Johnny's like my canary down the mine," he says. I ask if he minds doing interviews. "No," he says. "I quite enjoy the ones I do. I've tried to rule out the fluff pieces I did in the early days when people, you know, asked who you most want to be stuck in a lift with." Ricky, who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with? If I want one question answered today, it is that. He laughs that laugh; the unlikely one, the one that is almost a hysterical squeal. He says: "I did an interview with a London paper once that asked what my favourite view was, so I said: never trust a man who doesn't drink." Most famously, he was once asked about what he'd rescue if his house was on fire, to which he replied "one of the twins", and then when he was next interviewed? He was asked for the twins' names. "Amazing!" he says. But what are the twins' names, I ask. He does the squeal that is the laugh again. I've made Ricky Gervais laugh twice. Does this make me a comic genius, too? If I'd further asked: and how would you feel about being stuck in a lift with the twins, do you think we'd be married by now?

I wonder, naturally, what it's like being Ricky Gervais – "the funniest man in Britain"? Can you Ricky, go down the corner shop or put out your wheelie bin – do they have corner shops and wheelie bins in Hampstead? – without someone asking you to, you know, do the dance? He says: "It's fine. I don't go on the Tube and I don't go on buses and I don't go into pubs and if I cross over Oxford Street, I cross fast and wear a baseball cap. I can't moan. But it's more phobic than bad. I fear it. It's weird. We are not meant to be recognised. It's not natural. I can't go anywhere really, now. The Office is in about 100 countries and the countries I'm not famous in I'm not sure I'd want to go to." He adds: "Not just because they don't show The Office ... you know." I know, Ricky, I know. Remember: we are talking genius to genius. You are safe with me.

I guess I should show my colours at this point, and say that The Office – more so than Extras, but that's probably just me – may be my favourite comedy of all time, bar My Family, which almost goes without saying. But I'm not going to be all worshipful and fawning and creepy and I'm not for nearly four minutes, but then I am. Thank you Ricky, I say, not just for The Office, but for allowing David Brent to exit with dignity in the last ever episode when he tells Finchy to "F-off". Genius to genius, I wish to thank and salute you for that.

He says he couldn't have let Brent exit any other way. "You see, I always liked him, and am actually suspicious of those who despise their comic creations. I loved Abigail's Party, for example, but there was something in me that said: this is sneering at the people I know. I laughed when one of the characters showed off his leather-bound Shakespeare collection and said he'd never actually read that sort of thing, but you know what? I wouldn't read that sort of thing either. I didn't want The Office to be a snobby look at anything." I say I find Little Britain always leaves quite a bad taste in my mouth. He says: "I really feel I can't talk about other people's comedies."

OK, then, fame. What's the most surreal experience you've had as a famous person? "It's all relative. Things get less surreal the more surreal experiences you have. Every day is a bit surreal for me because I was born in a council house on an estate where my dad was a labourer and my mum was a housewife and had extra jobs, and it's weird, it's weird... Oprah Winfrey said if you don't know who you are by the time you're famous, it will define you. You have to know what you are in it for if your head is not going to get turned.

"My most surreal experience? OK, this is a true story. I'd done The Office and was at the BBC where David Bowie was doing a special recording and Greg Dyke came over to me and said: 'You're a Bowie fan, aren't you? Do you want to meet him?' I went 'Yeah' and so we went down to meet him and on the way Greg went 'Salman!' and it was Salman Rushdie and so Rushdie came with us. I was introduced to Bowie. I said 'Nice to meet you.' It was all very polite and I was thinking: 'Let's go, he's eating a salad.' So there was me and Jane and Greg Dyke and Salman Rushdie and David Bowie, OK? Well, the next day I was in the pub with my mate and he said what did you do last night and I said 'Nothing. Nope, nothing.'"

Would I be right in saying that embarrassment and pretension – that is, fear of – are what drive you and your work? He says: "Those are great vehicles for comedy, but I don't get embarrassed that easily. I get more embarrassed for other people. If I were to wet myself I'd say: look, I've wet myself. No embarrassment. The reason I pedal my wares in excruciating social faux pas and the minutiae of human behaviour is because you have to write about what you know and I live in a world where I'm not being shot at and I'm not starving."

Come on, though. You must have had your head turned a little. Aside from all the awards, Fame is the fastest selling live tour in history, you've sold five million DVDs worldwide, hold the world record for the most internet downloads, are the only British performer to write and star in The Simpsons... you must think differently about yourself, at least.

"If I were perfectly honest, I must feel more confident. I do feel I have brought something into the world that had been missing before, maybe. But that's it, outside the obvious things, like I have more power with wealth, whatever that means. To me it means comfort, in every sense. I don't just mean soft furnishings. I'm secure. But I know I haven't changed as a person, my aspirations haven't changed, my values haven't changed, I certainly haven't changed my dressing habits." He likes to be in his pyjamas most nights by 6pm, even if he has people over. "My house, my rules." Do you have favourite pyjamas? "Actually, I do. It's a pair I got free; a sleep suit from BA First Class. They are really soft and lovely." A sleep suit? What, one of those all-in-ones like babies wear? "That would be going too far. It's just the trousers. I've got eight pairs. I've even got short ones for the summer."

So you don't see the house in Hampstead as an indication that your head has been turned somewhat? You don't think it might be both pretentious and embarrassing, a house like that? "Ah... ah... ah... well, not so embarrassed that I wouldn't move there. You know, the first time I went to the airport and the staff recognised me and rushed me through to the front of the queue I was fucking mortified, but now I'm not. Now, it's better than queuing." He laughs that squeal, showing those incisor teeth he has at the sides. They're quite cute, actually; like Dracula's milk teeth, if he ever had any.

I ask him if he has a first memory of making someone laugh, which elicits an answer to a different question, but there you have it. He says: "I always knew I liked clever stuff. To me, when I was little, being clever was the most important thing in the world, because I felt clever." Did you show it? "I quickly realised you have to keep that sort of thing to yourself. I was never ashamed of it, but I was slightly embarrassed. In my neighbourhood I'd be talking and saying I did this and then I did that and I remember a neighbour once said: 'Oh, don't he talk clever' and I thought, 'Oh God, I don't want anyone to think that I'm better than them'. It didn't feel good." Is this where your horror of sneering comes from? "Maybe," he says. Well, at least your new neighbours aren't going to be saying that. They're going to be saying: "Move to Essex, why don't you?" He says: "It's a swimming pool. Get over it."

His first preoccupation was science, and he was a committed atheist by the time he was eight or nine. He used to drive his RE teachers "mental" (or men'al, as he says.) The teacher would say the earth was created 5,000 years ago at which point he'd put up his hand and say: "No, sir. All the evidence indicates earth is four billion years old." Anyway, when he went to university, it was initially to study biology, but he changed to philosophy in the first year because he noted philosophy students did less work and got up later. I do not know if the philosophy of David Brent is taught at university level yet, but it should be. Indeed, wasn't he the first to pose the following: "If a problem shared is a problem halved, is your problem really yours or just half of someone else's?" Genius.

In his final year as a student, Ricky and his friend Bill Macrae formed a short-lived New Romantic duo, Seona Dancing. After graduating, he worked for the student union office at the University of London, which is where he met Jane (Fallon, now a TV producer) and then landed a job as "head of speech" at Xfm, a radio station that prides itself on only playing music. It's here he first met Stephen Merchant and the rest, as they say, is The Office and then Extras – which I don't like as much. I just can't shake off the whiff of fakeness, not just around Andy Millman, but also the guest stars. It's probably just me. I ask if he believes, as many people do, that all great comedy could be easily rewritten as tragedy.

"There is no big difference between comedy and drama. They're inextricably linked. It's empathy above all else. It doesn't have to be joke after joke. It can just resonate." Would you say Steptoe and Son was a good example of the tragedy of comedy? "I never understood that as a kid. I never got the other level. I knew it was funny, this horrible old man and his pretentious son, but I only thought: why doesn't he just leave home? It wasn't until I was 17, 18, that I realised it was because of the dad." I say that maybe it goes even further than that; that the real tragedy is that the son thinks his father is holding him back, but he isn't. The dad's his excuse. In his heart he knows he'll never amount to anything, dad or no dad. "Yes," he agrees, "the pretension is just the icing on the cake." But if all great comedy can be written as tragedy, where does that leave, say, Monty Python?

"I like Monty Python. But you're laughing at the absurdity. I couldn't love Monty Python like I love Laurel and Hardy. I can't love the bloke who goes in with the dead parrot." He does love Laurel and Hardy. "We know they'd both be better off without each other but they won't have it, and that's what's sweet about them. You know when a cat and dog fight and the cat dies and the dog pines? It's like that and I want to hug them both." He used to love Woody Allen – Play It Again Sam is one of his favourite films – but not since he got all serious. "I'll tell you something. I was offered a part in a Woody Allen film. I won't tell you which one, but when I saw the rest of the cast – other British people on telly – I just pulled out of it. I thought: that's no fun. This is the Woody Allen who doesn't know. He thinks these people are all good because he likes the accent. Woody Allen isn't Woody Allen any more."

He has done some film parts – Stardust, Night At The Museum, For Your Consideration – and is due to fly to New York to star properly in his first-ever Hollywood movie, Ghost Town. "I play a misanthropic dentist who dies on the operating table for a minute or so, crosses over, and comes back with the ability to see ghosts. It's really funny. I was getting sent film scripts the day The Office came out. I've read thousands but was blown away by this one. I thought if I don't do this film, I'll never do a film. It ticks all the boxes. It would only be made better if it were filmed in my street."

He lives a very settled life with Jane and their cat, Ollie. He doesn't think kids will ever come into it, no. "I wouldn't sleep. I'd watch over it. I check the house 30 times to check the cat can't get out anywhere so a kid, oh my God. I try to rule out all the stresses in my life. If I get a letter it stresses me. I go, oh no, I have to open a letter now. When I worked at Xfm I had a great filing system. I would throw everything away and deny I ever got it." I say I can cat-sit while he's in New York. No worries. He says: "We've got two cat sitters in case one dies."

Anyway, time to go as he's due on stage. Some people do get at Ricky, I know. He's not the character actor he thinks he is. He is more into celebrity than he'll ever let on. He's not as funny as he used to be. And so on. But you know what? I don't care. He does it for me. Damn, though, I still don't know the names of the twins.

' Fame' is released on DVD by Universal Pictures on Monday