'Simpsons' gig promises to be satisfyingly embarrassing

Ricky Gervais, creator and star of BBC's 'The Office,' will court Marge Simpson


Ricky Gervais has made a career out of making us cringe. His brilliant 2001 BBC comedy, The Office, took on matters of race, religion, disability and gender -- frequently crossing lines that we typically dare not cross in polite society. (Though we're about to cross them here.)

Gervais played an office manager of a paper supplies company who badly wanted to be popular, but always said the wrong thing. Explaining his commitment to diversity, he said, "I haven't got a sign on the door that says white people only. I don't care if you're black, brown or yellow -- you know, Orientals make very good workers."

He also advised making the best out of bad situations: "If you have lost both legs and both arms, just go, 'At least I'm not dead.' Though I'd rather be dead in that situation, to be honest. I'm not saying people like that should be put down. I'm saying that in my life I'd rather not live without arms and legs." The show even inspired an American version: NBC's sitcom The Office, of which Gervais is an executive producer.

Tonight Gervais, 45, lends his unique voice to The Simpsons, guest starring in an episode that he also wrote. The show parodies wife-swap reality shows, and finds Marge Simpson going to live with the Gervais family and Gervais falling madly in love with her -- to the point that he writes her a dreadful love song.

A pale and somewhat doughy native of Berkshire, England, Gervais says he specializes in the "comedy of embarrassment" -- picking up on the small indiscretions that we take pains to avoid. Another practitioner of this art is Larry David, who once had a racist dog (it only barked at black people) on his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm.

"When you live in a safe, reasonably liberal society, where you don't want for anything and you're not dying or being attacked, the things you worry about are social faux pas," Gervais said in a conference call interview from London. "The things that get you to that place are taboos -- race, religion, disability. Those things are a catalyst to show people's true colors."

On one episode of Extras, a series that Gervais created for HBO and the BBC, he had the actress Kate Winslet explain that she is doing a Holocaust movie only to win an Oscar. What other reason could there be?

"I don't think we really need another movie about the Holocaust, do we?" Winslet's character says on the show. "It's like, how many have there been? We get it. It was grim. Move on."

On Extras, which made its debut last fall and will be back for a second season later this year, Gervais plays a long-suffering movie actor. On the set of one film, he asks a Holocaust survivor why his wife is sunbathing in an old photo.

"She's dead," the survivor tells him. "She's lying in the street, dead."

Remarkably modest

Though tonight's episode of The Simpsons was not available for screening, Gervais included his favorite characters -- including Lenny, Carl and Mo -- and a song, which he sings, accompanying himself on guitar.

But he said it's the family unit of The Simpsons that gives it its heart.

"That's the beauty of The Simpsons -- they love each other," he said. "I think that, along with the fact that it's the funniest comedy on television, the most wickedly satirical show on television, it's heartwarming and they're a rock. ... It can bring a tear to your eye."

For all his success -- he is making shows for the BBC and HBO and won a Golden Globe award for The Office -- Gervais is remarkably modest. In the hourlong interview, he frequently spoke of how humbled and thrilled he was to be working on The Simpsons.

"When I first got into comedy, my ambition was to get a joke on The Simpsons, so writing and starring in one [episode] is ridiculous for me," he said. "I know how lucky I am, and that's why I keep my feet on the ground and remember why I'm doing this. I'm not doing it for money or fame. I'm doing it because I can't think of a better way to fill my day than make jokes."

He said he turns down hundreds of offers, including one from Ron Howard to play a part in The DaVinci Code. "I said, 'I'll ruin your film,' " Gervais said.

He added, "I don't let ego take over. If someone tells me I can be the romantic lead, I explain why I can't. I think this is where a lot of actors make their mistake because they fall victim of vanity, and I know exactly what I'm good at and what I'm not.

"It doesn't excite me to see my fat face on the screen. What excites me is the creative process and bringing something into the world that maybe only I could have done."

What's in the works

At the moment, he's most excited about a new podcast series. Begun earlier this year as a Web project for The Guardian in London, the weekly 30-minute show features Gervais chatting with two friends about the most bizarre subjects. (It can be heard for a small fee at rickygervais.com.)

In one segment, the conversation was about what it would be like to talk to a lion or a slug, assuming those creatures could speak. A recurring item on the show is "Monkey News," with updates on what happened to monkeys that were sent into space before it was considered safe for humans to do so.

Gervais has other, slightly less strange projects in the works. He'll appear in Christopher Guest's new movie, For Your Consideration, out later this year. And Gervais has created a cartoon series called "Flanimals," done in Claymation. It's unclear when that will air.

He said it was an "honor" to work with the writers and producers of The Simpsons, and he gave the show what may be the ultimate compliment from a Brit: "It's the Beatles and the Stones."

"They don't forget why they're doing it: They're trying to be funny," he said. "They're trying to bring some joy into the world."

Gervais has found some success at that himself, even if he makes us squirm in the process.


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