STEPHEN MERCHANT Talks The Ricky Gervais Show


In anticipation of the premiere of HBO’s new series, THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW, executive producer and co-host Stephen Merchant took some time to answer a few questions from the press.

The Ricky Gervais Show is based on a series of pointless conversations/podcasts that Ricky Grevais and Stephen Merchant (both creators of The Office and Extras) had with their friend Karl Pilkington.

Stephen Merchant talked about the decision to make the show animated, how they come up with the things they talk about each episode, Monkey News, possible future plans and more. So enjoy and make sure you tune in and watch The Ricky Gervais Show when it premieres this Friday, February 19, at 9pm on HBO.

On the decision to do the show as an animation.

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 you know 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 you know maybe we should take that idea on really and sort of apply kind of a professional approach to it. And that’s sort of how it ended up where it is.

On how long it took to approve the animated versions of themselves.

Stephen Merchant: Well you know part of the impulse was to bring Karl to a wide audience really. We’ve got this kind of cult following, but we wanted to sort of bring him to people who were not familiar with is way of looking at the world.
And as I said the animation was one way of doing that. But also we sort of thought for us for some reason we want the animation to be kind of quite simple, quite elegant, quite old-fashioned. You know we were citing things like Hanna-Barbera and the Flintstones.
And you know they’ve made me look like a kind of lanky, goggle-eyed nerd. I don’t know why they’ve gone down that road but there we are. But if that’s what they think will entertain people so be it.
And I’m quite charmed by it. I think they sort of captured something about us.

On when they realized they had comedy gold with Karl Pilkington.

Stephen Merchant: 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. And we asked him a question I mean 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 every day out on the show we would ask him just a few 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 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.”
And you know just would pipe up with questions you know, “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.
But then also just his unique approach to the world. He just sees the world differently and that’s magical in him.

On how they come up with the things they talk about each episode.

Stephen Merchant: 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.
But yes he’s fascinated by science but has no grasp of it. Philosophy but 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.

On why Karl Pilkington lets himself get “abused” by him and Ricky Gervais.

Stephen Merchant: Well there are a couple of things. One is he doesn’t care. He’s not – this is not something that concerns him. As far as he’s concerned it’s a minor part of his life. He’s got important things to do.
He needs to go home, his girlfriend needs him to do the washing up. He has himself recurring problems with his you know maintenance of his boiler of his house. He has a lot of repairmen that come around who don’t seem to be getting the job done.
Sometimes you’ll phone him up and he’s just watching ants in the garden or he’s watching a wasp slowly die. This seems to be what his life involves and this podcasting and stuff is just a distraction – an occasional distraction for him.
So he doesn’t really care. He doesn’t understand why anyone would find this interesting. He’s aware that people are. He’s aware that we’re sort of laughing at him but he really could care less.
He just goes about his business and you know he doesn’t set out to be funny. He doesn’t – he just operates in a different way to other people.
He’s not trying to be famous. He would hate to be famous. One of Ricky’s motivations for doing this is to try to make Karl famous. Because it would amuse Ricky to see Karl being harangued in the street by fans. This would make him laugh.
So he is a very unusual man. He’s just you know he’s kind of eccentric in the old sense. And he is aware of what we’re doing. He’s not being exploited in that sense. You know he is fully aware. He gets paid you know. But he just I don’t know. He’s just happy to turn up and talk really.
I mean to him it’s easy. Why would he not? If people are interested in this then so be it because he looks to us thinking we’re morons for listening. Really. You would be a moron to him. He’s laughing at you in the way you’re laughing at him probably.

On how they came up with the feature Monkey News.

Stephen Merchant: 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, for some reason he would come in and he had read something else about monkeys on the Web and he 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 would tell us whatever he read about monkeys that week on the Internet but obviously they were clearly spurious stories – notes and stories that would almost certainly begin with you know some construction site somewhere where the best worker in the world was this guy that no one ever saw and he got paid in bananas and he would swing from tree to 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 zoo keeper’s back. It was just and he was swallowing this stuff hook, line, and sinker you know.
So yes that became a feature of the show.

On whether he is more comfortable with ad-libbing or scripted work.

Stephen Merchant: 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.
You’re just so less aware of an audience. You know stand up comedy but I like to hone that. I like to rework it out. I’m not terribly comfortable improvising you know completely whereas with something like radio or podcasting or audio books, there is just a different freedom. You just sort of forget that people might ever listen to it.
So you loosen up and that brings something different with it. Although most of the working that we can do comes out of improvisation and we improvise in the room. You know we improvise and we toss stuff around and then we refine what we’ve come out up you know.
So there is always a sense of refinement and an editing process that happens. You know the idea that you could just go on stage let’s say like Robin Williams and just ad-lib for 40 minutes just seems insane to me.

On whether he minds when people comment on his height.

Stephen Merchant: I’m just happy that there’s an angle you know. It seems to me that if I do comedy and if you’re a comedian it is nice to have something that people can associate with you you know. Woody Allen has a very definite persona. He was a big hero of mine. I feel like I could draw of Woody Allen you know.
And in a weird way, 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 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 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 you know my height you know anything really. That doesn’t concern – and I’m not opening up to people. I mean 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 just thought they could talk about it because I think it 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.

On whether they are doing something with NBC’s “The Office” next year.

(Rick Porter): You know there have been a few things floating around about you guys doing something else with the NBC Office maybe next year, I was wondering if (anything) sort of concrete plan.

Stephen Merchant: 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 you know obviously rightly proud of the show and big fans of the show and so it’s not that we wouldn’t want to do something. We just haven’t made any definite plans to do anything.
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 diary is going to be empty and he’s going to wake up next year and there will be nothing planned.
He constantly sort of makes plans and I’m always having to say, listen, no, wait. You’ve already given yourself a thousand things to do. So sorry to sort of dampen any fires there, but there is no sort of solid plans yet.