Ricky Gervais may strike you as an innovative comedian, from his mockumentary sitcom The Office to his popular podcast The Ricky Gervais Show. But the British comic is quick to give credit to others, citing inspirations such as Christopher Guest and Simpsons producer James L. Brooks. In the past year, Gervais has gotten to work with several of those inspirations, from his Simpsons writing stint to the stars he casts as themselves on Extras to his upcoming role in Guest’s movie For Your Consideration (due in November). Talking to EW.com, Gervais rattled off lists of his influences and talked about what it was like working with some of them.
Do you think of what you do, the fly-on-the-wall ”reality” comedy, as something new?
It’s everything that came before me. I don’t think I’ve invented anything. I’m on the shoulders of giants.
Who are some of those people?
Christopher Guest. Spinal Tap’s a direct influence on The Office. TV itself. We’ve had loads of docu-soaps. The Andy Warhol 15-minutes-of-fame thing has come scarily true. Extras, influenced, again, by real life. I worked in an office for seven years, and for the past seven years I’ve been in show business.
Televisually, Extras is obviously influenced by Garry Shandling and The Larry Sanders Show. My comedy is influenced by Laurel and Hardy, in that everything has to be about warmth and character and relationships. You put those in a pot and it comes out new. It comes out original because you’ve stolen different bits from everyone else and put them with other stolen bits.
What was it like working with Guest on For Your Consideration?
Great. Not a disappointment. Again, this is very important to me, he’s not just incredibly funny and clever and uncompromising and important, he’s luckily one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, which is important too. He’s a lovely, benign presence as a friend and as a director. We were like a couple of kids. It’s like I’ve known him all my life. It was just nice.
I really wanted to do well. I only did about three days on the film. I suppose you’d call that a cameo. I’ve jumped straight to cameo. I didn’t have to go through being a leading man first. I jumped straight to the end of my career.
How much does your studio chief character resemble Office boss David Brent?
Again, it’s the blind spot, the pretension, the male swagger. I play the head of Sunfish Classics, the studio that is making the film within the film. Again, I was a little bit of a putz, which I do very well.
Besides the U.S. version of The Office, what are your favorite American shows?
All my favorite comedies are coming out of America. You know what? Always have been, really. Arrested Development is amazing. When I watch one, I forget how good it is from week to week because nothing should be that good. It’s amazing, and I can’t believe it didn’t get every award in the world and huge ratings. Curb Your Enthusiasm I love. The Simpsons, I think, is possibly the greatest comedy of all time except maybe Laurel and Hardy. Larry Sanders is the classiest sitcom I’ve ever seen. I love stuff by James L. Brooks. Just his CV is like a who’s who of how to make good, credible comedy that’s also very, very successful. I love stuff like Cheers. Going back, I love Laurel and Hardy, American films from Billy Wilder through Woody Allen. Christopher Guest. And now, things like 40-Year-Old Virgin, Meet the Parents. You’re just doing it all. You’ve got it sewn up. And we get the odd thing that pops its head up and makes it on both sides of the pond.
What about the British comedy that we Americans used to think was so much better than our own comedy?
I love the half a dozen brilliant British shows that you do, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and Black Adder. Don’t forget, one of Laurel and Hardy was English. We’ve got half of that. And Bob Hope, we’ve got him. And Charlie Chaplin, he pretty much kicked some stuff off, didn’t he? So we’re represented. But consistently, and at the moment, I just love the stuff that’s coming out of America. Entourage, another fantastic show. Most of the things on HBO. The Sopranos, I know it’s not comedy, but it’s the pinnacle of television. It’s standing up to films. It’s inviting films outside for a fight.
Will we be seeing more of you in movies?
I’ve done three cameos in three films this year, all three days long, all on screen for two minutes. So I’ve stuck my toe in the water. I’ve done a little cameo in Ben Stiller’s new film, A Night at the Museum, I’ve done Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration, and I’ve just done a couple days on a film called Stardust with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer.
What was that like, working alongside a thespian as serious as De Niro?
Amazing and incredible. I had eight hours of bravado, being a normal person, and then before the last shot, I broke and went [in cracked, high-pitched voice] ”I think you’re the best actor in the world. You’re brilliant.” It was awesome, quite an experience. I still pinch myself that I’m working with these people. It’s ridiculous. It’s madness. There’s not many things I have left to do now. I just have to appear in The Sopranos or 24. What else? I’ll give you a list, you sort it out for me. You can’t bring back Laurel and Hardy, can you?
Is the De Niro incident going to make it into Extras?