Press Tour: Ricky Gervais insists quirky ‘Derek’ is a ‘show about kindness’

“The Office” mastermind Ricky Gervais came to press tour to talk to journalists about “Derek,” his new “bittersweet comedy drama” for NetFlix. The show is a mockumentary following the misfit Derek as he works at an underfunded senior living facility. Fans of the more acid “The Office” and “Extras” may be taken aback by the poignancy of the new show, a shift the star noted. “There’s some more dramatic moments than ‘The Office’ or ‘Extras,’ maybe, and probably more, it’s sweeter… [it] still has the existentialism of ‘The Office,’ but here it’s not about being 30 [years old], it’s about being 80 and 90, and the residents are 80 and 90 and are in homes themselves, so it has that reality. It’s very funny, it is a sitcom, and a lot of it is plotted and character-led, but it’s set in an old people’s home, so they die sometimes.”

Gervais also addressed the fact that he plays Derek, a character who seems to have special needs. “I don’t really think of the risk. I treat everything I do with a Darwinian approach. I do what excites me at the time… it’s always risk, though. I think the reward is hopefully everything I do is the favorite thing I’ve done so far. And that’s certainly the case with is. The risk is people not watching it and making assumptions… that it is cruel. I think that follows you around. I think the risk in my work is being misunderstood. That’s all. Some people don’t get it. Some people get it and don’t like it.

He also talked about the casting of non-actor and globetrotting curmudgeon Karl Pilkington (“An Idiot Abroad”) as Dougie, a balding handyman in the facility. “He was very nervous. I did the pilot, and he said, ‘I’m not an actor.’ I told him I wrote the part for him. And he’s fantastic. For one scene, he said ‘But I wasn’t acting, I actually got angry.’ I said that is acting. ‘No, I’m still shaking.’ He does it exquisitely. I told him Dougie I’d based on Karl, and that annoyed him, but he said, ‘You’re probably right.'”

Though the show is hardly a typical sitcom and deals with some surprisingly difficult issues (judging from the two episodes sent to critics), Gervais assured the audience that the show is more familiar than it might seem. “As strange and quirky as it might look, [about] a group of outsiders working in an old folk’s home, it’s classic sitcom. There’s a family… a literal family, or a forced family… us against the world. Whoever you fight against, you’re brothers in arms. And they have to be trapped in some way. Either literally, a war or a prison, or emotionally. They can’t get out of it… it’s a show about kindness, first and foremost, that’s why they’re flawed characters.” 

Still, Gervais did confess that the show grapples with real issues. “In England, we sometimes forget our elderly. We can’t wait to get rid of them. Hannah is a real carer, she’s very maternal to everyone, protects everything. Derek is childlike in his awe of the world… Kev is like an awful lodger, a pervert, the bad son… And Dougie is the sort of dad holding it all together and protecting them from the world.” He added that writing about a senior facility allowed him to draw on real life. “Six of my family are carers, for Alzeimer’s, old people, and I’ve always written about what I know. I worked in an office for ten years… but this is a return to normality.” 

Noting that he initially considered making the character of Derek an autograph hunter when he dreamt him up “10 or 12” years ago. “I’ve had my swipes at fame out of my system, I think. And now it’s about things that really matter.” 

As to why he took the show to the strange new world of scripted programming on NetFlix, Gervais said it wasn’t about turning his back on the networks. “I’ve never said, screw that thing, i’m doing something else. I’ve said, I’m loving this thing and doing something else… I embraced the Internet from the beginning. I was one of the first people to do a high profile podcast 10 years ago. I did it for fun. I just left the radio show because I was doing ‘The Office,’ and I loved doing it, but now I can do it when I want, it’s global, which is very exciting, it’s your own morality that dictates what’s tasteful and what isn’t. It excites me that the podcasts have been downloaded 300 million times… I didn’t have to put my hand up in an executive meeting. Ive always wanted to have final edit.”

The decision to go to NetFlix wasn’t about greater creative freedom, however. “I’ve always demanded final edit… it’s the most important thing to me. It doesn’t matter who watches or how much it makes, if it’s not all yours it’s no fun to me. I remember telling Karl, a camel is a horse designed by committee. Karl didn’t quite understand… but if you keep looking at the stats and what makes it in a certain area, that’s why the same romcoms come out every three weeks. They’re the same. If you keep force feeing people white bread, they won’t like brown bread… There’s 7 billion people on this planet. If you can get final edit, there’s gonna be enough people to say, it’s my favorite thing.”

Speaking of swipes at fame, Gervais admitted that he won’t be watching the next Golden Globes this year. “I start filming the new Muppet movie next week. I enjoyed the last three dog votes… to be the most feared man in Hollywood for three hours is so much fun.”