I can’t say that I wasn’t nervous about getting on the phone with Ricky Gervais. Though eager to dissect the mind behind The Office and (one of my all-time favorite shows) Extras, I was in no way prepared to go head to head with the man who’d claimed a new level of infamy after eviscerating the crème de la crème of the Hollywood circuit as the host of the Golden Globes. What I realized only moments into our conversation was that Gervais was in no way interested in knocking me down a few pegs, but was indeed as kind, congenial, and thoughtful as any celebrity I’ve spoken to in recent memory.
Truth be told, you can see this “secret kindness” peer through in his latest project, David Brent: Life on the Road. While fans may remember Brent as unsympathetic and boorish from his role on The Office, the years in passing have indeed taken their toll on Gervais' most iconic character.
"When you bring back a character, or even just continue a character, you have to move on a bit," Gervais said. "Less in a traditional sitcom, where you can stay the same person. [But this] is a fake documentary built around reality, so he’s got to change a little bit." Fans of The Office won't be especially surprised to see that Brent has clung tightly to his obsession with the spotlight. What's a bit more surprising, though, is the reality check his failed endeavors have dealt him. "So what I did is, I made him slightly less confident, because the world has beaten him up a little bit. I gave him a little nervous laugh because he’s had a breakdown. And the breakdown was about fame."
But it isn't only a tough run that makes today's David Brent come off a bit milder in flavor than the man we remember from the early 2000s. Gervais asserts that a big part of this difference has to do with how the world itself has changed. "I wanted people to realize that Brent isn’t so bad by today’s standards," he says. "He went from sort of like a villain to a bit of a hero, really. He’s nicer than most people in that office." Fans may well notice a sharper hostility in Life on the Road's office setting than they did on The Office. Gervais says, "In [the new] office, in Lavichem, there’s clear Brexit vs. Remain, Trump vs. the 'Liberal Elite.'"
The way Gervais explains it, it seems that the world has become crueler, or at least has begun to wear its intolerance on its sleeve. "In my standup, I usually play that sort of slightly bigoted pub boar who is confidently an idiot and says the wrong thing for effect," he says. "Now I’m worried that half the population of the world agrees with those wrong things."
Gervais continues, "I explain in my new standup: the problem is not everyone thinking they’ve got an opinion that’s worth as much as everyone else’s, which is true. It’s now, half the population thinks they’ve got an opinion that’s worth as much as fact."
That's not to say that David Brent's defining flaws have faded to the backdrop in Life on the Road, but Gervais distinguishes Brent from the kind of bigotry he sees rampant in today's world. "I don’t think he ‘s a bad person, he’s just out of touch," Gervais says, "His jokes are from the ‘70s, when it was okay to say the word ‘Chinaman’ … But he thinks he’s doing the right thing with his song about the disabled. He’s accidentally offensive, because he wants to be PC, but he’s sort of hitting a line." Accidental or not, Gervais' ignorance does consistently betray his defining insecurity: "He wants to be popular and loved by everyone, so when he’s in the warehouse, he’s laughing at sexist jokes, but when he goes upstairs he’s lecturing people on what a great feminist he is. He wants to do right; he just doesn’t quite get it."
This conflict comes into play in a big way in Life on the Road when aspiring musician Brent is paired with Dom Johnson, a young black man and up-and-coming hip hop artist (played by Ben Bailey Smith a.k.a. Doc Brown). "Brent wants to walk into a room and say, ‘I am not a racist,’" Gervais says. "He can’t get over that he’s got a black friend. It’s embarrassing. But he wants people to know that he’s okay. He’s not comfortable in his own skin. He’s not comfortable around difference because he’s afraid of it."
In discussing Gervais' affection for Brent, I was reminded of the famous ideological debate waged by writer Laura Z. Hobson in regard to the iconic sitcom All in the Family. In a 1971 essay for The New York Times, Hobson took issue with the series' casual reinforcement that its main character Archie Bunker, a notorious bigot, could also be lovable. In one particularly memorable passage, Hobson wrote, "I don't think you can be a bigot and be lovable; I don't think you can be a black‐baiter and lovable, nor an anti‐Semite and lovable. And don't think the millions who watch this show should be conned into thinking that you can be."
Though apparently sympathetic to this message, Gervais was reticent to sign onto its black-and-white mentality. "I see the point that you shouldn’t make this or that likable, but it’s the word “shouldn’t” that worries me," he said. "Art is really democracy. You’ve got to put down what your opinion of the world is."
He continued, "I also like playing with the ambiguity of morality, because it’s not for me to lecture. I just create characters that are interesting ... Everyone’s a mixed bag. Someone’s really funny, they’re kind to animals, then you find out they’re a homophobe. And then you meet someone who campaigns for gay rights and you find out they wear fur. And then you meet someone who’s really anti-racist, but he’s a misogynist. We’re all mixed up. So you have to confront those things."
As we see in Life on the Road, Gervais isn't interested in totally vilifying Brent, and less so in sanctifying him. "Personally, I do like a little bit of reward for my heroes, and a little bit of comeuppance—or redemption!—for my villains," he says. "But when I say ‘heroes’ and ‘villains,’ there’s no extremes. They’re all in the middle. I don’t deal with murderers, rapists, or dictators. And I don’t deal with angels and cowboys in white Stetsons on the other. We’re all—or most of us, until recently—in the middle."
As you can see, the would-be corrosion of society over the interim years between The Office and Life on the Road appears to be a big thinking point for Gervais. "There’s a new type of narcissism and it’s applauded," he says in particular reference to the new extremes of reality television. "It’s like Terminator 2 compared to poor old Brent. Now you’ve got people who’ll go on The Apprentice and say, ‘I’ll destroy anyone who stands in my way.’" He adds, "We’re still laughing at the Elephant Man in the cage. And then we see the Elephant Man in the cage gets his own show, so we want to be in the cage."
No matter what you think of Brent or the world around him, Gervais only wants you to be invested. "This is what comedy is, I think, in its essence: It’s an ordinary person trying to do something they’re not equipped to do," he says. "That’s what we’re laughing at. That’s the joy and that’s the journey. It’s a journey for them and a journey for us. It can go lots of ways. We can love them for it, hate them for it, but we have to care."
David Brent: Life on the Road is now available to stream on Netflix.