'It's money for old rope' | Ricky Gervais on his animated podcasts

'It's money for old rope'

Ricky Gervais on his animated podcasts

When Ricky Gervais started making his podcasts with chums Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, it seemed like a bold experiment in creating comedy without the constraints of a broadcaster, without the meddling of countless producers and commissioners diluting the idea.

What happened next is well-known. It became such a record-breaking success that he began charging for it, either by the download or on CD. Then it was picked up by America’s HBO broadcaster and made into an animated series – those original recordings brought to life by cartoons in the style of vintage Hanna-Barbera. And now, the show has been snapped up by Channel 4.

‘This will be the third time we’ve been paid for this shit,’ Gervais admits. ‘It is money for old rope.’

Depending on your opinion of him, this is Gervais displaying his usual irony, or simply being arrogantly honest, and hoping to use irony to cloak it. It’s true, certainly, that for a man usually so concerned with his televisual legacy that he sweated over every line and every shot in The Office or Extras, the show that actually bears his name is a lot less polished – and therefore carries less of sense of occasion – than his previous work.

‘These are real, unmanipulated conversations we had, simply because we thought it was funny,’ he says. ‘We really like the podcasts. I did them simply to be in a room with Karl and Steve. I did it for a laugh.’

The idea for an animation, however, wasn’t his. ‘People had started doing it anyway, putting it on YouTube,’ he admits in a press junket in Channel 4’s London headquarters. ‘Wild Brain [who eventually made the Ricky Gervais Show] approached us with a two-minute bit; that was all they could afford.

‘The animation is retro and cuddly. We didn’t want it to be to spiky. The material is a bit “out there” with taboo subjects, so we had to show it was safe.’

‘The cartoon has slightly more features than Karl has in real life. He looks like Charlie Brown, while Stephen looks like a goggle-eyed freak.

Merchant adds: ‘We asked them to make him look like Fred from Scooby-Doo.’

Pilkington is undoubtedly the butt of jokes in the podcasts. ‘We play roles,’ Gervais sayd. ‘I’m a bully who’s constantly frustrated because I want to show off my knowledge. Steve is the mediator… Karl is the idiot savant.’

‘Savant was generous,’ Merchant interjects sardonically. In life, as in the podcasts, he speaks much less often than the conversation-dominating Gervais. But when he does say something, it’s often a well-placed bon mot.

‘Karl thought Anne Frank was just avoiding paying rent,’ Gervais adds. ‘There’s no malice, its ignorance. He has a childlike quality.

‘If there’s something to come of this, it’s not more money. The best I can get out of this is that Karl becomes famous and he’ll hate it.’

He then turns to his whipping-boy and admits: ‘Sometimes I forget you’re a real person.’

‘He’s a fuckwit,’ Merchant offers.

During the press conference, Pilkington appears disinterested – either playing up to the nonchalance that defines his podcast role or simply being himself. ‘I never wanted any of this,’ he says, before turning to the gathered journalists and saying: ‘I don’t know if you enjoyed it, but it doesn’t matter to me

‘He’s never enjoyed anything at the time,’ Gervais explains. ‘Only in retrospect.’ Pilkington concurs: ‘The only thing I enjoy at the time is Munchies.’

Gervais says his fascination with Pilkington’s views is genuine, saying that whenever he hears about something ‘the first call I make is to Karl. It’s not enough to experience the world, I need to know what Karl thinks. He’s like a reaction shot, a Brodie’s Notes for the world.’

‘But Brodie has left the room and a chimp has climbed on to the typewriter,’ Merchant suggests.

The trio know some people might hate the podcast, either in its audio or cartoon form, but happily shrug that off.

‘Everything we’ve ever done has come from The Office but people who love the podcast most might not like The Office and Extras,’ Gervais says. And if that includes reviewers? ‘Complaining about critics is like a sailor complaining about waves. There are good and bad critics like there are good and bad artists - a good one will always say why he doesn’t like something.

‘I assume more people hate The Office than like it – but who wants to be an anodyne national treasure? I’ve never done stuff for the common consensus; I’ve done it for me.’

However, he says he did try to ensure the televisual version of the podcasts offered something the originals never did. ‘People listened to the podcast, so to justify it being on TV there has to be another angle,’ he said – and that included cutaways to illustrate Pilkington’s unique train of thought. But Gervais was insistent: ‘We didn’t want them to suggest something Karl didn’t mean.’

Nor did he exclude any British references simply because the TV version was being made for an American broadcaster.

‘I watch The Wire and get it,’ he said. ‘If The Simpsons do a joke about a politician I don’t know, I still get it on some level. People are smart. If the odd cultural reference passes you by, who cares?’

Even if the animated version does bring a new audience to the podcast, Gervais says he’ll be reluctant to make any more recordings… not least because success might destroy the innocence of Pilkington’s comments made when it was simply a chat among mates, not an international TV phenomenon.

‘We probably won’t done any more,’ he said, adding that there is plenty of raw material for future TV programmes. ‘We’ve done an awful lot – 40 or 50 hours, The animators will all be dead by the time they do it all.

‘And I like the idea of it existing in a bubble. If this takes off worldwide, Karl will be ruined.’

  • The Ricky Gervais Show starts on Channel 4 at 10.30pm on Friday (April 23)

Here is a sample:

Published: 20 Apr 2010

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