Ricky Gervais On Controversial Jokes, Celebrities And 'Special Correspondents'

Eric Bana and Ricky Gervais play an unethical radio journalist and his engineer in Special Correspondents. (Netflix)
Eric Bana and Ricky Gervais play an unethical radio journalist and his engineer in Special Correspondents. (Netflix)

Ricky Gervais always seems to be working on something new. Whether it's producing a TV show, writing a movie, voicing a cartoon character, or hosting the Golden Globes, the comedian keeps busy.

The writer/producer/actor/director is in the new film Special Correspondents, which he wrote and directed, now streaming on Netflix. The movie follows two radio journalists, played by Eric Bana and Gervais, who are assigned to Ecuador to report on a war. But Gervais' character throws away their passports and money by accident. Stuck in New York City, the two decide to fake their war reporting from above a Spanish restaurant instead.

"You might as well watch it, it's free. And I've been paid, I don't care if you watch it or not," Gervais laughs.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Gervais spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about being famous, his infamous Caitlyn Jenner joke at the Golden Globes, and a bit about his new movie.


Interview Highlights

On Special Correspondents and news

Ricky Gervais: On the face of it, it looks like a swipe at [the] media and journalism and information. I think its real target is fame itself, and what people do for a shortcut in life. Obviously I exaggerate the severity of it because they don't actually, they don't cause a war. They don't hide a war. But they just pretend they're at a war. It's not a huge immoral lie. And we've seen people do that in real life — they just exaggerate how close they were to the war.

But in real life — now the news is sort of entertainment now, so if they can make it seem a little bit more exciting than it is — even with the weather they say things like, "Well there's a hurricane coming tomorrow and it's going to destroy humanity, so stay tuned to this channel."

Rachel Martin: Because we'll still be here but everyone else will be gone. We'll miraculously survive.

Gervais: Yeah, exactly. And then the next day when it wasn't as bad, they'd say, "Ah well it wasn't as bad as we thought," and they've got pictures of a few roofs. But of course, they want you to keep watching. News is entertainment, really.

On celebrity

Martin: For someone who has so many philosophical, ideological problems and qualms, concerns about celebrity, you've chosen an awfully difficult career.

Gervais: Well no, because I've never been a part of it. I think I became famous at an age when I already knew who I was, so it didn't define me. I wasn't famous until 39, 40, so you know who you are then. You've looked at it from the outside, then you start analyzing it from the inside, and it's funny.

I didn't want to be lumped in with those people who do anything to become famous. There's people who live their lives like an open wound, there are people now who do terrible things but get rewarded because they're honest about it. Or they film it. We're soon going to have a reality TV show called Celebrity Enema. You know, people will do anything. People would rather be thought of as an idiot than not thought of at all. I've seen it on Twitter, people would rather be hated than not known. It's crazy – they did a survey amongst 10-year-olds recently and they asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. And they said famous – not even a footballer, or a pop star.

And that's another thing – everybody thinks they can become a singer now. ... We're going to run out of doctors because everyone's going to want to sing. So I think the honest answer is I feared it, but I never signed that contract. I never said to anyone, "Make me famous and you can go through my bins." I knew it was a snapshot for what I did. I was famous for something, I had to be proud of what I did to become famous, and also I'm much better with it now.

On humor and the Golden Globes

Gervais: People use things like "targets of your jokes" and I don't consider them targets, I consider them subjects. And that's where offense comes most awful — when people confuse the target of a joke with the subject of a joke. And I didn't go out there to ruin everyone's day or undermine the moral fabric of America. I was making jokes. And I'm the butt of my jokes as well, and it's our attitude.

I wasn't picking on anyone, and I wasn't picking on anything that people can't help. I tease them about things they've done in public that wasn't privileged information — everyone knows they did it and I made a joke about it. Very often, I'm inviting them back into polite society. But it wasn't a room full of wounded soldiers — this was a room full of some of the most privileged, rich people in the world with some idiot from England teasing them a bit. And I really think offense is the collateral damage of freedom of speech and freedom of speech is one of our greatest privileges. ...

I've seen people say, "Ricky Gervais made this terrible joke." And they say the joke, and it is terrible, but they've got it slightly wrong. Or they've misunderstood it because they've missed a word or changed one side of the pun or play on words and I think no, you didn't get the joke. You're allowed not to like my jokes. When I go up and I do stand-up, I cherish the gasps as much as the laughs because they're like, "(Gasp) You shouldn't be saying that," and then they laugh because they get it. So I don't mind people not liking my stuff, but to criticize it, I think they should understand it.

On a controversial joke about Caitlyn Jenner

Gervais: That's the thing about taboo subjects – they see the subject and it's an emotional response to it. That's my thing, he shouldn't be saying things about that. But if you analyze the joke, there's nothing transphobic about that joke at all. I clearly get into it by saying, "I'm going to be nice tonight, I've changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner of course." Now first of all, people didn't like me dead-naming. I'd never heard that word before, "dead-naming."

Martin: Which is when you identify the previous identity.

Gervais: It was Bruce Jenner that changed. Are we to say that Bruce Jenner never existed? That wasn't a person? Well it was. And I understand that some say, "Well he didn't change. He was always trans and now he's come out." I accept that as well. But the important thing was that I wasn't making a joke about the transition. I was making a joke about her driving, clearly. So I say, "I've changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner of course. What a role model, became a role model for trans people everywhere — breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes," and here's the joke: "Didn't do a lot for women drivers."

So that's clearly a shift in expectation. So I've accepted Caitlyn Jenner for who she is now and the joke is that she broke down barriers and stereotypes, and now I hit them with a stereotype of women drivers being bad but the joke is that actually Caitlyn Jenner ran someone over. So there's nothing in the slightest sexist.

Martin: If you had known about the dead-naming phenomenon, would you have changed that joke?

Gervais: What, that you can't say in the slightest that Bruce Jenner existed?

Martin: That that's considered offensive.

Gervais: Well, I do know about it and I've just done it three times in this interview, but I hope we're all grown-ups, and I hope you're allowed to use words that may be politically charged if you're doing it in context. I have to say that name to explain this joke, so it's ridiculous that you can't. Words don't have power outside the context in which they have that power, so we should be allowed as adults to discuss anything — that's the important thing. So if someone just tuned in here, and hears me say Bruce Jenner, they'll say that's terrible and he shouldn't say that. Well why shouldn't I say it? We're having an intellectual discussion here. Of course I should be allowed to say any word that is needed in this discussion.

Is there someone who always thinks you're funny?

Gervais: I doubt it. I don't know. I think your question was about is there anyone you trust. I always run things by my girlfriend, there's absolutely no agenda with her other than the truth. When I come up with something [for] a joke, I run it by her, she says, "Please don't say that in public," and I know it's good.

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