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Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Ricky Gervais on How to Create an International Phenomenon Before He Was One

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.) 

There was a time when Ricky Gervais was a relative unknown in America. Before the days of Golden Globe hosting stints, HBO specials with Louie CK, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, and articles in the Wall Street Journal about his atheism, he was just the guy who made "The Office," which at one point was "just some British show." (That's not a legitimate quote there, but you see my point.) Today Ricky Gervais is a polarizing personality, but there's no denying that "The Office" is a classic that has had, and will continue to have, an influence on the television comedy.

On October 18th, 2004, The Paley Center hosted a panel discussion with Ricky Gervais to mark the United States premiere of The Office Special, to discuss how to make good television with a future international superstar back when he was just a national star. (Just so you're forewarned, I'm going to be talking about the conclusion of the British Office, so if you've been holding off on watching those 14 episodes this may not be the article for you.)

A major focus for the moderator of this panel is, obviously, The Office Christmas Special since the crowd that was there just finished watching it. A lot of questions are asked that try to determine how much planning went on in advance for the series. Gervais reveals that halfway through writing the second series he and Merchant knew that they weren't going to end it there. If they had tried to to give the series the satisfying ending they planned on within the second series they felt that it would have been too dense. However, they knew that the amount of story that they had left wasn't enough to warrant six more episodes. This is a situation where having created one of the most popular television shows in recent British history works to your advantage: Merchant and Gervais were allowed to make their special however short or long they wanted, secure in the knowledge that whatever they turned in, the BBC would find a spot for it. Ultimately it came in at 106 minutes when edited, and that's the way it was aired.

However, for me, the most interesting aspect of the panel was hearing the few details Gervais gives about the process of writing The Office. I believe it's the Season 2 DVD that features a behind-the-scenes look at the production process and it is 90% Stephen Merchant trying to get work done and 10% Ricky goofing around with a roll of tape. When Gervais is asked about their writing process, his response reflects that as he tells two anecdotes. One involves Ricky forcing Stephen to push him around in a chair while at their first job together at XFM radio. The second involves him popping a balloon above Merchant that was filled with Rice Krispies, and the subsequent scolding Gervais received from Stephen. So, unfortunately, that's about as insightful as Ricky gets into the actual method of writing these scripts. However, based on some of the comments he makes about the production, there are some lessons that can be gleaned.

One of the keys to success for this show seems to have been revision. Merchant and Gervais would write all of the scripts for the series prior to filming any of them, a process that is drastically different from the American model for television. One major advantage of this method is that the series can be constructed as a much more cohesive whole that way. For example, it was decided late into the writing of series two that Dawn should want to be an illustrator as a way to further her relationship with Tim. Knowing this, Merchant and Gervais could go backwards and include details about this aspiration earlier in the series.

The actors also forced the show to adapt as well. For example, initially the character of Gareth was intended to be a large, burly man, to match his boasts of being in the territorial army and his knowledge of killing people. However, once Mackenzie Crook, a man Gervais describes as looking like "a baby bird," read for the role they recognized how much funnier it would be to have this man describing how to kill a wolf. It was at this point that they realized that the most effective way of casting their show would not be to go after a specific "look." Similarly, their initial conception of the Tim character was that he was going to be like Norm from "Cheers." This clearly changed, as did the mannerisms of the character. Initially, he was much more wisecracking and "Chandler-esque" but the creators realized that in order for people to feel sorry for the character, they would have to tone this aspect down and just make him more of a regular guy.

The last major factor that shaped these episodes was the documentary form. Gervais happily admits that The Office owes a debt to reality television, but the constraints of the form also complicated the writing of the show as well. For example, Gervais claims that he and Merchant were forced to throw out a lot of jokes from the show in favor of character development for the sake of realism. Plot points that seemed to convenient or "too TV" as Gervais puts it, were removed. The documentary form meant that the story had to be shown and not told, but it also meant that you couldn't put a camera at the end of a walkway and have a character walk towards it; the camera crew has to follow the action rather than guide it. While this made some things harder to film and some plot points more difficult to construct, it also grounded the show in a level of reality that had heretofore not been seen on television.

It's interesting to hear Gervais in 2004 talk about what is next for him, because at this point in his career he has one of the most recognizable faces in his home country, but on the other hand, he knows that still has to prove himself. There is still a chance that The Office could be his only success, and so a little bit of the cockiness that we see later on isn't present here. In 2004, he and Merchant are in the process of writing their next show, Extras and Gervais is very eager to point out the differences between this show and The Office. He describes David Brent as a "dissatisfied fool" whereas the main character of Extras, Andy Millman is a "dissatisfied Socrates." Meanwhile, during this time the American version of The Office has started production (Gervais has seen the pilot and describes seeing his story retold as "weird"), though Ricky seems quick to distance himself from it. "I did The Office because I knew what I wanted… I don't know what I have to do for Americans so I need someone else to do that… This is aimed at the 249 million Americans who haven't seen the British Office."

Obviously, things worked out for the American Office and for Ricky. When this panel took place, in the US the only thing non-BBC America viewers would know him for was playing a terrorist in a chunky-knit sweater on Alias. Now he's everywhere. When asked if there was a chance of him going to Hollywood anytime soon, Gervais responds, "I'm not fit for Hollywood, no," then goes on to pontificate on his love of the television medium. Since The Office, TV has been the source of most of his enduring success and, if his future slate of projects is any indication, will continue to be home in the future. While Gervais has become a very devisive personality in recent years, his projects endure, and this glimpse into one of his first tastes of American fame showcases the work that went into the comedy series that inspired 100 more.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.