Award-winning English comedian and actor Ricky Gervais achieved mainstream success when he starred as the self-deluded office manager David Brent in the TV hit The Office. He went onto become an unlikely Hollywood movie star and appeared in such films as Ghost Town and The Invention of Lying before cementing his status as one of Tinsel Town’s heavyweights when he hosted the Golden Globe Awards between 2010 and 2012.
In Los Angeles to promote his latest movie, Muppets Most Wanted, the 52-year-old Berkshire-born comedian is in good spirits. He chats about life as a failed ’80s pop star, and how sarcasm saved his life.
How did you feel when you were asked to join the Muppets?
I was over the moon. I’ve loved the Muppets for 35-years and I was thrilled to be offered ‘the human lead,’ because it was very clear that the frog is very much in charge. I love Kermit. He’s very sweet; he’s so intimidated by Miss Piggy who is of course a huge diva, but so in love with him. I’d love to see what would come out of a pig/frog breeding. I suppose that would be a Frogger.
How would you describe your humour?
I consider myself witty and sarcastic. And I don’t think sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. I think sarcasm has prevented me from killing people.
So, if someone says something bad to me and I can think of something sarcastic, it will stop me from hitting them in the head with a spanner. Basically, it means that sarcasm has saved people’s lives.
How would you define comedy?
Well, I think that comedy is tragedy plus time. And people ask me, ‘Is there anything you shouldn’t joke about?’ I say, ‘No.’ It depends what the joke is though. Comedy comes from a good or a bad place, and I think the important thing about comedy is that there’s an honesty to it. It’s an intellectual exercise and not an emotive one.
If you start having a platform or get nasty and pick on people for something they can’t help, then if it’s with their blessing, it’s fine, but I think problems come when people are offended. They mistake the target of a joke with the subject of a joke.
What about taboo subjects?
You should be allowed to discuss any taboo. I deal in taboo subjects because I want to take the audience to a place it hasn’t been before. I want to take them by the hand and walk them through this dark forest and show them it will be okay at the end. I think a comedian’s job is to not make people laugh; it’s to make them think.
So I don’t think any bad can come from discussing taboo subjects. And let’s not forget that humour is an evolutionary device that gets us through bad stuff. If you can laugh at something, you are getting better. And that’s why the best jokes are about dark subjects because they are a release.
I made jokes at my mum’s funeral, my dad’s funeral, all my brothers and sisters did. It was a celebration and that’s what they would have wanted. I wouldn’t do it at someone else’s dad’s funeral. That’s the difference.
You were part of a singing duo, Seona Dancing, in the ’80s. How do you look back on your time as a failed pop star?
At the time, I think I was 20 years old, I got signed and we put a couple of singles out. They failed. That was the end of it. I think it’s every kid’s dream to be a pop star. My mistake was that I wanted to be a pop star whereas I should have wanted to be a musician. I never made that mistake again.
So when I came to acting I knew that I should be a writer first and an actor second and that’s what that taught me that I will always earn money if I am a writer or a standup. I will never be an out of work actor, because I will just go on the road.
You looked pretty dishy back then in your 80s getup?
People always find this particular picture of me looking thin and young. It’s terrible isn’t it? (laughs) It’s depressing. I’ve got a jaw-line and lovely thick hair. But I am almost glad it didn’t quite work out. If I was a rock star when I was twenty, I’d be dead now, wouldn’t I?
What was your ego like back then?
I was unbearable. I could never turn off. I always wanted to be the funny guy; I always wanted to be funnier than the guy next to me. I wanted to be the last guy at the party still telling the best jokes. I was a fucking nightmare. (laughs) Then I got fat, and that was the best thing that ever happened to me.
But then you lost the weight.
Yeah, but I am still a fat guy inside.
The Muppets: Most Wanted opens in Australia on April 10.