To U.S. audiences, British comedian Ricky Gervais is known as an irreverent stand-up and the provocative, four-time host of the Golden Globes, as well as a creator and star of shows like “Extras,” “Life’s Too Short” and “Derek.” That’s all thanks to his breakout series, “The Office,” which had its BBC debut in 2001 and starred Gervais as David Brent, the tactless and overbearing manager of a paper company being recorded by a documentary crew.
One hit NBC remake (starring Steve Carell) and several international spinoffs later, Gervais, 55, is returning to that character. In the feature film “David Brent: Life on the Road” (to be released on Netflix on Friday, Feb. 10), he picks up the character’s story years later, as he quits his job selling bathroom supplies to go out on a self-financed tour with his rock band, Foregone Conclusion.
And yes, Gervais – who long ago sang in the British New Wave band Seona Dancing – would like to make clear that Brent’s songs are intentionally (not accidentally) ridiculous.
“This is not ‘Ricky Gervais Sings the Ballads,’ ” he said in a recent phone interview. “This is David Brent, who’s a character. It’s a part of the narrative.”
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These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: It has been more than 12 years since most U.S. viewers last saw David Brent. What does he want from us now?
A: He wants validation. He wants to be famous. He’s a narcissist, but we see that, actually, he’s an old-fashioned narcissist. He can’t compete with today’s narcissists. He was the ordinary guy on the cusp of getting his 15 minutes of fame. But now fame is different. Now it’s insatiable.
Q: Does the idea of playing a self-obsessed, faded reality-TV star who is prone to making racist jokes feel a little less charming than it used to?
A: He was never a bad person. He’s accidentally offensive, because he’s trying so hard. He wants to please everyone. We’re still laughing at his blind spot – at the difference between how he sees himself and how we see him. But there’s also a slight affection for him, because he falls over and gets back up again. He is a loser, but that’s why, certainly as a Brit, I side with him more than I would if he was a winner.
Q: What started you thinking about playing him again?
A: For the 10-year anniversary of “The Office,” I did a sketch for Comic Relief. I had to think about, where would he be now? He’d still be in Slough. He’d be managing someone, thinking he’s the local Simon Cowell. Oh, a mixed-race rapper? Perfect, now he’s got a black friend. We did a song called “Equality Street,” I did a couple of gigs, and that’s where the idea for the film came. I thought, if this was a real person, and he was on a docu-soap 15 years ago, and now he was trying to make it as a rock star, the documentary teams would be salivating.
Q: Were you hesitant to revisit the character who first made you famous? What does that say about all the projects you’ve done since?
A: If I’d have done “The Office” and then given up, going back to it might look a little sad. But I did so many other things – I’ve done “Extras,” I’ve done four (stand-up) tours, I’ve done “Flanimals,” 10 movies. It wasn’t like I went crawling back to it. It was purely for me. If you worry about criticism, you should give up. If you’re worried about someone not liking it as much as something else you did, you shouldn’t be in this game. You are going to get criticized.
Q: You had a flirtation with pop-music glory in the 1980s. Were you channeling this in Brent’s story?
A: Most people ask, like, “Oh, you’re trying to relive your dream as a rock star.” That’s odd that you’d say that when the guy’s a complete prat, that I’m somehow living vicariously through him. When I did “Ghost Town,” people didn’t go, “Oh, do you want to be a dentist?” I think the confusion comes when they see Matt Damon in “Bourne,” they know he’s not really punching that guy. Whereas, they know I am really singing, and I’m really playing guitar.
Q: How do you write songs that are meant to sound authentic and contemporary, but at their core have to be ridiculous?
A: I didn’t want the music to be the funny bit. I didn’t want him to be playing badly or singing out of tune. The backstory’s the funny thing for me. You take a thing like “Freelove Freeway,” that’s a cracking tune. That could be a John Cougar Mellencamp or Tom Petty tune. But when you realize it’s about crossing America and picking up chicks, and being sung by a tampon rep from Slough who’s never been to America, that’s the funny bit.
Q: Could you imagine any of today’s pop stars performing his songs?
A: If Adele doesn’t do “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds,” I’ll offer it to Springsteen.