Ricky Gervais has accomplished pretty much everything a young comedian dreams of accomplishing the day they decide to dedicate their lives to making people laugh. He created The Office, a cult comedy hit that premiered in 2001 in the UK and has since become a worldwide phenomenon and a matter of reference for even the most marginally deep conversation about the history and importance of comedy.
His television career still flourishes, having created and/or starred in critically acclaimed projects like the satirical showbiz series Extras, the hilarious travelogue show An Idiot Abroad, Life’s Too Short, and the heartfelt Derek. He’s landed roles in blockbuster motion pictures (See: the Night At the Museum, and The Muppets franchises) and he’s hosted the Golden Globe Awards four times, most recently this past January.
And now he’s getting a bit of a twisted second chance at fulfilling his dreams as a rock star. Sort of. David Brent, the Slough branch manager of Wernham-Hogg, has put out the first ever David Brent & Foregone Conclusion album. Titled Life on the Road, David Brent (NOT GERVAIS) has released an adult-rock album that stands on its own but is also a companion piece and soundtrack to the documentary film (recently released in the UK and hitting Netflix next year in the States) of the same name. If you’re into Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, Bob Dylan et al, then you can download this full-length gem and get to cranking. You’ll be perfectly pleased. But if you’re familiar with Brent’s background and his longtime dream of becoming a touring rockstar, well, then, this album will become one of your favorites in short order. I recently chatted with Gervais about the album Life on the Road, how it relates to rest of his storied, accomplished career and much more. Check it out.
I’ve been listening to this album, and I gotta say I really enjoy it— just for the music alone.
It’s an odd one, because I don’t think people know how to feel about it. Obviously if you are not aware of David Brent, at all, and you don’t know he’s a fictional character, it’s a very odd album to buy. It’s still not that bad, in fact, the music is, middle of the road, adult oriented rock. It’s well done, it’s well recorded and they’re catchy tunes. They’re sort of classic rock and roll, but the odd lyric pops up, and you go ‘What the fuck is that?’ You know, but again, they are not big bombastic comedy songs, like Monty Python. They’re pretty subtle, they can get you by stealth, and if you don’t know what’s happening, it must be very confusing. I’m waiting for reports of someone going in and buying the album, never hearing of it – I don’t know who would, but if they did – they’ll just think it’s the oddest album ever. But if you get the jokes, it’s great and there’s some classic-sounding tunes on there. You know the first track, “Ooh La La?”
Yep, sure do.
It’s a song about crossing America picking up chicks. Classic rock and roll! It’s got all the clichés and it’s a good, breezy up-tempo song. Then when you realize it’s being sung by a 55-year-old tampon rep that’s never been to America, suddenly, it’s sort of wry, it’s amusing; the back story’s the funny bit. Um, and then you know what Brent’s like, he thinks he’s sincere, he thinks he’s changing the world, he thinks he’s the first, white rocker ever to sing about the plight of the Native American. (see: “Native American”) He doesn’t know his subject that well; he’s trying to be someone he’s not, so he brings up scalping, which he probably saw in a Western once. You know what I’m saying? Then there’s “Thank Fuck It’s Friday.” Now that’s a fucking [Rolling] Stone’s number.
But, again, I don’t think Mick Jagger got bogged down in the agony of getting his dry cleaning done on a Sunday so there’s a bit of comedy or irony, or accidental effects, and satire in there, but some of it is more subtle than others. I mean, the closest thing to a comedy song, it’s the odd one out because of this, is, probably, “Lady Gypsy.”
Yeah, like any good music, or comedy, for that matter, I think the David Brent album works on many different layers— and that’s what makes people want to listen to it over and over again. I can remember, when I was a kid, listening to Adam Sandler records, and there was a lot of music in there, and the joke was so up front that it was hilarious at the time- but there was little staying power throughout the years.
It depends what level he was coming from. If it’s a play on words, any sort of surprise or pun, it’s done. It’s done once, you can enjoy the selling of it, but if there’s a bit of character, or story, or you’re laughing at the motivation behind the piece, you can listen to it over and over again. And that’s true of stand-up too. A guy can come out, and he can write the best one-liners ever, it’s just plays on words, you know, puns or whatever, it’s exhausting, you know after 20 minutes you’re looking at your watch. There’s no momentum. Whereas someone like Doug Stanhope comes out and they rant about the fucking day they had, and that’s funny, because there’s a story; and you can always be told a story, because it’s not always about the punch line. It’s like, who’s the guy who did The Sixth Sense?
Oh, crap I forgot his name now…M. Knight…and I can’t pronounce his last name… M. Knight Shama…something.
Yeah, so that’s like a two-hour gag, with a punch line. If you know that – it’s great fun, brilliant, amazing, you’re agasp. But if you start with knowing what’s going to happen at the end, and that’s overwhelming, it’s not as good to watch it again and again. Whereas something that is a journey, like The Godfather, you know, it’s a story, a saga. You could watch that over and over again; you know? I think that’s true with comedy, and I think that’s true with music. The first time you hear a boy band song you’re singing along, you’re singing along in seconds! And you’re wanting to kill them. Whereas, something like Radiohead, you can turn and say, ‘Jesus what is this?’ and then you listen to it for 30 years!
That’s right! Exactly.
It’s all about substance and depth and sustainability as opposed to a quick fix. I think that’s always the case. I think that’s the case in any art. You know, an acquired taste stays with you longer.
When there’s a journey it takes longer to get to the height of your enjoyment of a piece of art, so you have to factor that in with the time you’re consuming it.And it’s always the journey for me, it’s always the journey. It’s like life, I don’t want to know the ending! I’m enjoying the journey; I do NOT want to know the ending.
Can you imagine anyone listening to this David Brent album 30 years from now?
They’d have to be in on the joke. And I think nostalgia would play a part. I think this is very different. If we are being totally honest, I don’t’ think it’s fair for it to be judged against those real, great, albums. You know, it mustn’t be judged against Bruce Springsteen, and Bowie and Dylan, and Neil Young, and all the things it tries to emulate in an ironic way. Likewise, I don’t think it should be judged against truly great comedy albums. It’s got a bit of both; it’s an odd thing. I don’t know there is anything quite like it, you know? I can’t think of anything quite like it, can you?
I think a pretty large portion of Flight of The Conchords stuff can probably pass off as regular music, and then all of the sudden something silly happens
They are clearly funny but yeah, that’s the closest. Maybe Spinal Tap, although Spinal Tap again is more intrinsically funny. Because I suppose David Brent takes it very seriously. He thinks he’s a brilliant songwriter, and I think that’s true of course of Conchords and Spinal Tap. I just think Brent doesn’t want to be laughed at, he wants to be applauded, you know what I mean? Even though he thinks he’s a great comedian, when he’s doing music, he wants to be right there alongside the great singer/songwriters of our time; which is odd, it’s an odd demand, and that is what is potentially exciting and confusing. I can’t imagine everyone getting this. I can imagine it irritating some people. I can imagine people thinking it was a good record ruined; and it wasn’t funny enough because the jokes weren’t big enough. And that is true of all my work— whatever I do, it annoys many people, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Well, yeah, you’ve accomplished that for many years.
Well, you have to polarize, because if you’re not polarizing, what are you doing? You’ve done something everyone likes a bit, you’ve made something sane, you’ve made something anodyne, you wore something down, you made something palatable, to the lowest common denominator. I mean who gives a fuck? You know, I think you have got to polarize, because some people are smart, and some people are dumb. And that is what you can’t change. You can’t change that. You shouldn’t pander– you should go and find that hate, and despair.
And there’s plenty of it out there, Ricky.
Let me ask you this. Obviously you are writing and performing this music as a character. If Ricky Gervais wrote and performed an album as Ricky Gervais, what would it sound like and what would you be singing about?
Well, it would be like ten times cringier, if Ricky Gervais tried to be a pop star.
Well, of course it would, because I’m a comedian, and that’s why I’ve been so militant about saying this is David Brent’s album, this is David Brent’s songbook, these are David Brent’s gigs, because when I take myself seriously as a 55-year-old comedian thinking I could be a rock star, then you have to shoot me. Whenever I see that, whenever I see someone get famous for something else, like they always wanted to be a pop star, and they do their work, honestly that makes me want to eat my own feet, so that must never happen.
But, hold on a second. Clearly you have songwriting talent. Sure, you became famous as a comedian, but clearly, you’re a musician of sorts, and what’s wrong with that if you make a go of it?
Well, yeah, I mean that’s the point, I am a musician ‘of sorts,’ and that’s confusing, with me being David Brent and doing this now, is possibly, because it’s also the real thing. When you see Matt Damon fighting in The Bourne Identity, it looks real, but you know he isn’t actually punching anyone in the face. When you see me singing as David Brent, I’m actually singing, I’m actually playing the guitar, so that’s the confusion. And because it’s a cool thing to do, and I can do it, it’s just a skill, it’s just another skill I’m using to play a character, in a narrative. You know it’s just because it’s spilled into the real world, like it was a real documentary, that confuses people.
When I was in Ghost Town, I didn’t come out doing videos about dentistry. And people get that. They don’t go, ‘Oh so you want to be a dentist’ but they DO know I’m a failed pop star in real life. It’s another thing that goes so close to real life, and is actually happening, that it confuses people. And it’s very subtle. I failed at becoming a rock star, but I am a musician. I think that’s a sort of an objective skill.
Yep, there’s a big difference between those two things.
And so now I’m just using a skill in comedy now. I have always done that. You know, once I failed as a serious pop star, and rightly so, I got into comedy. Just like when I use my skill of observation and played ordinary people, just like I use my own voice and walk, and mannerisms. Just like I use my knowledge of offices, because I worked in an office for 10 years. Just like I use my knowledge of actors and ego when I did Extras, you know? It’s no greater or lesser skill than the other, it’s just that acting it out now and seeing it live, it steps out into reality.
I feel like this is what you do best. You polarize people, and not only do you polarize people, but I think you also genuinely confuse people. And, as someone who obviously listens to and watches a lot of comedy I would like to think I know what it is you’re doing, but I think a lot of people in the mainstream, who are used to mainstream entertainment, are very confused. And I find that hilarious.
I’m trying. I make comedy for myself and like minded people. I don’t want to change anything to get more people. Because I don’t need to; there’s a billion people on this planet, and if you do something particular for you, and you become a cult in your field, in your country; well, a worldwide cult is much bigger than the biggest thing in any one country. Here’s a thought: The Office was tiny, it was a cult thing in Britain; well it grew; but then it went around the world because there were enough people to go: ‘Well I haven’t seen anything like that,’ whereas if you wore something down, tailored it to your backyard so it hits.
It’s like a corporate gig in your firm. Everyone’s loving it there because they get all the jokes, it’s about them; but take it to another firm, and they’re like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ That’s analogous to people trying to be very broad. I get it, there are people who can sell out arenas, but they don’t travel, because they’re talking about what was on the telly last night, do you know what I mean? So I’ve never pandered to get an audience, I think the subjects I choose are universal. Everything I do is quite existential.
Everything I do is about humanity. It’s all about our foibles, all about excruciating social faux pas, it’s all about how people feel, how we interact— ‘Am I leading a good life?’ good vs. evil; We create our own sort of heroes and villains in fiction, it’s role play for the soul so no one really gets hurt. I make sure my heroes get a little bit of satisfaction, a little reward. And I make sure my villains get their comeuppance, or they redeem themselves, which is just as good. So, I play with the virtues, I always play with virtues, because I thought, well that will never change, it will never change in a hundred years.
And, you can have all your technology and avatars, and your superheroes, but in a hundred years’ time, one human being telling another human being what a terrible day they’ve had will be as compelling as it ever was. And I think, I try to make the ordinary extraordinary, because everyone thinks they’re ordinary. And everyone has something extraordinary to tell, so that’s what I try to do. Everything’s small, you know, and that can be funny as well. David Brent gets a laugh out of being mundane.
It’s parochial, you know. He says, you know Slough is a big place, and after Slough there’s Yateley, Tabley, Winnersh. There’s people, and you do meet those people, and other people and they say “Where are you from?” I say ‘Reading’ they say ‘What Part?’ What part? Really? I love minutia, it’s fun, it’s sort of sweet. And I’m never snobby, The Office wasn’t my snobby look at white collar work; I worked in an office for 10 years, and it was an affectionate look at that; and it was sort of saying, if you’re not happy, don’t wake up at 65 and say, ‘Ah fuck I wanted to write a book, I forgot.’ That’s all I’m saying. It’s about stifled ambition. I think that’s about being British as well. That’s the difference between England and America, Americans are taught that they could be the next President of the United States, where as British people are told, ‘It’s won’t happen to you so don’t try, it’s embarrassing; who do you think you are?’
It’s interesting you are drawn to these kind of antihero characters that are universal, the themes are evergreen. Like you said, technology can change, everything can change but the thing that won’t change is humanity. I know we’re talking about the David Brent album but to me, Derek was the thing you’ve done that I enjoyed most. Maybe because I’m an emotional weakling, but to me, that was my favorite thing you did.
Is it really?
Yeah, because I can look back at The Office and I can laugh at the jokes and I can be proud of it; it’s really well structured; and I like Extras, that’s funny; but I look at Derek and I feel it. I feel it. Which is, I think comedy is great if it’s about empathy, so, even though that was certainly not as laugh out loud as most things I do, I think in a way it was better. It was brave as well because it’s dangerous to show your feelings, I think, because you get accused of all sorts of things— exploitation, manipulation, being mawkish.
I’ve somehow gotten this reputation as being a very cynical, ‘shock’ comedian, in a sense, which is totally untrue, and I defend myself, saying ‘Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right.’ People take that as me going, ‘Oooh I’m trying to be offensive, are you offended?’ Which is not true, I’ve never done that, it’s too easy! I know that people will be offended, but only statistically, you know, it’s true, just because they’re offended doesn’t mean they’re right. Some people are offended by equality, some people are offended by mixed marriage; so fucking what? Some people are offended by my very existence, because I’m an atheist. And there’s nothing I can do about this.
I can’t pretend to believe in a God to entertain people and make them feel better. But I also don’t burst into churches going, ‘It’s all a lie!’ But, when asked, I’ll discuss it, and say, I don’t believe in a God. People put words in your mouth, they try and make that your thing, like, ‘You atheist, give it a rest.’ People always try to put a reason on why you think differently than them. They have to do it. And it’s very similar with the hate and the anger and the love and despair, where people’s sense of humor are challenged, and their beliefs. It’s almost like they can’t understand why people would have a different sense of humor then them. I’ve been asked, ‘Why don’t you believe in God?’ and I’ve Tweeted back, ‘The same as you don’t believe in Zeus.’ It’s that easy.