After 15 years, Gervais is returning to the role of David Brent, the regional manager of a paper company in the original U.K. version of The Office.
In the follow-up film David Brent: Life on the Road, which premieres on Netflix Friday, the insufferable boss is now a sales rep for a tampon company with an insatiable craving to earn back the 15 minutes of fame he was afforded when he was the star of a docusoap about his paper company. And so he cashes in his pension to self-finance a U.K. tour with his band, who he pays to play with him.
Aside from the self-financing part, many of the aspects of the drab tour were inspired by Gervais’s time in ’80s new wave rock band, Seona Dancing. (If you’ve never seen these videos, do yourself the favor.)
Brent is very much the same: clueless of how he is perceived and crippled with narcissism. But in the decade-and-a-half since we last saw him, the world has changed. And so has narcissism, a certain brand that is typified, Gervais says, by President Donald Trump. “It’s not enough now to be successful. You have to tell everyone you’re better than them and they have to agree with you.”
There are obvious differences between Trump and Brent. “One’s a winner and one’s a loser, to put it very plainly,” he says. “One is a man who’s struggling and one is a man who was born into privilege and has had everything his own way his whole life.”
And yet, “somehow Donald Trump’s got more in common with David Brent than he does Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. He does want to be famous and loved more than do a good job. That’s what’s dangerous. He is a host of a reality show, who was given millions and now he’s on the biggest reality show the world has ever seen.”
It all makes revisiting David Brent unpredictably timely.
The idea for the film came a few years ago when Gervais revived the character for a sketch filmed for Comic Relief. The clip went viral, inspiring Gervais to revive some of the songs he had written for Brent back when The Office was on and play a few gigs.
When those sold out immediately, he knew he was on to something. He just needed to figure out the David Brent joke of it all. Then it hit him: He’s paying for these gigs.
“It’s an ego trip,” Gervais says. “There’s this ordinary man who had his 15 minutes of fame 15 years ago, and now wants it again and he’s willing to pay for it.”
The idea of what people will do for that fame in the year 2017 kicks off a passionate conversation that starts with narcissism in a modern world and is dominated by President Trump. We talk about why he might not actually be good for comedy, the scary polarization of our culture, and the idea that celebrities shouldn’t speak out about politics.
“Why shouldn’t I?” he says. “I’m a person as well. That’s my job. You don’t say to a plumber, ‘Oh don’t get involved in politics. You should just fix my toilet.’ He’s allowed to talk politics. Why are celebrities not allowed to talk politics?”
By the time we cover his distaste for the Trump children’s affinity for big game hunting, he laughs: “Well this has turned out be a depressing rap, hasn’t it?” Perhaps, but also a fascinating one. Here’s our lightly edited conversation.
I spent the morning watching videos of Seona Dancing.
That can’t have taken you long.
It was a proper way to prepare for this interview, I figured, given David Brent’s rock career.
Yeah, I guess my failures are as useful as my successes in life. I worked in an office for 10 years and then wrote about it. And as a failed musician, there’s lots of funny moments. There’s a bit that’s literally almost word-for-word what happened to me. I was in a band in about 1986. We played at a pub called the Bull & Gate in Kentish Town. We were at the soundcheck and the engineer said, “You might as well stay up there, lads, you’re on now.” And I said, “When do they open the doors?” And he said, “They’re open. No one’s come through to see you.”
That’s very David Brent. So the kernel of this film, I hear, came out of that Comic Relief sketch.
Yeah, it went crazy on YouTube. So I thought, I should do a couple of things because I have quite a few Brent songs now. I did three for The Office. There was “Freelove Freeway,” “Paris Nights,” and “Space Man.” I bumped into Andy Burrows, the drummer of Razorlight in the street. I’ve seen him a couple of times before on chat shows. I said, “I think I’m going to put together a couple little gigs for David Brent.” And he said, “I’m in.” And he had a ready-made band. They learned the songs, and we booked a little venue. The Bloomsbury, 500 seats. And the tickets sold out immediately. Wembley called me and said, “You can play Wembley.” I said, “Hold on, this is mad. This is a joke.” Why would David Brent be playing Wembley? And why does he got this amazing band?
That kind of success wouldn’t make sense for the character.
That’s when it clicked. I thought, he’s paying them. It’s an ego trip. There’s this ordinary man who had his 15 minutes of fame 15 years ago, and now wants it again and he’s willing to pay for it. He’s not a young kid with no money. He’s a middle-aged man who’s got a little bit, and he’s going to blow that. That’s the idea for the documentary film. He never gave up his idea for fame.
How is that hunger for fame different now that 15 years has passed?
What’s great about it is the world’s changed. The Office came out of watching those great docusoaps where an ordinary guy got his 15 minutes of fame and that was it. Now fame is different. Now fame is insatiable. People live their lives doing anything to be famous. And they’re rewarded for it. They do bad things and they’re rewarded for it. There’s no difference today between fame and infamy. People go on these shows and there’s sort of an unwritten contract with broadcasters, they say, “I’ll behave like an idiot if you let me on.” It’s fame for fame’s sake. It’s a new profession. We’ve had kids growing up thinking it’s OK to do nothing. Sell your soul and get a house. The other thing about it is that people have changed in terms of, like, the new narcissist. We’ve seen the new narcissist. He’s the president of the United States.
What do you mean by “the new narcissist”?
We’ve seen things like this, where people go on a show and they say, “I will destroy anyone who stands in my way.” There’s a new hatred, a sort of need. But Brent can’t compete with that. He certainly realizes he was a bit of a prat. But he can’t stand up to the new alpha male who wants to inflict pain and tell you he’s better than you. It’s not enough now to be successful. You have to tell everyone you’re better than them and they have to agree with you. It’s really odd. So we strangely start off on Brent’s side with this movie. I think that was the point I was trying to make. The world has certainly changed in the last 15 years. And Brent’s not as bad as you thought he was.
You’re right. Narcissism has changed. There’s an obvious difference between the kind of narcissism of David Brent and Donald Trump. One has huge platform and power. And the other is a guy who used to be a tampon rep.
One’s a winner and one’s a loser, to put it very plainly. One is a man who’s struggling and one is a man who was born into privilege and has had everything his own way his whole life. That’s the big difference. But somehow Donald Trump’s got more in common with David Brent than he does Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. He does want to be famous and loved more than do a good job. That’s what’s dangerous. He is a host of a reality show, who was given millions and now he’s on the biggest reality show the world has ever seen.
I’d read something you’d said before when you were writing about Trump for The Hollywood Reporter: “I’ve made my fortune out of playing delusional, middle-aged men who say stupid things, and people love them. But he’s beaten me. Trump is better than David Brent.” I think so many of us can’t wrap our heads around his appeal.
You’ve tapped into the psyche of this type of person that people somehow love with David Brent. What is the appeal?
Again, the difference is in fiction we create our own heroes and villains as role play for the soul. So no one really gets hurt. But in reality it’s a lot scarier. To me, it’s no more bizarre, Donald Trump being president, than David Brent being president. It’s like fiction can’t compete with this now. It’s amazing that someone who brags about abusing women. I mean… (sighs) it’s not funny. Whereas in fiction we have to make him a bit of a bumbling fool for our pleasure, I suppose. But it’s hard, the Trump Effect. What it’s done to comedy.
What has it done to comedy?
People think it’s good for comedy, but I don’t think it is. You find yourself not wanting to be on the wrong side, and you shouldn’t do that in comedy. Comedy should be an intellectual pursuit. It shouldn’t be a platform. Emotions shouldn’t come into it, because then you are sort of rallying and it loses its comedic edge. Whereas, from my point of view, in my stand-up show I actually play a sort of brash, bigoted bore, who sometimes comes down the wrong side. But now I’m worried that half the audience agrees with me for the wrong reasons. It puts you in a funny position. This world has sort of been divided into two.
Is it more polarized than ever?
I see it on Twitter, where you say anything and you are suddenly attacked by either Trump supporters or what they call the liberal elite. It’s really weird. It’s like the world is split into two gangs. It’s really odd. I don’t think it is good for comedy, really. Because it’s too serious.
How does it affect you when you get that barrage of attacks?
I ignore it. You gotta say what you mean. I remember when I first went to America, people said, “Oh, keep it quiet that you’re an atheist.” I said, “Why would I do that? Why would I keep it quiet when it’s what I believe?” So you shouldn’t be deceived by ignorance. And as a comedian I try to do it in a funny way.
You’re not afraid to speak about serious, political issues.
I think there’s this myth that a comedian shouldn’t say a serious thing. Well, why shouldn’t I? I’m a person as well. That’s my job. You don’t say to a plumber, “Oh don’t get involved in politics. You should just fix my toilet.” He’s allowed to talk politics. Why are celebrities not allowed to talk politics? It’s a really weird thing, that Hollywood is the terrible liberal elite so they musn’t get involved. What? Everyone’s a voter. Everyone’s allowed an opinion. The problem with recent times is that people generally think their opinion is more valuable than the next person’s opinion. But some people think their opinion is more valuable than the next person’s fact. That’s a big problem.
That’s a big distinction.
Now I’m getting too political. This is my life now. That’s probably one good thing to come out of it—this and Brexit and the rise of the Reich in Europe—is that suddenly everyone’s got an interest in politics. It might be too late.
Well one last political matter to discuss, then. I know putting an end to big game hunting is important to you. For all the controversies that have arisen throughout the election, the fact that the Trump children are so involved in this never seemed to incite a real amount of anger. Why do you think they’ve escaped proper scrutiny for that?
Again, it’s a minefield trying to get across what you disagree with. You’re correct. It’s big game hunting. It’s not hunting, per se. I don’t eat meat and I don’t hunt. But there’s a big difference between someone catching a fish or cleanly shooting a sustainable animal for food. I’m not into it, but there’s a big difference in that and someone shooting a giraffe with a bow and arrow and taking a selfie with it for a laugh. I don’t understand the pleasure in watching an animal die. There’s a big difference in eating fish and ripping a rhino’s horn out of its skull to sell it to some idiot businessman because he thinks it’s medicine. It’s keratin. You might as well eat your own fingernails. I don’t see the ambiguity. Why would you see a bull tortured to death? Who justifies bull fighting? They say it’s tradition. A fucking idiot in sequins torturing animals? Where’s the entertainment? What’s the psychology behind wanting to see that? It’s bizarre.
Well I have gone way over our allotted time.
Well this has turned out be a depressing rap, hasn’t it? (Laughs)
It’s certainly interesting that a conversation about David Brent could develop into this.
Even though it’s in the movie and it is lighthearted and it is a comedy, there are little peaks and troughs about society and how people treat each other. I got in the bullying, I got in the alpha males, I got in the fame and anybody can be famous. Wow. Yeah. I think I’m too old. I think I’m at that age where I’ll be really grumpy until I die now.