Born Ricky Dene Gervais on June 25, 1961, in Reading, England, Gervais grew up in a working-class neighborhood with three older siblings. His father worked as a day laborer, while his mother, a homemaker, was known for her wit. She helped make humor an integral part of Gervais’s childhood. According to Gervais, teasing was the norm at the family dinner table. “The whole point of my family was taking the mickey out of the one sitting next to you,” Gervais told The Sunday Times newspaper
Excelling at school, Gervais went on to study at University College London where he earned a degree in philosophy. Gervais spent several of his postgraduate years working for the university, hiring bands to play there. For a while, he also pursued his own musical aspirations as the lead singer of a new-wave rock group called Seona Dancing. The band scored a minor hit in the Philippines with the 1985 single “More to Lose.” Gervais also managed the yet-unsigned band Suede for a brief time.
In 1997, Gervais went to work for Xfm, a London radio station. There he hired future collaborator Stephen Merchant to work as his assistant. Gervais landed his own nightly program on the station, but he left after Xfm was bought out by another company. He then landed some comedy work, including writing and appearing in sketches for the BBC TV shows Bruiser and Golden Years. He then began a regular role on the popular comedy series The 11 O’Clock Show. Buoyed by the success of his stint on the show, he got his own program: the talk show Meet Ricky Gervais. The program proved to be short lived, but during his run on the series Gervais started working with Merchant on an idea that would become his first smash hit
Together they developed the idea for a sitcom called The Office, in which Gervais starred as David Brent, a clueless and self-deluded manager at an English paper company. Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker described the character as “the epitome of middle-management weaselliness. Brent is the sort of grinning, deluded guy who thinks his employees laugh at his awful jokes because they think he’s a stitch rather than just the [guy] who signs their paychecks.” The series examined the interactions between Brent and his colleagues using the comic innovation of the mockumentary—a spoof of documentary filming—with characters sometimes speaking directly to the camera and sharing telling looks with the camera person.
The Office earned high praise from critics and won over numerous fans in Britain, who tuned in to watch this sometimes cringe-inducing comedy. In 2003, after only two seasons, Gervais and Merchant decided to end the show. He explained the rationale behind this decision to People magazine: “It won’t get any better,” he said. “The quality will go down. I don’t want to let people down.”
Gervais began developing quite a fan base in the United States after The Office was aired on the BBC America cable channel. With his growing fame, he started receiving many film and television offers. He turned down roles in such box office hits as Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and The Da Vinci Code, but he accepted a chance to play a villain on the TV spy drama Alias. He reportedly told The Da Vinci Codedirector Ron Howard that “I’m very flattered, but I’m a comedian . . . This is a very serious film. People will laugh and go, ‘That’s the guy from The Office,'” he told Entertainment Weekly.
For his efforts on The Office, he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy in 2004. Gervais launched two new television projects the following year, Extras and an American version of The Office starring Steve Carell. On Extras, he and Merchant wrote a behind-the-scenes comedy about Hollywood. The show covered many of the same themes as The Office—”ego, desperation, men behaving like boys,” he explained to Newsweek. This time around, however, Gervais played the more jaded, world-weary actor Andy Millman. The series poked fun at numerous celebrities, such as Kate Winslet and David Bowie, who made cameo appearances.
Also in 2005, Gervais took over another form of media. His video podcast, The Ricky Gervais Show, became one of the most popular downloads on the Internet. Currently on hiatus, the show featured the humorous exploits of Gervais, Merchant, and Karl Pilkington. The program later inspired the 2010 animated series, which debuted on HBO that February.
For his work on both Extras and the American version of The Office, Gervais received countless award nominations. He won two Emmy Awards—one for Outstanding Comedy Series for The Office in 2006 and one for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Extras in 2007. After Extras ended, Gervais did a stand-up comedy tour and landed some leading film roles.
In the comedy Ghost Town (2008), Gervais starred as a man who can see dead people. He worked both sides of the camera for 2009’s The Invention of Lying—writing, co-directing and acting in the project. In the film, Gervais starred opposite Jennifer Gardner, playing the only person in the world able to lie. Some critics noted that this humorous film had its more serious moments, offering up its jabs at organized religion, among other topics.
Gevais returned to British television in 2011 with Life’s Too Short, a faux documentary series that he describes as a “cross between The Office and Extras.” The show stars actor and little person Warwick Davis, and follows his efforts to achieve stardom. As with his previous series, Extras, a number of big Hollywood names made cameo appearances, including Johnny Depp. He then went on to create Derek, which debuted in 2012. Gervais stars as an offbeat nursing home worker on the show. His portrayal of this quirky character brought him an Emmy Award nomination in 2014 and 2015. On the big screen, he got a chance to play the villain in the latest Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted.
Besides his work on film and stage, Gervais is also an author. He has written several children’s books about imaginary animals, including Flanimals (2005) and Flanimals Pop-Up (2010). The desire to make up these fictional creatures came from his childhood. “The first thing I wanted to be was a marine biologist. Then I wanted to be a vet,” Gervais told Entertainment Weekly. These characters will soon find their way to the big screen in the form of an upcoming animated film.
Gervais lives in London with his girlfriend Jane Fallon, a television producer. The couple has been together for more than 20 years.
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Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.
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