Ricky Gervais’s Plea for Humanity: ‘We’ve Got to End This Madness’
With the rabble-rousing comic’s ‘Humanity’ tour finally coming stateside, we talk Trump, the culture of offense, Mel Gibson’s redemption, and why all hope isn’t lost. (Yet.)
Ricky Gervais, believe it or not, is actually optimistic about our future.
“You know that thing about how comedy is tragedy plus time?” he says. “That doesn’t stop you from thinking of the joke during the tragedy.”
Thus was birthed Gervais’ Humanity stand-up tour, which, after more than 120 dates in Europe, finally comes stateside this week with performances in New York and then Los Angeles. It’s Gervais’ first stand-up tour in seven years, and a hell of a time to be making a comeback.
“I know we’re in the epicenter of the storm, but I’m already thinking about how we’re going to be laughing about this one day and the storm will be over and we won’t be dead,” he says.
Of course, Gervais, as always, has a lot to get off his chest.
He tells The Daily Beast that his show’s aim is to expose our own prejudices. While Gervais has been outspokenly critical about Donald Trump and made headlines for his ribbing of Hollywood players during his stints hosting the Golden Globes, his set won’t riff on the day’s news, politics, and pop-culture scandals—making the tour’s move across the Atlantic all the more seamless.
“I don’t have to go, ‘I have to cut this for America because they don’t know the Big Brother winner,’” he says. “When you’re talking about Hitler, it’s pretty universal. When you’re joking about famine and AIDS and cancer and Hitler, everyone gets it.”
Over the course of our conversation, we talk about why Gervais was initially hesitant to return to stand-up at this moment in time. When Trump was elected, he thought, “How could I joke about this? How could I spoof this man?”
Because we’re talking amid the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the conversation about how men like him in Hollywood lasted so long without facing consequences for their actions, we also talk about Mel Gibson, who not even a decade after calling a police officer “sugar tits” and being recorded telling his ex that she deserves to be raped, will be starring in the family comedy Daddy’s Home 2, out in just two weeks.
Gervais famously skewered Gibson for his actions during his Golden Globe stints, eliciting gasps from the scandalized ballroom of celebrities and, he says, illustrating the industry’s hypocrisy. “Am I surprised about the hypocrisy of Hollywood? No,” he says. “Some people make mistakes and they’re not bringing home the money, and some people make mistakes and they are bringing home the money. They’re more quickly forgiven.”
Along with the Humanity tour launching its U.S. dates this week, Gervais will also debut his new Sirius XM show, Ricky Gervais Is Deadly Sirius, on Tuesday, featuring longform interviews with guests ranging from musician Noel Gallagher to scientist Richard Dawkins.
It’s as good as time as any for a free-ranging State of the World chat with Ricky Gervais, our resident comedy antagonizer who, it’s become increasingly clear, is nailing a surprising second act as our cultural moral arbiter as well.
When you announced this tour, you talked about it being both the best and the worst year to return to standup.
I’ve decided it’s the best now. The reason I thought it was the worst is because the madness was so oppressive. Why was there the rise of the alt-right? Why were there Nazis suddenly? Why were people believing the most opulent billionaire on the planet when he said the problem was the liberal elite in Hollywood? I’m thinking, why are they falling for this? Why are they falling for ‘drain the swamp’? He is the swamp. Why are they falling for ‘build the wall’? We should be building bridges. I thought how could I joke about this? How could I spoof this man? The guy off The Apprentice is now the president. It’s like a joke out of a ’90s movie.
Do you think that what’s going on in the world will be a wake-up call for people?
I know it sounds like I’m trying to look for the good in everything. But I think there is the good in everything. I think this will be a wake-up call. After Brexit, the next vote we had, young people voted more than they ever did before because they suddenly thought, fucking hell, this is important now. Ironically, he’s sort of given the world a kick up the ass. Obviously we’ve got to end this madness before the world is destroyed. I like the Nietzsche thing about how everything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We just have got to make sure this thing doesn’t kill us, and I think we’ll be stronger.
People buying tickets to your show in the U.S. are hoping for the catharsis of watching you get political and taking the piss out of Trump. Do you get political?
No, I don’t get that political. If I just get up there and say what I think and am relying on the majority of the people there to agree with me and clap or laugh, I’m losing something comedically. I think that rallying isn’t part of comedy. My show is much more about offense culture. It’s about how people don’t look at the argument anymore, they’re just looking at who’s saying it. Social media bred this ridiculous myth that it was more important to be popular than right, and politicians even picked up those symptoms. You can certainly read politics into it, though.
You have a certain reputation. Has that influenced what you can and cannot joke about?
That whole thing about me being spoiled as well. Moaning from the world’s most privileged position. The obstacle I had to get over is that comedians are traditionally the court jester. We’re the low-status buffoon saying something about the king and making the rabble laugh. We can say anything because we’re low status. The problem with me as the comedian is that I’m not in low status anymore. So I do things to get my status back. I show off ironically. I’m always the butt of the joke in the press. So they go, yeah, OK, it’s not all roses being rich and famous. I get that. I’ll do a story about the first time I flew a private jet. I turned up, the pilot was there, and the pilot thought I was the chef. So on the one hand, they don’t go, “He’s showing off.” They go, “Haha, he’s a fat, scruffy bloke.”
It makes you relatable, or at least more relatable.
I talk about things where the audience is better off than me. I talk to them about how I’m going to die soon because I’m fat and old and going bald. I let them know that the fact that they think I’m rich and famous is nothing compared to the fact that I’m going to die first. You can never be above the audience. You can never lecture the audience. I think that’s one reason Trump got elected. People were tired of being lectured by authoritarian liberals. I think PC culture started the backlash.
We’re talking amid the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the conversation about what will change in Hollywood, in terms of how many chances we give powerful people like him. You famously went after Mel Gibson at the Golden Globes. He is now about to star in a family comedy called Daddy’s Home 2.
What do you make of that hypocrisy?
Uhh. Well, it’s always been there. I remember the first time I did the Golden Globes, I could feel people going, “Why is he saying awful things about these exceedingly rich, handsome, privileged people?” I wanted to say, “Get a grip.” A comedian’s job, I think, is to be the little boy who points at the king and says, “He’s naked.” Sure, you could make this a mutual back-slapping session, right? But don’t televise it. So I tried to make it a spectator sport.
Still, you went after Mel Gibson at a time when no one was going after Mel Gibson, and were in fact excusing his behavior.
That’s the thing about the idea of “there are jokes you shouldn’t do.” There are jokes you shouldn’t do, yeah, but there are no subjects you shouldn’t joke about. As long as it’s either accurate or fair, I think that no subject is off limits. It depends what the target of the joke is. That’s when offense comes in, when people mistake the subject of a joke with the target. Am I surprised about the hypocrisy of Hollywood? No. It’s another business. I don’t know why they think Hollywood is different than banks or selling gold. I don’t know why they think it’s any different.
Still, there’s something wild about going from “sugar tits” to starring in Daddy’s Home 2.
Some people make mistakes and they’re not bringing home the money, and some people make mistakes and they are bringing home the money. They’re more quickly forgiven. I wasn’t really doing it because I was trying to change the moral fabric of America. I was doing it because it was a funny gag. The first gag I did, I was like, “As you know, I like a drink as much as the next man. And the next man is Mel Gibson.” I didn’t even go for the anti-Semitism the first time. I did that the next time. It was gentle ribbing. I did a joke about the film Spotlight, the one about the pedophile priests. I said “Spotlight: loads of acclaim, including Roman Polanksi called it the perfect date movie.” I could tell from the gasps. He joked about Roman Polanski! Why not? I’m not having a go at his directing. One person said to me how dare you go after Mel Gibson? Mel Gibson is the director of Braveheart. No, I love that film. Wasn’t having a go at his directing.
I wanted to ask you about the Sirius radio show that you’re launching.
I’ve been going on Sirius for about 10 years. They’ve been trying to court me for a while. I said, if I do a radio show, this is it. I said I didn’t want to do a daily show. What I’m doing is, so I can do it anywhere, I’m going to pre-record them and save them up, and we’re going to do three series of 10 over the next year. I also didn’t want it to be just a radio show. It’s a podcast as well. Because of that, I’m going to try for it to be more timeless. It’s not going to be what was on the telly last night or what was in the news yesterday. It is much more, again, the big issues: comedy, music, life, death, but a funny chat going anywhere.
Are you excited to push buttons?
No harm should come from discussing taboo subjects. That’s how we move on. That’s when they’re taboo anymore. That’s the problem with dogma, it says don’t question this. That’s the death of humanity. People question everything. That’s what progress is. That’s why we’ve got art. That’s why we landed man on the moon. Because people question shit. That’s it in a nutshell. Question everything.
Well it’s awkward to say now, but that was my last question.