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Questionable taste

Ricky Gervais describes the pleasures and pitfalls of being interviewed
November 1, 2012

As his Golden Globes hosting gigs have shown, Ricky Gervais is not afraid to say what he thinks. So who better to consult about the odd tribal rite that is the Hollywood publicity junket? These highly efficient PR marathons, in which dozens of journalists rotate through the same nondescript set for a few precious minutes with the star, are the reason you see, hear, and read more or less the same soundbites over and over the week a new film or TV show debuts. Gervais is currently promoting his new app (Just Sayin), several TV series, and his latest comedy shows, as well as Learn English with Ricky Gervais, “the YouTube translation project,” which invites viewers to provide subtitles in other languages and then repost them to YouTube (et voilà, “A New Landmark in Human Comprehension”!). So Gervais knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of press queries. CJR’s Cyndi Stivers sent along questions by email.

What is the largest number of interviews you’ve done in a single day?

Probably about 40 five-minute interviews for a film. It doesn’t sound like hard work, sitting in a chair and talking about yourself all day, but it is quite mentally exhausting. And nowadays, it’s harder than ever before, because even though you get asked the same questions over and over again, you want to give slightly different answers, because now people have access to everything you do. You don’t want the same anecdote popping up on every website, chat show, and entertainment news channel. Still, mustn’t grumble.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being utter disgust and 10 being profound respect, where would you peg your attitude toward the entertainment media?

It’s an industry. And like any other industry, there are good and bad people, ethical and unethical practices, truth and lies. It’s what you make it, and you choose what crowd you roll with. I’ve been lucky, in the sense that I own my own labor. I’m not really beholden to anyone, so my decisions have been based on what was fun to do. I’ve never done a job for a million pounds that I wouldn’t have done for free. I didn’t give the money back, though, obviously. That would be crazy. Haha. It’s as good as any other business, I guess, and probably more fun.

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Other than this one, what is the most idiotic question you’ve ever gotten from a reporter?

Once I did a light-hearted Q&A, and the journalist asked me three things I’d save from my house in a fire. I said, “Oh, my cat . . .  My salamander . . .  Three, you say? . . . Uhm . . . Probably one of the twins.”

Now, I thought this was an obvious joke, but the article came out with no hint of irony. Later that week, I did another interview, and the journalist asked me what my twins’ names were. I pointed out that I didn’t have any twins, and if I did, I’d almost certainly save them both before the salamander.

What was the most thought-provoking question?

This one. I’m thinking hard but have no answer.

Is it easier to promote things that are all yours, like Just Sayin, or projects on which you’re an actor for hire?

That’s a no-brainer. Things that I have created and written and directed are 10 times easier to promote. This is, luckily, most things I’ve done.

I always feel slightly sorry for an actor who has to toe the party line for a film that is already getting panned, and he still has another 200 interviews to do. Then I remember it’s still better than having to do real work.

What aspect of dealing with the media, if any, is fun for you?

I like US chat shows. They’re always fun for me and never seem plug-heavy. I treat them more like a piece of work. Letterman, Conan, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart—all comedy- savvy, who also get the message across.

I like owning a little bit of the media. Podcasting, blogging, Twitter and now Just Sayin. The most important thing for me has always been artistic freedom. Some people say I’m a control freak. I can never argue with them. Art is no place for democracy. One of my favorite sayings is, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” I told Karl [Pilkington, his hapless sad-sack sidekick and frequent comic foil] this and he said, “I’d ask the committee which one of them came up with the hump.” Haha.

Please rank (from least to most favorite) the clichés journalists use to describe you.

“Mean”; “Shocking”; “Controversial”; “Atheist”; “Hilarious.”

What is the one question you’ve always wanted to answer but no journalist has ever asked?

“Why did you go crazy with an Uzi in China and take out 300 people who skin dogs alive or torture bears and tigers for fake medicine?”

I’d like to be asked that one day, but don’t deserve the honor yet.

What activities do you prefer to being interviewed?

Sitting in my pajamas, drinking beer, watching TV with my girlfriend and my cat. Mind you, I’d probably rather be doing that than anything.

I don’t mind being interviewed at all, to be honest. As long as it’s about the work. I don’t like answering questions about other people’s work or lives. It’s nothing to do with me, and I don’t like adding to that particular debate. If the journalist is respectful—without prejudice—I am the same. It’s when they either come with an agenda or without any knowledge of my work where it gets a little awkward. It’s also a necessary part of the job. At least a bit of it now and again, anyway. As an artist, you want to get final edit; then, lots of people to see your work. They have to know it’s available, basically.

What is your favorite movie genre?

I love revenge movies. Justified violence is exhilarating. And tales of honor. My least favorite is probably gritty British gangster films, twee middle-class dramas about some posh twat who has writer’s block until he meets a younger woman who understands him more than his wife, and awful knockabout sex comedies aimed at 14-year-old boys and lonely middle-aged men.

Who would you like to give a Pulitzer Prize, and for what?

Christopher Hitchens, for nearly everything he ever wrote.

Since you don’t believe in an afterlife, which journalist would you like to not come back as?

I’m struggling to think of the name of a journalist who I would care enough about to not want to be.

What adjectives do you most deplore?

Insipid ones. Although “insipid” itself is a good one.

“Holy” is annoyingly meaningless. But “holey” is okay.

What is your favorite adverb?


Cyndi Stivers is a former editor in chief of CJR