Editor’s Note: The post title is (obviously) a good ribbing.
The decision to do (HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show) in animation, can you talk about that a little bit?
Stephen Merchant: Yes, well we were made aware that there was quite a number of sorts of fans of our radio shows and our podcasts who had already taken upon themselves to sort of animate some of their favorite bits. Just using kind of basic equipment at home. And they put a lot of these on YouTube and they were very good and very funny. And they kind of gave a new dimension to the dialogues. So we thought maybe we should take that idea on really and sort of apply a kind of professional approach to it.
When did you realize you had comedy gold with Karl Pilkington? You and Ricky both?
SM: Almost the moment that he opened his mouth the first time we were working with him. And I think we were working on this radio show and he was just a producer pressing buttons. We asked him a question – who knows what the question was – and the answer was just extraordinary. I mean completely not what we were expecting. And over the subsequent weeks we would just ask him more questions. And we would just bring the stuff out. And he was never interested, couldn’t care less, wasn’t trying to be on the radio, wasn’t interested in being a star.
But [he] would just come out with stories about families he knew growing up with horses in their living room and he thought it was perfectly acceptable. Or two people with giant heads and webbed feet who never hung out together because in his words ‘that would be too obvious.’
[He] would pipe up with questions – ‘Hey, Steve what are those things in the film Gremlins called?’ ‘Gremlins, Karl.’ And so it would go on again, endlessly, again and again and again. And it was just – it just seemed like a never ending well of stuff.
He just sees the world differently and that’s magical in him.
I was wondering how you come up with the things you talk about each episode? Is there a process you go through?
SM: Well the thing is that I think it’s sort of imperative that people understand when they tune in that these are real conversations. I mean we recorded them because we thought they might be of interest but they are not planned. They are not scripted. The subjects are not discussed beforehand.
Rather like if we did a radio show we would just react to what was in our thoughts that day. We sit in front of microphones and we start talking like you would a couple of friends in a bar or pub and so that’s what we’ve come up with really.
And certain areas re-occur because certain areas are of particular interest to Karl, chiefly amongst them freaks. He’s obsessed with freaks and I don’t know what the politically correct term is for that. He just likes to refer to them as freaks.
And I should point out that there is no malice on his part. You know he is like a child. When a child sees something weird on the street he’s not being mean. He’s just intrigued because he’s a child, he’s an idiot.
And that’s essentially true of Karl. You know he’s not so-called trying to cause offense. He just is unfamiliar with things. He’s not familiar with the appropriate ways of talking and behaving in civil society. He is just a moron. But not in a medical way you know he’s not – he shouldn’t be in a home.
He’s fascinated by science but has no grasp of it. Philosophy – he can’t get his head around it. So we try to provoke him with sort of big ideas, as well as, just silly bits of nonsense.
I wanted to know about when you and Ricky Gervais decided become writing partners. Did you know that your careers would reach this far and be this successful?
SM: Well, – no, obviously, no. We actually began working together on the radio station but we worked behind the scenes together. We were not on the air. And we sort of had a rapport and, over time, we occasionally would appear on the radio.
But Ricky was my boss essentially. And I eventually left that job and I joined the BBC because I figured Ricky would probably get us both fired because he was terrible at the job and I was right because he did get fired a year later. But meantime I had joined the BBC where I was able to open some doors for us to start writing comedy and that was how The Office happened.
We learned as we went along we had not had any experience as writers. Ricky had never been a performer or an actor, but for some reason we just had this presumption that we can maybe do or that at least we should have a go at it. Obviously everything else that has happened since is just the weird extraordinary, you know, amazing roller coaster.
But yes, we never even anticipated that they would let us on TV, let alone Ricky host the Golden Globes. I mean it’s crazy. It’s really stupid.
I wanted to ask are you more comfortable ad-libbing or do you like the scripted work? I know you were in Tooth Fairy, that was a little more scripted, but which do you prefer?
SM: Personally I like a script but I like to be able to improvise after that if you like. You know I like there to be some structure if I was doing TV or film or anything. One of the good things about doing radio and podcasts and stuff is that there is a different freedom. It really is more like having a conversation with a friend.
Do you mind when people comment on your height so much? Or are you so used to it and you just don’t care anymore?
SM: One of the things that I quite like about the animation is that we were quite easy to animate in a way because we are all very distinct. And so I don’t mind being – people joking about being tall. I mean I’ve always joked about it myself. I’ve always been kind of freakish tall even since school. I always stood out. It is probably one of the reasons I like the comedy because I was always such a – people were always pointing and laughing at me basically.
And I figured I might as well make money from this than just be laughed at in a bar. Yes, so really I find myself more comfortable with it now than I was before people start making jokes about it on TV. I thought I could control a bit more there. You know as long as I get jokes in as well about it. I don’t mind but some – yes, I bet most people can talk about my glasses. They can joke about my height, anything really. That doesn’t concern – and I’m not opening up to people. I mean they should – you know you shouldn’t start just insulting me that, oh well, people see me in the street, they shouldn’t holler things but you know I walk down the street in the past and people have shouted things from moving cars just before I was even on TV. They would just shout out you know ‘hey you freak’. You know it was just people thought they could talk about it because I think being very tall is considered a success. It’s unlike being very small. Being tall, it’s like you achieved something you know. Well done, you’re 6 foot 7. Oh well done, you must be very proud. So people feel they can comment on it, but I don’t mind. It’s fine. It is funny. It’s absurd.
I just wanted to know why Ricky didn’t plug this from the podium of the Golden Globes, this new show?
SM: Did he not plug it? Are you kidding me? I’m furious with him. This is – I told him that’s the only reason to do the Globes. You know he gets up there, he gets some funny idea in his head about making some crack about Mel Gibson completely forgets what’s important. Yes, a lot of nonsense. You know what I was there. I could have sworn he plugged this. I’m furious. You watched the whole show I bet. You would know if he would have plugged it. As soon as I get off the phone with you now, I’m going to call him and reprimand him. I’m absolutely furious. I mean really, honestly you know. What was he thinking? He plugged a bunch of stuff I’m not even involved with. And I’m not even going to make money from. It’s crazy.
Moderator: In the interest of Ricky’s good name, yes, he did at the very end plug the show. Don’t worry.
SM: Oh thank goodness.
I have a question about Monkey News. How did you come up with that? Why Monkey News?
SM: That’s a strange question. Monkey News…basically Karl Pilkington for some reason is fascinated by monkeys. He is obsessed with monkeys. He thinks they are essentially small hairy humans. He looks a little bit like a monkey which probably helps that. He kind of has an affinity with them.
When we used do this radio show, he would endless come in and would – he had read something else about monkeys on the Web and [would] start telling us these various stories he had read about monkeys and seemingly every week there was new monkey news. So this became a feature where he was – he would tell us whatever he read about monkeys that week on the Internet but obviously it was – they were clearly spurious stories– notes and stories that would almost certainly begin with some construction site somewhere. The best in the world was this guy that no one ever saw and he got paid in bananas and he would swing from tree to – you know scaffolding bars and he could assembly buildings in a second.
And lo and behold it turned out to be a monkey and we would just holler at him with anger that he (would pull) into some rubbish. I’m sure people ended up putting stories in the Web just for him to find. There was monkeys that were running barber shops. There was monkeys having affairs with women behind the zookeeper’s back. He was swallowing this stuff hook, line, and sinker you know.
There have been a few things floating around about you guys doing something else with the NBC (version of) The Office maybe next year, I was wondering if there were any concrete plans?
SM: There are no concrete plans. Ricky and I were just musing on different things. The problem is Ricky is one of those people if we’re having a conversation in the office, just in our regular writing office, and he gets excited about an idea just in passing like on the way to lunch, he instantly wants to tell the world this is happening.
And I have to constantly go whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down, Rick. OK, we have not made any promises or plans. We were just having conversation. You know but he writes a blog that he needs to fill up. Every night he writes in his blog. So we’ve got no concrete plans to do anything with the American Office. But we are obviously rightly proud of the show and big fans of the show. So you know it’s not that we wouldn’t want to do something. We just haven’t made any definite plans to do anything.
He constantly makes plans and I’m always having to say, listen, no, wait. You’ve already given yourself a thousand things to do.
But I’m sure if you check in with Ricky’s blog regularly you will discover – I mean I often find out I’m doing things by reading his blog that I wasn’t even aware I was doing. He’s worried that his dairy is going to be empty you know and he’s going to wake up next year and there will be nothing planned.
The Ricky Gervais Show airs Fridays on HBO at 9PM EST (repeats throughout the week – check local listings).