Ricky Gervais is a jolly man. He’s also a serious man. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. His comedy comes from a place of seriousness and reality. It’s no accident that his best-known creation, “The Office,” is a mock-documentary.
His latest show, “Derek” — the first to star him as well since “Extras” and whose seven episodes just dropped on Netflix — also adopts a mock-doc approach. But it’s markedly different. It’s a comedy-drama, centered on Gervais’ title character: a “slow” type (certainly autistic, although he’s undiagnosed) who works at a nursing home.
“It is more sincere,” Gervais says. “I’ve left behind the veil of irony that inhabits most of my other works. That’s what makes it more dramatic. There’s this sincerity in the characters.” Derek himself is not David Brent (or even “Extras”’ more together, though still troubled Andy Millman). He’s an innocent, and the laughs come from his interactions with his coworkers, also social outcasts not generally seen on television.
“We’re not laughing at the difference between how they see themselves and how we see them. There’s not that chasm,” Gervais says. “I got addicted to the sweetness and the kindness. I wanted it to be infectious. When [Derek] walks through the door, you’re infected by kindness.”
What it most shares with his past work is an interest in everybodies. “It’s about forgotten people and people on the fringes of society. I’ve always been fascinated by them. It’s also nice to return to ordinary people. In recent years I’ve done a lot of studies of fame and Hollywood,” he says, citing “Extras,” “Life’s Too Short,” even a stand-up special called “Fame.” Derek the character even originated — pre-“The Office,” in fact — as part of a group of outsiders who would brush up against famous people. He decided to make him “do something worthy” instead.
“Real life is fascinating to me. There’s nothing more fascinating than real life,” he says. “I’m telling stories that I think people could think is true. I don’t really deal in the broad and the surreal.”
He chose a care home because many of the women in his family worked in them. He had 30 years of stories, some of which made it into the show. He based Hannah, the tireless worker (played by Kerry Godliman) who runs the home, on these women. “I wanted her to be strong and caring, like all the womenfolk I knew growing up in my family,” Gervais explains. “They were very sentimental and they loved kids and animals. But they also had to be lionesses.”
Gervais always intended streaming giant Netflix as “Derek”‘s home. “I heard a little whispering of the industry that some cable networks were getting worried about this new kind on the block called Netflix. That excited me,” Gervais says with his trademark giggle. He e-mailed the head of Netflix, saying he wanted to make a show. He got a quick reply with a go. “TV habits have changed so much in the last 10 to 15 years,” he explains. “There’s a generation of kids who don’t understand this concept of the common consciousness, of sitting down at 9:00 on a Thursday with the family. ‘I don’t have to watch it then, I can watch it on the way to the store tomorrow.’”
“Derek” also includes a meaty role for Karl Pilkington, the lowly radio producer he turned into a celebrity when he made him the centerpiece — and target of ridicule — on his groundbreaking podcast, “The Ricky Gervais Show.” He plays Dougie, a longtime worker with a terrible ‘do who’s the smartest, most self-aware character on the show — and as such, often miserable. “I wrote it for Karl,” Gervais says, “because I wanted to bring out that grumpy misanthrope in him. In fact, after I filmed it I told Karl that Dougie was based on him if he had never met me. And that really annoyed him.” Then Gervais chuckles.
The show isn’t entirely serious, or even half-serious. It’s very often hilarious. “I think that if you’re dealing with something that’s real, it can go from comedy to drama, then back again,” he says. “Real life does that. You have an argument, then you laugh about it. Comedy is real life with the boring bits taken out.”
Gervais wasn’t sure it would take with audiences. “I worried if people would accept it — if they were laughing at these weirdo characters, then have to take them seriously when they’re crying,” he says. “If you set that out as the possibility from the outset, then you’ve earned it. And you have to earn it. You can’t just have outrageously broad, silly characters doing ridiculous things all the time, then expect us to care about them.”
The show’s shuffling between tones can sometimes be alarming; it goes a bit too far one way with a montage set, sans irony, to Coldplay. (Chris Martin gave a hilarious self-deprecating cameo on “Extras.”) But he sees a change in tone happening in the culture. “I think people don’t know they want it, but they do want sincerity. They want it deep down,” he postulates. “I’ve noticed it on Twitter as well. I can do snarky stuff, weird stuff, and it gets retweets. But if I do a sincere tweet, that’s right down the line, it connects with 10 times the amount of people.”
Then again, this is a show where the elderly cast dies off regularly. Each death is a blow, but it’s not the same as if they had happened on his other shows. “If I had had a death on ‘The Office’ — you can’t get over it. A 30 year old dying is just too traumatic. Whereas you understand that a 90 year old is going to die one day. It doesn’t make it any less sad, but you accept more. It’s the natural order of things.”
Gervais says playing Derek wasn’t a challenge. “I feel I can inhabit Derek as easy as being myself. In fact, it might even be easier to be Derek, because he’s an easier person to be,” he says. “It’s liberating saying what’s on your mind. It’s sweet and childlike. Children don’t have restrictions. They don’t worry about what they say. They don’t worry about what people think of them. They don’t care if somebody doesn’t like what they like.” Gervais claims the clothes were even his. “I am comfortable shuffling around and saying daft things.”
He was thinking more about the audiences anyway. “You are always aware that it is a challenge to the audience. But it should be,” he says. “I don’t want the audience to be that comfortable. I want things to worry them. I want them to think about it.”