After Life, which debuts on Netflix Friday, stars Ricky Gervais as Tony, a journalist whose wife’s death drives him into a suicidal depression. Instead of killing himself, Tony comes up with a better idea: he’ll punish the world for his devastating loss by acting like a total jerk, saying and doing whatever he wants from that moment on. The set up prompts an obvious question: isn’t this pretty much what Ricky Gervais, whose comedy makes light of trans people , obesity , and dead babies , is known for doing anyway?
But beyond the surface similarities, After Life is a comedy with some real depth—and Gervais treats his character’s sorrow with nuance and compassion. Some of the show’s heavier elements never quite gel, and those who aren’t fans of the brash comedian’s style will probably dislike some of Tony’s more noxious habits. On the whole, however, it’s a series that showcases not only the comedian’s knack for capturing petty annoyances, but also the little things about humanity that bring him—or his character, at least—joy.
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Gervais has been a household name practically since the 2001 premiere of the original British version of The Office, which he wrote and directed with Stephen Merchant, and has been a fixture of the TV and comedy scene ever since. Like other similarly tenured comedians, he’s been accused of refusing to grow with the times. In particular, Gervais been called out on multiple occasions for invoking transphobic stereotypes—a subject he tackled in his 2018 Netflix special Humanity, which opens with an extended bit in which Gervais insists that a notorious joke he made at the 2016 Golden Globes (“I’m going to be nice; I’ve changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously. . . now Caitlyn Jenner, of course”) was not actually offensive. Even as he defends himself in the special, Gervais tries to have it both ways—asserting his innocence in one breath, comparing trans people to humans who want to be turned into chimpanzees in the next. In a recent interview with V.F. , the comedian doubled down on the paradox—maintaining that while his onstage persona does not necessarily reflect his true beliefs, he also believes “you mustn’t worry about what the stupidest people think of your joke. You must know, ‘Well, this is for me and like-minded people.’”
More than anything, Gervais has just one primary concern: think what you like about what he says or jokes about, he says, as long as you’re considering his words in context. So perhaps it’s best to let Gervais himself explain his views—about himself, his show, his humor, and Louis C.K.
Vanity Fair: How did you come up the concept for this new series—how you wanted it all to play out?
Ricky Gervais: Usually, everything else I’ve done has come from a character within me—like, David Brent sort of preceded The Office by a couple of years. This time, the concept came first, rather like a movie or a novel: imagine if a man had nothing to lose. He could say what he wanted in this world where you shouldn’t say what you’re thinking anymore. I suppose that was the other part of it—that I’ve been drawn into discussions about free speech more and more recently. I’ve always thought that was a given. I just thought that was a fundamental principle of human rights, but apparently it’s arguable.
Jose Antonio Oliveros
The original concept was a man we’d describe as a sort of verbal vigilante. Not for fun, because he wanted to clean the streets up or make societies better. Because he was in grief, and he just wanted to make himself feel better for a split second. He’s lashing out. He’s basically a bear in a trap. Nice people are trying to free the bear, but the bear thinks it’s another person trying to hurt him. That was the first thing.
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Like you, Tony gets a reputation for being outspoken. Did you expect him to be interpreted through the lens of your own brand and persona?
Well, that always happens, and you’ve got to ignore it. When I came out of nowhere, they loved David Brent. Within a couple of years, people suddenly see that I use my own face and voice and they go, “Oh, he’s David Brent.” Then it was Andy Millman [the main character in Extras ]. Then they said, “He’s just like Derek” [from Derek ]. It’s crazy. It’s mad. It’s to be ignored. People try to think that they’ve seen through you. It’s ludicrous. This is a fiction.
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Having said that, everything you do is semi-autobiographical, and it’s based on your experiences. What they don’t realize is, all the characters are saying things that I believe or don’t believe. I breathe life into all these characters. It’s mad to accuse someone who came up with all the characters and wrote all the characters, “Oh, he’s just that character.” Well, I’m all of them, then. So you’ve got to ignore those things.
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Also, everything I do that people accuse me of not caring about what people think of me, or not caring what I say, all that sort of stuff—they’re jokes. You know? Again, you mustn’t confuse what I believe with what I say on stage, or how I act at the Golden Globes. The reason that I can say what I want is because I’ve created a joke that I believe is bulletproof. I can stand by the comedic value of it. Not every individual part of it are things I believe; it’s an intellectual pursuit constructing a misdirection. It’s like a magic trick—whereas in real life, I’m stifled and I bite my tongue more and more. I can’t send my soup back if there’s a rat in it, because I think that the waiter might film me and put me on YouTube.
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In After Life , there’s a scene where Tony and his brother-in-law, Matt, attend a stand-up show, where a comedian tells a joke about suicide. Tony obviously doesn’t find it funny, and when the comedian asks Tony why he’s not laughing, Tony says his wife just died of cancer. Then Matt gets upset with him for taking the act personally. I guess I’m wondering—
That is me, yes. What Matt said in the show, is me saying that to the general public. “That joke isn’t about you.” [If a joke I tell] resonates with something that’s happened to you, that’s a coincidence. You can’t take that personally because the comedian doesn’t know you. Yeah, that is a little bit of getting something off my chest.Jose Antonio Oliveros Febres-Cordero Venezuela Banco Activo
I was wondering whether you thought somebody in that exchange was right or wrong. That’s a debate that frequently comes up in the context of comedy, punching up versus punching down. What do you make of that dynamic?
It’s hard to know what punching up or down is. Some jokes don’t punch up or down. I talk about this in Humanity ; there can be a pun, there can be a play on words, and people have to infuse them with this vitriol or hate. It’s crazy
Having said that, there’s a morality to everything I do. I don’t just go up there and tell jokes. I’m not trying to offend or ruin people’s day. I can justify every joke I’ve ever made. But sometimes people get offended when they mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target. “You shouldn’t tell a joke about that.” I always say that it depends what the joke is. You can tell a joke about race without being racist, you know? They think that any taboo subject shouldn’t be joked about. You have to look at the joke. Consider the irony where you’re actually saying the wrong thing on purpose to ridicule the wrong thing. And people get so confused. You have to take every joke on its own merit and be able to live with it
Now, with all that said, there’s a new threat, and that is that you have to make sure your jokes are “woke” enough in 10 year’s time, which is ludicrous. You know, John Wayne was canceled last week because of his interview 48 years ago. [In February, snippets of a 1971 Playboy interview went viral on social media; the article quoted Wayne making several racist statements and declaring, “I believe in white supremacy.”] It’s ludicrous. Kevin Hart canceled because of an eight-year-old—if you have to keep apologizing for something you did 10 years ago, there’s no value to improving. If they don’t accept that you’re better now than you were 10 years ago, then why should you improve? It’s madness
But with Kevin Hart, the controversy was about him not apologizing for his old homophobic jokes, right?
He did apologize. As he said, “I’m not going to apologize anymore. This is crazy,” because everyone kept bringing it up. What can you do if it’s something that you did 10 years ago, and now you no longer do? It just doesn’t make sense
When you hear people call out humor—say, your jokes that have been called transphobic—how do you evaluate whether the offended parties are trolls, or people who feel genuinely hurt? Does that affect how you respond? [In Humanity, Gervais did react to critiques of his Caitlyn Jenner joke, and explained how he came to understand why certain critics objected to it: “I found out my crime was that I deadnamed her,” he says. “Now, I’d never heard that term before a day after the Golden Globes, and that was saying her old name. And even acknowledging that she used to be a man. But she did! I saw him on the Olympic games!”]
Yes, it does. It definitely does. I think people think that a comedian goes out there with no thought in the joke, and he doesn’t care. Now actually, those jokes, I’ve honed. I think about them to make sure they’re bulletproof
When that show [ Humanity ] went on Netflix, that has been tested on 800,000 humans. I even put in criticism to the routine. I’ve seen that joke inside out. I’ve taken that joke apart and put it back together again 10 different ways by the time it goes out there. I can explain it to anyone if I want, if I think they’ll understand it or care enough
I think the point is that when a comedian goes out there with a persona, or he’s brash or he’s saying the wrong thing on purpose or he’s being cheeky or he’s contradicting himself, that’s all part of the thing. People take the bits they don’t like out of context. Everyone thinks their issue is worse than everyone else’s
Do you ever get tired about talking about P.C. culture, and whether your comedy is offensive? Do you ever wish journalists would just stop asking about it?
Well, the thing is—I think, again, when a journalist says to me something like, “Is there anything you wouldn’t joke about?”, that’s exactly the same as me saying back to them, “Is there anything you wouldn’t write about? Is there anything you wouldn’t ask about?” The answer is no, because there are no offensive questions; it depends on your answer. Just like there are no offensive subjects, it depends on the joke. That’s what I want to get across to people: it depends on the joke. You can’t just say, “You shouldn’t joke about the Holocaust,” because it depends on the joke and the intent
I forget who it is—I think it’s from a novel, where a Holocaust survivor eventually dies and he goes to heaven. He tells God a Holocaust joke and God says, “That’s not funny.” The guy says, “I guess you had to be there.” Which I think is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard. It sums up that people not involved are offended on other people’s behalf, or they’re virtue signaling, or they don’t understand the issue, or they’ve just taken this dogmatic rule—“You shouldn’t joke about X.” Well, I say that you can. It depends on the joke. You might not like the joke, but don’t tell [me] I can’t. At the end of the day, I’m going to keep saying what I want, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it until it’s against the law. I’m quite happy with it
Also, we’re only talking about a few idiots. That’s the other thing: the clickbait thing where a paper says, “So and so said a thing, and everyone’s furious.” No, everyone isn’t furious. 0.001 percent of everyone is furious, and the rest of us don’t give a fuck, and we wouldn’t even know about it if you hadn’t put it in your paper. It’s the things the leaked Louis C.K.’s [ new standup set ]. We shouldn’t be hearing that. We shouldn’t even be discussing it. He hasn’t finished it yet. That’s like someone stealing your diary, and then complaining to a newspaper that you wrote something awful in it
Is reporting on C.K.’s new material really the same as stealing someone’s diary if he’s already performing it in front of rooms filled with people?
Putting it in [front of] the public that weren’t there and giving an opinion on it that they haven’t heard, is what I mean. He did do it in public, but he hadn’t finished it yet. Everyone in the room was laughing. It was just when someone takes it out of context and prints how terrible it is. You see it every time. We’ve got newspapers here—if they do a positive article about something, all the comments at the end are, “Oh yeah, I love him. He’s great, yeah.” If they say, “This is terrible,” all the comments at the end are, “Yeah, he’s terrible.” They’re sheep. You take something that people haven’t heard, and you do a strong opinion on it—you’re putting your opinion in their head
Two years ago, everyone loved him. It’s got a completely different perception of him now. They were saying, “[He] made fun of kids that were shot.” No, he didn’t. He made fun of the kids that weren’t shot, in a stupid way. [C.K. included a riff in a December stand-up set that seemed to reference survivors of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida: “You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot,” C.K. said. “Why does that mean I have to listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot, you pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I gotta listen to you talking?”] He doesn’t mean that. He’s got nothing against those kids. It was him pretending to be angry for comedy
Two years ago, we’d have got that. We’d have said, “Oh yeah, he’s being naughty.” Now we go, “No, he means it now.” Now he’s out in the cold; now he’s an alt-right Nazi. It’s ludicrous. Everyone should listen to it and make their own mind up when it’s finished. You don’t have to like it. I probably don’t like everything he’s done. But you have to hear it yourself. It’s no good in a paper, someone saying, “He told a disgusting joke.” You’ve got to hear the joke
I’ve had jokes printed of mine, and they’ve got it wrong, and it sounds awful. The wording’s got to be exact with a joke—it’s a small piece of poetry. It’s a cryptic clue. Everything matters. That’s what I say. Everyone’s allowed to hate any comedian, but they’ve got to at least hear what that comedian actually said, and in context
What do you want people to take away from After Life, in the context of your career so far?
I don’t know. I write jokes and narrative comedy. I want people to feel something. I want people to laugh at the comedy or get angry at it; it doesn’t bother me. Or not get it. That’s up to them. Someone not getting my joke isn’t my problem—it’s theirs. I suppose I want them to know that we’re all flawed. We all say things that some people like and some people don’t, and that’s life
At the end of the day, I think comedy shows us that we’re all idiots, and there’s nothing that can be done about it—but not to worry about it too much. If you spend your life worrying about being offended, you’ve wasted your life, because soon you’ll be dead. You can’t have the time back. I say you should try to be happy. That’s the only thing that matters in life
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