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Ricky Gervais: 'Trolls or hecklers don't want a conversation... they want you to have as bad a day as they're having'

Ricky Gervais says he doesn't court controversy, he just tries to tell the truth. The comedian talks to Jack Shepherd about getting fat, terrible gags and the trouble with social media

Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais with partner Jane Fallon

When you think about Ricky Gervais, how do you imagine him? As David Brent, the bumbling boss from The Office? Perhaps as the depressed wannabe actor Andy Millman from Extras? Or even the wisecracking, Karl Pilkington-mocking host of The Ricky Gervais Show? During our fleeting moments together, Gervais comes across as an amalgamation of them all.

"Thanks for meeting me, it's a real pleasure," I say after introducing myself. "We'll see about that," he answers with a giggle. He then confesses to being unable to relax during any interview because he's a control freak. "I do my own radio show, and if I say something stupid I can take it out. Not here because you're in charge. Although my job is saying stupid things!" He giggles again.

Unfortunately, I was unable to catch the Humanity tour last year, instead watching a rough cut sent across by Netflix ("As it was intended," he quips), who are releasing the filmed version. There are moments of genius throughout the special, some incredibly funny jokes.

Just minutes into it, it becomes abundantly clear that some of these are going to cause controversy, one segment dedicated to discussing Caitlyn Jenner and transgender issues being an obvious touchy subject.

It's provocative and, Gervais admits, waiting to be taken out of context by clickbait-hungry blogs and thrown around Twitter. "It gets in the way," Gervais says of online outrage. "I don't really court controversy because I like the truth more. I don't like being labelled a shock comedian because I've never done that. I've had that ever since The 11 O'Clock Show, before they realised it was irony. That was until David Brent came out, and then people thought I was just like David Brent. Then Andy Millman came out.

"For the first couple of years, every month someone said, 'It's the end of his career'. The first time it happens, it worries you. The next couple, you just think it's ridiculous. I've got to break the law to end my career, or give up. And in light of what's happened in the last couple of years, we've realised telling a rude joke is not the worst thing you can do in entertainment."

Perched on a chair, Gervais speaks with urgency (later explaining he wanted to give me enough material to work with). He has, of course, told multiple controversial jokes throughout his career, not backing away from taboo subjects such as the Holocaust, Aids, and cancer. I ask whether he worries about people taking these jokes out of context, to which he offers a 500 word response - he seemingly has a lot to get off his chest.

"I take the audience to places they haven't been before," he says. "The occupational hazard is someone not liking a subject. These are really considered jokes. I make them bulletproof so I can confidently and without guilt tell them because I can defend them. But I should not have to because that becomes a bit of a bore. When I fire back at people, I'm not saying, 'Yes, it is offensive, deal with it'. I'm saying, 'I don't think it is offensive. I think you may have misunderstood the target'."

Gervais has always provoked a strong reaction. "It's a comedian's job to provoke, but not for its own sake," he says. "Traditionally, we're court jesters. We have low status, nothing to lose or gain. I'm more a court jester at the Golden Globes more than any other time. The room is filled with millionaires and I've got to play the idiot, to stick it to the man for the guy at home. I try to make it a spectator sport."

There are, Gervais says, two ways of keeping a lowly status despite being a multimillionaire (he reportedly sold Humanity and another stand-up show to Netflix for $40m). The first is to invite the audience into his life, telling true stories about being knocked down a peg or two. He offers an example: "I say, 'Oh you think it's cool having I private jet? Well, I hired a bloke and he thought I was the chef."'

The other is to joke about things money can't help with: "Getting fat, growing old, and getting bald." By doing so, I say, Gervais attempts to appeal to the "everyman". "I don't appeal to every man," he replies, "because I know that if you're saying something not anodyne you're going to divide. And you should. You should polarise if you're saying anything interesting, because people are different. But I know that if somebody gets the joke, then the joke was getable. If everyone in the world does not get a joke, there's something wrong with the joke."

It's a bad joke, then? "Exactly. The fact that 800,000 people are laughing at a joke, and only one person finds it offensive, that's regrettable, but I'm not going to change the joke because I stand by it.

"I remember a time I got a letter, I think during Politics (another of his stand-up shows). It was from a Jewish society. They said they loved my show but they said they were 'disappointed by the jokes about Anne Frank'. I said, 'I totally get that but, coincidently, you knew I was joking about Aids, famine, and cancer, but did not like that I was talking about the Holocaust because that's too personal to you.' They replied, 'I see what you're saying.' Often people can't see the wood through the trees."

The subject of context comes back up, Gervais pointing out how the forum - whether the Golden Globes or during a stand-up show - can make or break a joke. Offending someone may also be a good thing, he continues, as it encourages a discussion. During Humanity, Gervais mentions how many conversations today are limited to tweets, described as shouting matches dictated by likes and retweets. I mention this and receive another lengthy, increasingly funny monologue (this time only 400 words long).

"There's loads of problems with social media," Gervais says. "People say things they would not say to your face. They're braver. They're anonymous. It's not a real conversation, it's a terrorism. Trolls or hecklers, which is what they are, don't want a conversation. They want you to have as bad a day as they're having. If you get a nasty tweet, just look at the timeline. You will soon feel sorry for that person."

Gervais compares trolls to cavemen who leave their handprint on a wall to say 'I was here', calling them "frustrated because no one listens to them". However, a worrying new trend has begun: elevating these people to minor celebrities. "When other people do listen, trolls suddenly get addicted to it," Gervais says. "They realise that they've been invited onto This Morning because they said a terrible thing. Now they're going to say another terrible thing to get invited back on. It's this cyclical thing. There's no difference now between fame and infamy."

Before social media, people would have to write a complaints letter if they were annoyed. "If you did not like something on the BBC, you'd have to get a pen and paper and go 'Dear BBC... Oh, I can't be bothered.' Now you can tweet something that gets picked up, retweeted and it suddenly becomes news. It should not be news. The news should not be coming round your house and listening to you argue with your mate, but they can see what you're doing on Twitter. It's shouting out of a window. It's reading every toilet wall in the world at once. And there are some good things on toilet walls, and some bad things. We need to know the difference."

As you can see, much of our conversation concerns, as the Netflix special does, humanity and human nature, whether that's wanting to be heard or being offended by a joke about something personal. Considering the state of humanity at the moment, particularly politics, the name of the show seems very fitting. "It's funny, because I had the name before this last year happened," he says. "The joke of having these academic titles was that I was a pompous comedian. But Humanity became accidentally a little bit relevant and zeitgeist-y and, dare I say it, more serious than my other stuff. When Brexit and Donald Trump happened, I was halfway through warm-ups."

Gervais confesses that he's never been overtly interested in politics before, but calls the present time "the most exciting year in politics". He wakes up and searches the names 'Muller' and 'Trump' every morning. "It's strange that it's him," he says. "It could be worse; Trump could be clever. We'll look back at this and say, 'Thank God it was Trump and not someone really smart."'

Humanity is available on Netflix now

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