For a man turning 50 today (Saturday 25 June), Ricky Gervais does not give the impression of someone suffering from a mid-life crisis. Far from it. Perhaps this prolific writer, actor, comedian and director worked his way through it before it hit. His rise to global success has been faster than office party impressions of David Brent’s dancing can clear a room. So it’s easy to forget that Gervais was a complete unknown until his late thirties. He can be accused of many things – and has been – but peaking too soon is not among them.
The scale of that success between the ages of Four Oh and the Big Five Oh has been jaw-dropping. The Office is a classic; Extras an almost-classic. Gervais has penned an uber-successful series of books, Flanimals. He holds the record for the fastest-selling live tour in history, and the podcasts for The Ricky Gervais Show set a world best for the number of downloads. Blimey.
There have also been fistfuls of awards and leading roles in successful Hollywood movies. These days he splits his time between homes in Hampstead and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Not bad for a late bloomer. Not bad at all.
“I do love the underdog,” he once told an interviewer. “I say the geeks will inherit the earth.” Empathy with the underachieving was central to the appeal of the monstrous David Brent in The Office. Parody regularly tipped over into almost unbearable pathos, making it as much a meditation on the broken hopes and dashed dreams of middle age as a knockabout farce.
But sudden success has its own perils and pitfalls. As Gervais puts it: “We champion the underdog to the point where he isn’t the underdog any more. And then he annoys us.” Maybe too many people assumed Gervais was the bumbling, stumbling character he played in The Office, and expected more of the same, off stage and on. But his comedy can be far edgier than that. As a stand-up – an art in which he excels – Gervais delights in the comedy of cruelty. He has always loved making the audience wriggle and squirm in their expensive seats.
The commentariat sniped that Gervais was becoming his adopted persona in the Fame stand-up show: smug, full of unwarranted entitlement. And it’s true that his merciless mocking of sidekick and stooge Karl Pilkington has often smacked of schoolyard bullying. But Gervais is as pitiless with himself as with everyone else. He’s an equal opportunity character assassin. How can you resist an entertainer who puts a quote from a Daily Mail review – “Tasteless and unfunny” – on the publicity billboards for one of his own DVDs?
Compering this year’s Golden Globes ceremony in LA did little to bridge the divide. ”Actors…” he began. “They’re just so much better than ordinary people, aren’t they?” An audience of mostly stone-faced movie slebs looked on bewildered as Gervais mercilessly skewered a procession of Hollywood A-list luvvies, one after another.
“I like a drink as much as the next man,” he quipped, smirking like a naughty schoolboy. “Unless that man happens to be Mel Gibson.” The po-faced American press pack were horrified. Piers Morgan said it was like inviting a shark to dinner and then being surprised when it ate your other guests.
Gervais was deliciously unapologetic. “I’m going to go in with all guns blazing,” he said beforehand. No one involved had seen his script and his intention was to cause so much trouble he would never be invited to host the awards again. So job well done. It was an outrageously funny and long overdue puncturing of Tinseltown’s smug self-regard.
As he approaches his half-century, the enviable truth is that Ricky Gervais is able to pick his own projects and do pretty much whatever he likes. His next television project is a BBC comedy series called Life’s Too Short, billed as: “A combination of Extras, Curb your Enthusiasm and One Foot in the Grave… but with a dwarf.” Provocative, infuriating and irritating he can certainly be, and perhaps his fame has allowed him some indulgent outlets, but Gervais is never dull. May he continue to grow old disgracefully.