The Great Gervais

010806 article nytv The Great GervaisAt 3 p.m. on Dec. 15, Ricky Gervais stood opposite a picture of his own round face, blown up to three times its size and resting on an easel in the lobby of the HBO building in midtown.

Look what they’ve done to my teeth,” he said, jabbing a finger at his jaw, his voice tripping into a squeal.

In the picture, part of a poster advertising the Jan. 14 second-season premiere of his show Extras, Mr. Gervais’ teeth are bright white and straight; his skin is tan and smooth, his hair just so. He wears black plastic sunglasses with stars on them, and there’s a tasteful dimple pinched into his right cheek.

In person, in a large, white-ish T-shirt and jeans, the comedian and character actor is a more stereotypically British specimen: pallid skin, slight beard growth, a smile defiantly untamed by orthodontics. Mr. Gervais was tickled by the Photoshopping. Leaning in to examine his perfect, three-inch-tall digital dimple, he giggled. It is one of the qualities his fans find most endearing: Mr. Gervais—a chubby, irritable, viceless, dark, British, atheist genius—laughs like a 9-year-old girl.

“Hoo-hoo!” he cooed. “I’ve gone Hollywood.”

The airbrushing of his giant head is just one more amusing byproduct of Mr. Gervais’ unsought-after and unenjoyed superstardom, a result of the tremendous success of his BBC masterpiece The Office.

Mr. Gervais, 45, hates being famous. He’s writing a stand-up act about it now, called Fame. The new season of Extras, in which he plays fortysomething wannabe actor Andy Millman, takes the lures and perils of notoriety as its main subject.

It all comes through in one particular scene near the end of the season premiere. Andy, who has sold a pilot to the BBC, slumps over to the craft-services table on-set after losing another creative bout with the network suits, who are turning his highbrow comedy into a schlocky sitcom. There he encounters Sean, a middling extra who claims to have given up a supporting role on the EastEnders because the writers were cheapening his character. “I just think you gotta do what you think is right,” Sean tells him prophetically.

Inspired, Andy marches over to Ian, the BBC executive. “This isn’t the comedy I set out to make,” he says. “In fact, I think it’s awful.”

Ian suggests they hash this out in private.

“I don’t care who hears what I have to say,” Andy says, “because I’m at that point now. Everyone’s interfered. It’s embarrassing. I don’t want to be on television for the sake of it. I don’t want to be famous for the sake of it. I want to do something that I’m proud of, and I won’t be proud of shouting out catchphrases in a stupid wig and funny glasses. I want to do what I want to do, otherwise I’ll hate myself for the rest of my life. And I tell you what, a case in point—Sean on EastEnders. They started to turn his character into a joke, and he walked away, at the top of his game. That’s called integrity. It doesn’t matter what happens to him now, ’cause he’s got his dignity.”

Sean, who has filled his coat with candy from the catering table, is watching off-camera. Just as Andy finishes speaking, a few pieces of candy fall to the ground. Then, in an extended gag, the candy comes pouring out from the bottom of his coat, as if from a punctured piñata.

The scene pretty much captures Mr. Gervais’ current worldview. Everywhere he goes, he faces down his own outsized self.

“I have to be louder, more confident, slightly more outrageous than normal,” he said on Dec. 30, on the phone from London, where he lives with his girlfriend of 20 years, a television producer. This makes the standup work a particular exertion. “If it was just me, I’d go up there and say, ‘I don’t really feel like talking.’ But show business doesn’t allow that.”

At the beginning of December, Mr. Gervais was in town for two weeks, helping to promote Night at the Museum, a movie he did with his friend Ben Stiller. Mr. Stiller stars in the film as a head-in-the-clouds security guard at the Museum of Natural History. The plot revolves confusingly around a magical Egyptian tablet that causes the museum exhibits to anthropomorphize after dark. Robin Williams plays Teddy Roosevelt. Dick Van Dyke is one of the villains. Mr. Gervais does a turn as the stammering, inept guy-in-charge—another David Brent, the ne plus ultra of idiot bosses, only in this case with not enough screen time.

Mr. Gervais likes the film because “I’m hooked for anything that starts with a big sweeping shot of Central Park,” he said.

On one of his last days in the city, Mr. Gervais went over to HBO for a two-hour lunch. He had the Caesar salad followed by chicken with gravy, Perrier and a latte. He talked about God, mostly, with side rants about cigarettes, racism, censorship, evangelicals, John Stuart Mill and corporal punishment. He said nothing about Extras, Night at the Museum, his new children’s book, the very successful American version of The Office (of which he is an executive producer), the Christopher Guest movie For Your Consideration (in which he played a small role), or any of his other upcoming projects.

“I don’t even know if it’s innate to be good, to be sociable,” he said in response to a question about his Christmas plans, which led to a discussion of his religious beliefs, or lack thereof, which lead to a monologue about personal morality. “I have no idea. We know what’s right and wrong. We do know that. But I know that I don’t do it for a reward because there isn’t everlasting life. It’s a shame. It’d be great. It’d be amazing. But I’m just—I’m afraid it’s not true. It’s regrettable. It’d be amazing if there were a God. But there isn’t.”

Mr. Gervais holds a degree in philosophy from University College London. The only novel he’s ever read start to finish is The Catcher in the Rye. When he was a little boy, he used to draw pictures of Jesus—“I thought he was terrific. I thought he was a superhero”—until his brother set him straight.

He spent Boxing Day with his family. They got him “socks, jumpers, T-shirts and whiskey.” His girlfriend got him a “lovely carving, a 17th-century Russian box.” He got her a laptop. They had a happy secular Christmas all by themselves, he said. “We painted the house black and I sacrificed a goat.”

Fame will be his third major stand-up act. The first was called Animals, the second Politics. “The title is just a vehicle,” he said. “Those things often are a Trojan horse as a structure to go off on tangents.” This show will be the “purest” in that it is shaping up to be the most autobiographical, he said. “I’m basically myself, but now and then I get things wrong for comic effect.”

He prefers television—although the tension of live comedy does hold a certain appeal. “I like people wondering whether they should laugh or not,” he said. “There is something nice about worrying people for a split second. It’s naughty.”

He explained the problem with most comedy these days. “Good observational comedy is not saying something everyone’s thinking,” he said. “It’s saying something nobody’s thinking until you said it.

“I see these comedians and they’re saying things like, ‘Who remembers ABBA?’ And they get a cheer. And I’m like, ‘What’s that?’ Or, ‘Old people say funny things, don’t they?’ I’ll go, ‘Well, what are you doing with it? That’s found art, that’s all right—but what are you doing with it?’ It’s lazy.”

Mr. Gervais stars in Extras alongside Stephen Merchant, his creative partner and co-writer on The Office. The two recently guest-wrote an episode of the American version of The Office, which stars Steve Carell and which, together with Howie Mandel’s twice-weekly bikini-lady-suitcase-funshow Deal or No Deal, is sustaining all of NBC. Mr. Merchant plays Mr. Gervais’ loser agent in Extras.

“He was doing some standup recently,” Mr. Gervais said, “and his character was a loser blaming the audience for not laughing. There was a guy before him doing the difference between black people and white people, and the audience could not be laughing harder. He thought, ‘So why am I doing this?’ And I said, ‘Because they’re not your audience. You don’t want them.’ The people coming to my shows aren’t the same people going to those shows and laughing when someone says, ‘You know, it’s weird—you bring an umbrella, it doesn’t rain. But you don’t, and it does!’ My head bursts when I hear observational comedy like that.”

These sorts of things weigh heavily on Mr. Gervais.

“Arguing whether something is funny with someone is like arguing whether they’ve got a pain in their leg,” he said. “Largely pointless.”

In the second episode of this season of Extras, Mr. Gervais has written perhaps the finest tragicomic scene for television since David Brent received notice of his redundancy while wearing a chicken suit in the second season of the original Office.

Andy goes to a fancy pub, where a few respectable British showbiz types are taunting him about his crappy TV show. Depressed, Andy buys his way into the V.I.P. area, where he pours his heart out to David Bowie. “I think I’ve sold out, to be honest,” he says. Mr. Bowie listens sympathetically, then swivels around to a previously unseen piano. The entire crowd at the restaurant gathers around, and Mr. Bowie improvises a song.

“Little fat man who sold his soul,” Mr. Bowie sings. He progresses to a vision of Andy’s suicide. “Fatso takes his own life. He blows his bloated face off. No—he blows his stupid brains out. He sold his soul for a shot at fame, catchphrase and wig and the jokes are lame.” The crowd gleefully joins in for a chorus. “Little fat man with the pug-nose face!”

Mr. Gervais sits by on the couch, a fake smile fading from his cheeks.