This interview was originally broadcast on April 12, 2004.
Actor Ricky Gervais starred in, co-wrote and co-directed the hit BBC sitcom, The Office, with his partner Stephen Merchant. It was their BBC series from which the hit NBC series drew much inspiration.
Gervais played the self-obsessed middle-manager David Brent on whom Michael Scott, Steve Carell's character in the NBC incarnation of the show, is based. Like the NBC show, the satirical BBC series The Office was also shot in documentary style and followed the goings-on at a suburban paper company where life is stationary.
Since The Office, Gervais went on — again with Merchant — to co-write and co-direct the HBO series Extras, about the extras that populate television, movie and theater sets.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. "The Office" concludes its eight-year run on NBC next week. Ricky Gervais co-created and starred in the original version of the show on the BBC, playing David Brent, the character on whom Steve Carell's Michael Scott was loosely modeled. Terry Gross interviewed Ricky Gervais in 2004. Here's a scene in which Gervais is conducting a performance evaluation with his receptionist Dawn.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
RICKY GERVAIS: (As David Brent) If you had to name a role model, someone who's influenced you, who would it be?
LUCY DAVIS: (As Dawn Tinsley) What, like a historical person?
GERVAIS: (As David) No, someone in sort of general life, just someone who's been an influence on you.
DAVIS: (As Dawn) I suppose my mum. She's just, she's strong, calm in the face of adversity. Oh, God, I remember when she had a hysterectomy...
GERVAIS: (As David) If it wasn't your mother, though. I mean, it doesn't even have to be a woman. It could be a...
DAVIS: (As Dawn) Man. OK, well, I suppose if it was a man, it would be my father.
GERVAIS: (As David) Not your father, all right. Let's take your parents as red. I'm looking for someone in the sort of work-related arena, who's influenced...
DAVIS: (As Dawn) Right, OK, well I suppose Tim, then. He's always...
GERVAIS: (As David) Well he's a friend, isn't he? Not a friend, someone in authority. Maybe I didn't, you know...
DAVIS: (As Dawn) Well, than I suppose Jennifer.
GERVAIS: (As David) I thought we said not a woman, didn't we? Or am I...
DAVIS: (As Dawn) OK. Well, I suppose you're the only one who...
GERVAIS: (As David) Oh, embarrassing. This has backfired, hasn't it? Oh, dear, very flattering. Can we put me in there?
DAVIS: (As Dawn) OK, Tim then.
GERVAIS: (As David) We said not Tim. So do you want to put me or not?
DAVIS: (As Dawn) OK.
GERVAIS: (As David) Right. So should I put strong role model?
DAVIS: (As Dawn) OK.
GERVAIS: (As David) Yeah.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Now, you've created this story about life in an office. Have you ever worked in an office?
GERVAIS: Yeah. I worked in an office for eight years. That's where I got it all from. I was a middle manager. I went to management training seminars where the speakers talked rubbish for two days.
GERVAIS: Yeah, I worked in an office for seven or eight years.
GROSS: Are any of the storylines in "The Office" based on things that have happened to you?
GERVAIS: Oh, let me think. Let's see. Well, the episode four in series one, where we had the guy come in train people, I remember the first training session I went to, and I remember they did role-playing. And I remember at the time thinking this is ridiculous. And it started off I'd like to complain about my room. Oh, I don't care. Well, you should. You're the manager. Well, go to another hotel then. Well, I will. And they went: That's the wrong way to do it.
And then they said OK, now we'll do it the right way to do it. And he comes in and says, well, I'd like to complain about my room. Oh, I'm very sorry, sir, what's up with it? Oh, it's just dirty. Oh, well, I'll have someone clean it, and you can have it for free. Brilliant. It was like as black and white as that, and I remember thinking: I don't know what the moral is.
GERVAIS: So I quite like spoofing role-play.
GROSS: Why don't we hear that scene? In this scene, David Brent is role-playing with the guy who's running the seminar, and David Brent is supposed to be playing the customer, and the guy running the seminar is the hotel clerk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
GERVAIS: (As David) I'd like to make a complaint, please.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't care.
GERVAIS: (As David) Well, I am staying in the hotel. So...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't care. It's not my shift.
GERVAIS: (As David) Well, you're an ambassador for the hotel.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't care. I don't care what you think.
GERVAIS: (As David) I think you'll care when I tell you what the complaint is. I think there's been a rape up there. I got his attention. Get their attention, OK?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right. So there were some interesting points, there.
GERVAIS: (As David) Very interesting points.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's not quite the point I was trying to make, David.
GERVAIS: (As David) Different points to be made.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm more into really customer care.
GERVAIS: (As David) So am I.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the way that we would deal with somebody...
GERVAIS: (As David) Maybe I should - as I thought, I should play the hotel manager, because I'm used to - I phased you. But you have a go. See if you can phase me. OK? Yeah, all right, OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello, I wish to make a complaint.
GERVAIS: (As David) Not interested.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: My room is an absolute disgrace.
GERVAIS: (As David) Don't care.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The bathroom doesn't appear to have been cleaned.
GERVAIS: (As David) What room are you in?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 362.
GERVAIS: (As David) There is no 362 in this hotel. Sometimes the complaints will be false. OK? Good.
GROSS: David completely misses the point in that, but that's so typical of him.
GERVAIS: Of course, because he wants to be top dog. He wants to be the center of attention. He couldn't - you know, he hires this guy, but then he wants to be in charge. So he's just a child. You know, it's his football, and he's got to be, you know, the most important player.
GROSS: Now, later in this same seminar, David turns the discussion into basically a Q&A about himself. And then he reveals he used to be in a band, and then he takes out his guitar, and he starts playing some songs.
GROSS: Awful, exactly. In fact, let me play some of the songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
GERVAIS: (As David) (Singing) Pretty girl on the hood of a Cadillac, yeah. She's broken down on Freeway 9. Take a look at her engine's starting, and leave her purring, and I roll on by, bye-bye. Free love on the free love freeway. The love is free, and the freeway's long. I've got some hot love on the hot love highway, and going home, because my baby's gone.
MACKENZIE CROOK: (as Gareth) (Singing ) She's dead.
GERVAIS: (As David) She's not dead.
(Singing) Long time later, see a cowboy crying. Hey buddy, what can I do? He says I lived a good life, and I've had about 1,000 women. I said, well, why the tears? He says, 'cause none of them was you.
MARTIN FREEMAN: What, you?
GERVAIS: (As David) No, he's looking at a photograph.
FREEMAN: Of you?
GERVAIS: (As David) No, of his girlfriend. The video would have shown that.
FREEMAN: Sorry. Yeah, he sounds a bit gay, though.
GERVAIS: (As David) It's not gay.
(As David) (Singing) Free love on the free love freeway. The love is free, and the freeway's long.
GROSS: That's Ricky Gervais as David Brent in a scene from the British sitcom "The Office," which is also now on DVD. Now, Ricky, I know you used to be in a band.
GROSS: Are any of these songs you used to do for real?
GERVAIS: No, no, no, no, no.
GROSS: Good. I was really hoping you'd say that.
GERVAIS: Yeah, no, of course not. No, I wrote those especially for the show. And "Free Love Freeway," I'm fascinated when British people who've never been out of their own town start writing songs about what it would be like to cross America.
GERVAIS: You know, they might as well talk about space travel. Though, again, the joke there wasn't that he was bad, or the songs were comical, it was the fact that it was so inappropriate. He's meant to be leading a training session, but he wants to show off. And I love that. Same as, like, people who take a guitar to a party, you know.
GERVAIS: It's just, like, shut up.
GROSS: The other great thing about this scene is that he does all these horrible things that make you so uncomfortable when a bad performer is singing in a small room. He looks people in the eyes in this kind of dreamy way.
GERVAIS: Yeah, excruciating, isn't it?
GERVAIS: Absolutely excruciating, the white man overbite to show he's really getting into it.
GROSS: Oh, yes, he bites his lip to show how sensitive he's being.
GERVAIS: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, awful.
GROSS: Now, as a musician yourself, is this something that you've done or that you've just...
GERVAIS: I'll stop you there: failed musician. Let's get it right.
GROSS: OK, that's fine.
GERVAIS: No, I hope I was never like that. And it was...
GROSS: But you've seen people be that way?
GERVAIS: And I wasn't 40. So I hope there's enough distance between me and David Brent, then.
BIANCULLI: Ricky Gervais, star and co-creator of the original British series "The Office," speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. We'll continue our salute to the American version of "The Office" - which began in 2005 and ends next week - in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.