Ricky Gervais on Aging, Offending People, and His Netflix Special ‘Humanity’

Ricky Gervais at AOL Build Speaker Series
Ricky Gervais at AOL Build Speaker Series  Dave Kotinsky / Contributor / Getty Images

Ricky Gervais’ first stand-up special in seven years premieres this month on Netflix, and it’s a whopper: a 78-minute, boundary-pushing commentary fittingly titled Humanity. Gervais, who helped create the British Office, has made a career out of playing un-self-aware, attention-seeking narcissists. In Humanity, which was filmed over the course of two shows in London, he embodies the beer-swilling philosopher, tackling rape, social-media trolls, religious fundamentalism, aging, and Caitlyn Jenner. Of the show’s title, he says: “I don’t know why I called it that. I’m not a fan.” Here he explains why.

You were away from the stage for seven years. Is it hard to relate to audiences since you’ve become famous?
Traditionally a comic has to be low status. We’re court jesters. We have to stick it to the man. Also, we have to talk the truth. Everyone knows I’m rich. So I invite them in. I say, “You think it’s brilliant being rich and famous at the queen’s dinner party? Well, look what happened to me…” I let them know that I’m still a putz.

Tell me about a time you were a putz.
Well, the first time I hired a private jet, I thought, “This is amazing.” I felt slightly guilty. But I needed to do it. I turned up, and the pilot thought I was the chef. I still play the guy who is not meant to be there. I don’t wear fancy clothes. I turn up in a T-shirt and jeans and drink Foster’s out of a can. And I talk about things that money doesn’t help. I talk about getting fat and old.

Is there an upside to aging?
I mean, apart from the distended testicles? [Laughs] Well, I hope so. I hope there’s a wisdom. And a serenity. The point of life— as futile and finite as existence is—is learning about the world.

What have you learned?
I was the guy who would roll my eyes if some long-haired hippie got up and said, “The oil companies are killing us.” I’d go, “Sit down, Che Guevara.” But now I think, “You’re fucking right!” What’s funny is, it takes you 50 years to suddenly go, “Oh my God, the only important thing is sharing.”

You’re a proud agnostic. Do you ever think, “I’m so phenomenally wealthy, there must be a God?”
I sometimes say things like that to annoy people who think God only rewards believers. But no, I don’t think there’s a God.

What if you’re wrong?
I’d have loads of questions. Like, why did you make chocolate kill dogs? And if you hate homosexuality so much, why put the male G-spot up the ass? [Laughs] I have no problem with spirituality. I have no problem with one person’s belief that their grandparents are looking down on them. But religion is like an organized, ruthless business saying: “You believe in God? Well, he talks to me. Give me some money and I’ll put in a word for you.”

In Humanity, you talk about deciding not to have children. You’re worried that you’d inflict some terrible, spoiled brat on the world. But seriously, do you ever regret not having kids?
No, I don’t. I’m only joking when I say kids are horrendous and scroungers and all that. People who have kids, they absolutely love it. It’s personal. I think some people who have kids had thought, “Oh God, I don’t want to get old and regret it and have no one to look after me.” Then the kids put them in a home. [Laughs] You shouldn’t have little people so you’ve got someone to look after you when you’re old. That never works out.

Religion is like a ruthless business saying: You believe in God? Well, he talks to me. Give me some money and I’ll put in a word for you.”

How are you feeling about humanity now?
Well, I watch the news every day…. So I don’t know. I don’t know what Trump has to do for his core supporters to go, “Oh, well, that’s gone too far now.”

Is there something he’s said that even you—as a comedian—wouldn’t say?
That’s the thing! Comedians joke about bad subjects, and they don’t mean it. Whereas arguably the most powerful man in the world says terrible things, and he means it and doesn’t get in trouble! I think, “Where is the justice?”

Your new show addresses people who are easily offended.
The number of times I get on Twitter and people say things like, “I enjoyed your show, but I didn’t like the bit about food allergies, because I’ve got a food allergy and it’s really serious.” And I go, “Yeah, but you laughed about AIDS, the Holocaust….” You know what I mean?

You do a bit in Humanity about Caitlyn Jenner’s penis and a javelin. This felt a little too personal. Here’s a woman who never felt comfortable in her own body. And to have someone stand on stage—
The joke is that I’m being childish and I’m getting it wrong. Even though I’m dealing with truth in my comedy, those aren’t my feelings in real life. As a comic persona, I still have to exaggerate them and be angry or as petty as the people I’m putting down. I don’t have to keep saying after every joke, “I’m only joking.” They know that. I’ve been around for 15 years. It’s all still a minefield. I don’t think I’ve had a complaint—playing [this show] to half a million people—but taken out of context, everyone is going to find their thing. I don’t want to hurt people.

Apparently Robert De Niro called you after you hosted the Golden Globes in 2011?
Yeah, when I did the Golden Globes, and there was outrage, I got a phone call. And it was Robert De Niro. He got my number and he said, “Hi, it’s Bob. I just want to say you were great last night.” I said, “Some people didn’t think so.” He went, “Oh, fuck them. They were jokes! Are you gonna do it again?” I said, “I don’t know. The president of the Hollywood Foreign Press said I’d never be invited back.” De Niro said, “Do you want me to have a word with him?” And I thought, ’cause he’s Robert De Niro, “Is he gonna have him whacked?”

If you had hosted this year’s Golden Globes, would you have gone after Harvey Weinstein?
I certainly would have confronted the elephant in the room. But it’s how you do it, you know? You better have the right target. And you better be able to come down on the right side. I will say, on the whole, of course it’s good that Hollywood is having a spring cleaning and clamping down on this. That’s one thing I hate about Twitter. The misogyny is ludicrous. They make feminism a bad word. How can feminism be a bad word? How can wanting equal rights for anyone be a bad word?

You drink a can of Foster’s onstage during Humanity. What’s the best pint of beer you ever had?
Let’s have a think. To be quite honest, I’ve had so many pints in my life. [Laughs] If there is a heaven, I’ll go, “What’s that mountain?” and God will go, “That’s all the pints you had, Rick. That’s all the empty cans of beer.”