“I don’t think I could come up with a better ending, for people to watch and have hope and be uplifted,” says Ricky Gervais.
The comic icon is talking to Rolling Stone UK days before the third season of After Life arrives on Netflix. A huge hit since debuting on the platform in 2019, the pitch-black comedy sees Gervais star as Tony, a local journalist who is attempting to rebuild his life in the wake of his wife’s death from breast cancer.
But, as he explains in our wide-ranging interview, the time is right to bring Tony’s journey to a close…
‘After Life’ season two, a show very much about death, arrived in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. ‘After Life’ season three arrives two years later, but people are still dying.
I didn’t think about it too much with season three because people are dying all the time and the pandemic’s different because you’re stuck inside and seeing it on the news and everyone is affected immediately. But I didn’t think about how it would impact watching the show, just how we filmed it. I had a year of anxiety thinking, ‘Is this going to happen?’ and I had a year to write it. My tour was postponed, so I had more time to worry about it and more time to write, feel anxious. But it went like a dream! No one tested positive and we didn’t lose ten minutes. I was numb afterwards, it was just such a relief.
And you’ve been able to get back on tour now…
Yeah, and when I got back you just notice that people were so grateful to be out, so grateful to be back again. And I just started appreciating them even more than before. They’ve waited two years and gone through the pandemic, redundancies and they’re now spending money on babysitters, car parking, just to see me. I just realised what a privilege it is to be doing this stuff. When I was asked how I was coping in interviews throughout the pandemic, I made it clear that there were nurses doing fourteen hour shifts on the frontline and it made me feel spoilt & lucky. I realised how f***ing lucky I am.
You mentioned nurses. There’s that line in the final episode of ‘After Life’ where Anne (Penelope Wilton) says that angels live among us in the form of nurses who work hard to pay their rent.
I did put it in there as a nod to the key workers. I owe everything to the welfare state, I was the fourth kid of an immigrant labourer. We had no money and lived on a council estate. I wouldn’t be where I am if school wasn’t free, if healthcare wasn’t free. But I never felt poor because everything I liked was free. I liked school, I liked learning. I liked nature and hanging out with my friends too, but all those things can’t be enjoyed if you’re not well. That line was a semi-political nod, and I think more and more people throughout the pandemic began to appreciate what’s important. I called my family twice as much as usual and I think you do appreciate these things. For me, it’s about mortality too, as you get older I do think life is precious ’cause it’s finite. Every day is a higher percentage of my life than yesterday! That’s not morbid, but I can’t buy time.
How does it make you feel then, when NHS workers are given a measly three percent rise after all their incredible efforts on the front line?
It’s not just that though is it? It’s not even politics anymore, it’s the fact that the people in charge aren’t leading by example. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were having parties and I saw all the heartbreaking tweets from people saying it took place on the day they couldn’t see their mum in hospital. I just think, ‘god, I can see why they’re angry’.
But I’ve always thought why are these people with nothing giving the people with everything more? They make them argue amongst themselves, but I just think we keep voting for idiots who don’t care about us because we keep being fooled. And I think we’re going to be fooled forever (laughs), I don’t think anything will change!
What do you make of Boris’ apology in parliament after he admitted attending a No.10 garden party?
Didn’t he say he thought it was a business meeting? Didn’t it say to bring a bottle on the invite? Ha! That’s a good job, innit? That’s like my job. I do my job with a can in my hand but I’m a stand-up comedian, I’m not in charge of the country. It’s crazy.
I just think we keep voting for idiots who don’t care about us because we keep being fooled. And I think we’re going to be fooled forever (laughs), I don’t think anything will change!
That sense of kindness and appreciating the important things during the pandemic feeds into season three too. It concludes with Tony making some pretty generous acts of kindness.
It’s always been a little bit of that, how the ordinary things keep you alive. The original concept pivoted on why Tony didn’t kill himself – and it was because the dog was hungry. Again, that idea of responsibility, chores. Even down to the job he hated, I made him a local journalist because he would have to deal with people. It’s funny, because it’s the last thing he wants to talk about, but it saves his life. All those little things, he’s looking for a reason to stay alive. The big question it asks, from beginning to end: is life worth living if you’ve lost everything? The answer is yes, if you’ve got something to do.
Tony is going through the seven stages of grief and even tries to turn himself into a psychopath. But he can’t because he’s just not, he’s trying to suppress a good person. He tries drink, drugs but the only thing that saves him is kindness. He just wants to be out of pain and he does that by finding something with worth. We see how people can crumble if they think they’re worthless and I think that’s an integral part of being human, being worth something in the tribe.
You’ve said this is the final season and that ending feels pretty finite.
I don’t think I could come up with a better ending, for people to watch and have hope and be uplifted. The other reason is Netflix said I could do a fourth season of After Life or the first season of something new, so it was that.
And what is that new show?
I’ve got it down to two ideas and one is very different to After Life. It’s much purer comedy, I think. But I just can’t wait to get back to stand-up. Netflix have got SuperNature to put out, but I can’t wait to start again. I fell back in love with stand-up and I can’t believe what a privilege the whole thing is. It gives me an adrenaline rush to start again. The idea of worrying if it’s any good, it just makes you feel something. Going out for the first time and getting a titter or a gasp, I just love that. That first lump of clay going on the wheel.
The pandemic was supposed to be a great leveller, but some celebrities are still horrifically out of touch. Is it time for another brutal awards monologue from you?
It’s so funny you should say that. I did five Golden Globes over ten years and the first time I did it, the organisers said you can do your own jokes and don’t have to rehearse. I thought it was amazing.
The first time, people just thought ‘how dare he talk to our superstars like that, who does he think he is?’ By the last time they’re just saying ‘Give it to them! We’re sick of millionaires telling us who to vote for, how to live and what to do. We’re sick of privileged people telling us to recycle while they’re flying around in private jets.’
I hit this zeitgeist-y moment. I was still doing the same thing, but the world changed and the attitude of celebrity changed in those ten years.
Never say never. I’m saying no now, I can’t imagine the Oscars offering me that kind of deal to write all my own material. I’d never do it and write an autocue or sing a song. I’d go out as a stand-up, I’ve written these twenty jokes do you want them or not? I can’t imagine anywhere else letting me do it.
Do you think comedy is being stifled?
Yeah, but that’s always been the case. People have always been worried about consequences and being cancelled, it’s just that social media has made it a lot worse. Twenty years ago if you wanted to complain you’d get out your pen and write ‘Dear BBC’, but then realise you can’t be bothered. Now you can tweet it and that tweet will make the news! It’s like road rage, it’s ridiculous, they’ll have one tweet to back something up. There’s loads of tribes and people screaming at each other, there’s no nuance and everyone is scared.
I’ve always had to talk executives down off a ledge and tell them why a joke is OK and I’ve never had a complaint upheld. It doesn’t mean that everyone likes it, but I can justify everything I’ve done and that’s the important thing – you shouldn’t expect everyone to like it. But you should be able to stand by it, even if everyone else hates it. That’s the difference.
There’s loads of tribes and people screaming at each other, there’s no nuance and everyone is scared.
The compromise for me has usually been a smaller audience. To get my own way I went to BBC Two and not BBC One, I went to HBO not NBC. But then Netflix came along and said we won’t interfere at all and our audience is even bigger. It was a no brainer, Netflix is for me the perfect place to be at the moment, to do what I want and be left alone. That’s the important thing.
Social media does feel particularly primitive at the moment though.
I think social media has amplified everything in a way and we shouldn’t take it as examples. We shouldn’t look at Twitter and think that is the world, because it’s not. You can look on Twitter for ten minutes and think the world is at war. Then you go outside and everything is lovely. Everyone’s normal and most people don’t care about Twitter. Twitter is like reading every toilet wall in the world at once. If you saw something there you wouldn’t argue with it. It’s to be ignored and what goes around comes around. You see people virtue signalling and then they get virtue signalled, it’s just mad and the best thing you can do is keep out of it.
We gossip as humans and that’s how we evolved as humans, it kept the tribe in order. We’d say ‘he’s good, go hunting with him. Don’t go hunting with him, he’s lazy!’ Then our tribe got too big and we couldn’t do that and the whole point of tribes is status, it’s very human it’s part of our evolution – kids argue over a toy they don’t want for status. There was two ways you could gain status. One was by being the best at something. The other was virtue and that’s how it grew – but the world got so big that gossip didn’t matter.
And it’s still the same thing, you can be competent and good at something so everyone knows you for something, or you can be virtuous. But now people have discovered you can just say you’re the best and this guy is wrong! People agree with you, it’s retweets and likes. You can be anonymous too and bring people down by virtue signalling, that’s why social media has had the effect it has. It allows people to be virtuous without proving themselves. It’s why you get things like ‘owned!’, he owned you!’
It means nothing and people take it seriously. An anonymous troll saying something, they wouldn’t do that in real life. They wouldn’t have the nerve and it’s not really them. That’s why it feels like the world is at war.
Where do you look for the other side?
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.