Ricky Gervais and
Stephen Merchant

At the end of last year, Mark Lawson in The Guardian declared that Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant were among the most important comedy writers of the last four decades. This statement - a throwaway comment in the midst of an article about the changing face of television - was met with equal responses of uproar from some quarters, and quiet assent from others. Gervais' television career up to this point had been dogged by adverse publicity, particularly following his appearances on the 11 O'Clock Show. Now, along with writing partner Steve Merchant, his name was appearing alongside such legendary television writers as Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett and Jimmy McGovern. The success of The Office came as something of a surprise to many, but possibly not to its creators. "There's nothing as interesting," they tell us, "as just real life."

Ricky: "I only interviewed one person for the job. I said, look, have you done this before? Because I don't know what I'm doing." Steve: "I think the only reason he called me is because my CV was on top of the pile."

We meet Ricky and Steve in the Capital Radio building in London, just as they come off air from their regular Saturday slot on London's Xfm. It is Steve's birthday, and they are both looking slightly dishevelled following the previous night's revelries. Throughout that day's broadcast, they had made constant apologies for the shoddiness of the radio show, admitting to thumping hangovers, and also their lack of preparation, occasionally giggling at the thought that they are being paid to, essentially, sit in a room and try to make each other laugh.

"It was rubbish today," sighs Steve, "It was gobbledygook. It's just self indulgent rubbish." "I kept losing the will to live half way through a sentence", agrees Ricky with a laugh. "I start thinking, this is going to take a lot of effort with the mouth, and I go... 'What was I going to say?' And usually he goes, 'I know what you were going to say Rick'. But today he went, 'I don't know, I wasn't listening either'. So it's rubbish when we're both like that."

Their return to Xfm at this point in their career seems particularly appropriate, as it was at this radio station that they first met, during what Steve fondly refers to as "classy days". Ricky was at that time the Head of Speech at the station ("That always makes me laugh", says Steve), and he hired Steve to be his assistant. "I only interviewed one person for the job. I said, look, have you done this before? And he went, yeah I've done a bit of local radio, and I went, so if I give you the job will you do all the work? Because I don't know what I'm doing." "That was it", grins Steve. "I think the only reason he called me is because my CV was on top of the pile." Steve left a month later to do a training course with the BBC, and Ricky left when Capital took over the station ("they were going 'what do you mean, we're paying this man?'"). As part of Steve's course, they recorded a ten-minute short film about a character, called Seedy Boss, which Ricky had been working on, who was an incredibly irritating office supervisor.

Ricky: "That's what you do when you look at a comedy character. You're really doing either 'Thank God I'm not like that', or you're going, 'Oh, I do that'."

From that short film, the character of David Brent grew, and they developed an ensemble piece around him. They developed it as a pilot for the BBC in June 1998, and were commissioned for the first series of The Office in late 1999. "The whole reason for The Office was to nail types or observations", says Ricky. "It's just a big string of observational comedy about people, relationships, offices, the end of the 20th century, so it's what we want to nail." They both admit to being fascinated by the minutia of every day life, and frequently spend afternoons just sitting together and observing other people at their daily routine. "I've never understood people who are obsessed with, like, this whole Harry Potter phenomenon" says Steve, "I never understood science fiction or horror stuff. I can see why people would get excited, but if you go in the pub, and sit and listen to people's conversations, or on the bus, that's about as exciting as it gets for me." Ricky agrees wholeheartedly. "Parochial things are funny. It's the minutia that you really laugh at because you recognise yourself. That's what you do when you look at a comedy character. You're really doing either 'Thank God I'm not like that', or you're going, 'Oh, I do that'. There's nothing as interesting as just real life, I think."

It is this studied concentration on the mundanities of office life that has made The Office the runaway success that it is. The supreme attention to detail in the structure of the show, for example allowing the space for awkward silences to fester on screen, sets it apart from anything else currently on television. In these days of channel hopping and increasingly desperate attempts to hold shortening attention spans, the brave decision to centre on a group of people who are not as immediately likeable as, say, the skinny, pearly-toothed cast of the average American sit-com, has certainly paid off. Body language plays a particularly important part in the programme - quite often, the script is superseded by a character's unspoken reaction. Many scenes appear to be semi-improvised, making the dialogue more realistic, and allowing the fine cast the opportunity to breathe life into their characters. Facial expressions and gestures are constantly focussed upon - from the way that Brent obsessively fiddles with his tie when he is feeling uncomfortable or out of control, to Gareth's continual incorrect use of his job title (changing "assistant to the manager" to "Assistant Manager") to make himself sound important. This frustration in the office environment, and the way that you are unwittingly sucked into their petty office politics, is a remarkably accurate realisation.

It was very important to both Ricky and Steve that they directed the series. "It's not to do with arrogance," explains Steve, "it's just that this is how we want to do it, and we are capable of doing it, so why wouldn't we do it ourselves? Rick's analogy is you wouldn't buy an airfix model and then get someone else to build it."

Ricky: "Steve has to actually wake me up to work."

Following on from programmes such as People Like Us, many viewers initially questioned the need for yet another fake documentary programme, but Ricky argues that the 'mockumentary' aspect of the show is not particularly important. "There's a bit of a docu aspect to episode one because we wanted to establish that it was a fake documentary so that people didn't go, well this is like a sit com but more boring. So we had to know why they weren't doing outrageous things behind the doors, because they were being watched. So we had more constraints early on then later, and then once you were into it you didn't care."

They write the series together, writing in Ricky's house - "Steve has to actually wake me up to work" - and improvise scenes while working out the storylines. "We only ever write together. We don't go home and do homework," says Ricky. "We just sit and stare at each other for a while," says Steve. "For quite a while." They are currently holding these staring sessions for the second series, which they are currently half way through writing ("It's amazing, it's hilarious. You'll love it.") This is due to be filmed across April and May in a seven-week block. A new problem has arisen in anticipation of the filming of the second series, as the block of offices they use to film in is due to be demolished, leaving them, as they see it, with two choices. "The first episode will be, 'Well here we are in a new office'," says Ricky. "Or 'I'm glad we had the decorators in and they really restructured everything with new walls and windows and stuff'," suggests Steve. "And some of the windows aren't in the same place even," Ricky carries on. "Good. I didn't like them over there."

At the time of our interview, it was less than two weeks to the annual British Comedy Awards ceremony, for which The Office had been nominated in three different categories. They said that they were flattered to have been nominated, but weren't taking the awards too seriously. "Yeah" says Ricky, "we're on a list. We got on a list." In the end, they won the award for Best New Comedy, and on the night Ricky caused something of a furore with his acceptance speech, pointing out at the top of the speech that their producer Ash Atalla (who happens to be in a wheelchair) was not a competition winner.

Steve: "See, that's the problem with journalists, they can twist your words. And if you've said in the first place, and they don't need to twist it, that's the worst part."

This taste for constantly stating the unnecessarily offensive lead to the foundation of Rubbernecker, the live stand up show they brought to the Edinburgh Fringe last year. They appeared with long term writing partners Robin Ince and Jimmy Carr in a show that derived it's name from the term applied to people who slow down for traffic accidents - you know you shouldn't look, but you just can't help yourself. Neither of them especially enjoyed the experience, and Steve particularly didn't relish this return to his stand up roots. "You see Ross Noble and it's like that's his world, he has to be on stage, he has to be getting it out of his system, but for me there's no reason to be up there. I don't need the smell of the grease paint and the roar of the crowd. I don't need to thrive on that. That was the one thing that was good about Edinburgh, I discovered I wasn't one of those wankers who has to go on stage."

With this, Ricky grins. "Not that he's saying Ross Noble is a wanker." Steve rapidly back pedals. "No, he's not. He's an amazing man, Ross. He's not a wanker. He's not a wanker." Ricky throws his head back and laughs, while Steve sits forward with his head in his hands. "Now I wish I'd never even brought up the word wanker. Because now they're going to write Steve Merchant thinks Ross Noble's a wanker, and he'll read that and that will be terrible. See, that's the problem with journalists, they can twist your words. And if you've said in the first place, and they don't need to twist it, that's the worst part."

Putting that aside for a moment, the Rubbernecker show did bring one of Ricky's oldest characters to the attention of the world, in the form of Derek, described in one of the national newspapers simply as 'poor Derek'. "Derek," Ricky begins, "is just a nice, simple lad who sees the world differently." "Yeah," says Steve. "That's the corporate party line. Toeing the party line. The man who sees the world differently. Brilliant." Both Robin Ince and Jimmy Carr confessed that Derek is their favourite comedy character, but, as with a lot of Ricky's work, is open to interpretation, and not for the particularly faint hearted. The Rubbernecker show featured all four performers in varying degrees of hysteria, battering the audience with increasingly peculiar and inappropriate subjects, with the stage time for each lasting approximately twenty minutes. This, as far as Ricky is concerned, is the correct length of time for a stand up performance. "This sounds really weird but I see a stand up and I go, that was amazing, they made me laugh for half an hour - anything more I'm actually bored, however good they are."

Ricky: "I don't really care about being good at anything."

This tendency for an immediate enthusiasm for any given subject, followed very rapidly by an apparent loss of interest is apparent even in his conversation style. His manner of jumping between topics is also reflected in his job history - in his time, Gervais has been a University Ents Officer, a radio DJ, a profession musician, and even (if the rumours are to be believed) managed Suede for a brief period during their early years. This habit of moving from job to job he oddly refers to as "laziness" - "I don't really care about being good at anything," he declared mid way through the interview. This however does not seem to fit the profile of someone who has worked so long and hard to gain the respect he has finally achieved with in the industry.

Before The Office appeared on our screens, Ricky was still best known for his appearances on the 11 O'Clock Show, Channel 4's topical comedy show that limped along for four series before being put out of it's misery in 2000. Ricky has often said since that he should perhaps have called himself "Billy Bigot" and worn a comedy hat and wig. What he was performing was character comedy that was grossly misinterpreted as his true opinions. "It confused too many people. And it wasn't so much that I worried about offending people, I was more worried about people who believed in those things. So I was afraid people would come up going 'Ricky, we killed a tramp for you last night. Well done, keep it up.'" From these appearances, and his solo chat show Meet Ricky Gervais, he learnt one important lesson. "I think it's always better that if you're going to do a persona then don't use your own name. Sacha doesn't call himself Sacha Baron Cohen. It's obvious it's a character. No doubt about it."

He says he has no plans to ever resurrect that character. "I'm not doing it because I don't see the point, really. What chat show isn't spoof? Everyone's got a new angle now, it's all post modern, ironic chat with celebrities. The best of them, Jonathan Ross or Parkinson, they're more entertaining than an excuse for a comedian to come on and do some schtick." "Also of course no one would come on the show," points out Steve. "And I can't bring them back because they've all died," agrees Ricky.

Ricky: "You've got to be on the ball all the time. Either just through sheer charisma, or confidence, or killer one liners. I can't be bothered to do the killer one liners... What were the other two? I bore myself."

Looking to the future, they both confess that their greatest ambition would be to do a film, but say that this isn't something they would want to rush in to. "We both think that sometimes we see a film and we think, why is that on film? That could have been a TV special. Why did they waste celluloid on that? So we really want something that has to be a film. Not just do it for the sake of it." That said, they soon give in to day dreaming, something Ricky does particularly well, taking one idea and running with it - for example, Steve mentions one ridiculous plot idea that Ricky came up with in which he plays a retired boxer. Ricky's eyes glaze over. "I'd have to work out, I'd have to have a trainer, wouldn't I? And a special diet in a clinic. And I'd come out and it would just be like a new body.Yeah. Yeah. So we'll do that." Steve humours him with a certain degree of resignation. "Yeah. That'll be good."

Back to reality. Their Saturday afternoon stint on Xfm is currently scheduled to run until May, and, hangovers or not, it is something they are both very enthusiastic about. "It's really fun," enthuses Steve. "See that, unlike stand up, is a real joy because there's none of the pressures of stand up. You can be much more freeform, much more loose." Ricky agrees. "On radio, you can go, here's Radiohead. You know, it saves you. You've got three minutes to think. On stage, if you had three minutes to think of every joke, that would be fine. But you haven't. You've got to keep going. If they see the slightest chink in your armour, if you stumble, it's like there's a discomfort in the room. You've got to be on the ball all the time. Either just through sheer charisma, or confidence, or killer one liners. I can't be bothered to do the killer one liners... What were the other two? I bore myself."

Steve - "I can't remember what you said. They'll rewind that and it'll be brilliant."
Ricky - "Yeah, you can rewind it and find out what I said. It was good, wasn't it?"
Steve - "Dynamite."
Ricky - "Ross Noble's good, isn't he?"
Steve - "Brilliant. Bit of a wanker though."
Ricky - "Oh, you've done it again."
Steve - "Have I done it again?"
Ricky - "Yeah, and I'd got you out of it."

You can hear The Ricky Gervais Show With Steve Merchant every Saturday on Xfm, 1pm - 3pm. The Office is currently being repeated on BBC2 on Monday nights.

Check out www.rickygervais.com