'It's almost an inoculation to real life': Ricky Gervais on After Life, grief and comedy

The actor and comedian joined q's Tom Power to discuss his hit Netflix comedy-drama After Life, the show’s complex portrayal of grief, and why he tends to dive "head first into taboo subjects."
'The thing that I think was unlikely about [After Life] was that it was the most dramatic I've gone, which is always dangerous for a comedian,' Ricky Gervais told q host Tom Power. (The Associated Press)

Originally published on May 18, 2020

If you know him best as David Brent from the original British version of The Office, or as the host who eviscerates celebrities onstage at the Golden Globes, it's time to take another look at Ricky Gervais.

The actor and comedian joined q's Tom Power on the line from his home to talk about his latest series, After Life, which became a huge hit when it premiered in 2019, with many critics citing it as the performance of his career.

The dark comedy-drama follows newspaper journalist Tony (Gervais), whose life is upended after his wife dies from cancer.

In its second season, which is now available on Netflix, Gervais's character chooses acts of kindness to help lessen the blow of his loneliness and grief.

WATCH | Official trailer for After Life Season 2:

"Tony is really confused," Gervais told Power. "He doesn't know what to do. He's angry and he's sad and he doesn't get to say that much."

"Both [seasons] ask the big question: if you lose everything, is life still worth living? That's its central theme."

When I was growing up, I didn't know a grown man who would say, 'I'm depressed.'- Ricky Gervais

One of the reasons why so many fans and critics are drawn to After Life is its complex portrayal of grief — how sadness, resilience and even laughter are so often intertwined for those dealing with a painful loss.

"I think the most poignant thing [Tony] says is: people think that I'm sort of getting better, getting on with it, you know, because I'm snarky sometimes ... but this is me all the time. This is how I feel all the time. I put on a front. I remember what it was like to be normal, so I do an impression of that."

Gervais as Tony, and Penelope Wilton as Anne, an older lady and widow, whom Tony meets at the graveyard. (Natalie Seery/Netflix)

Gervais also points out that, beyond the many different ways individuals might cope with grief, he also sees differences between how men and women might deal with it, particularly due to negative societal pressures.

"When I was growing up, I didn't know a grown man who would say, 'I'm depressed,'" said Gervais. "I wonder how many times we saw working-class men, you know, labourers like my dad, just get drunk and go to bed.… So it's still a complex issue."

Men worked hard, but women worked miracles.- Ricky Gervais

Growing up as the fourth child of an immigrant labourer from Canada (Gervais's father was originally from London, Ont.), the comedian said he's "always seen women as leaders."

"We had no money, so [my dad] was a labourer all his life … and my mom was a homemaker and had odd jobs. Men worked hard, but women worked miracles because when my dad finished work his time was his own — my mom carried on. She never stopped. She couldn't afford to stop. And she gave me everything I needed except money. I learned from that that the best things were free."

'Everything I've done is an unlikely show'

In some ways, After Life is an unlikely show in that it's a comedy about grief. But that wasn't something that deterred Gervais from trying to get it made.

"I think everything I've done is an unlikely show, though, isn't it?" he asked with a laugh.

"If I had just sent off the script of The Office saying: I'm a nobody, I'm going to play the lead character. He says unfunny things that no one laughs at, then he looks at the camera — that doesn't jump off the page. You have to see it."

"The thing that I think was unlikely about [After Life] was that it was the most dramatic I've gone, which is always dangerous for a comedian, I think," said Gervais. 

Gervais said he's used to diving "head first into taboo subjects" because no harm can come from discussing them, while broadcasters, creators and studios sometimes second-guess their audiences and "water down" their content as a result.

"It's ludicrous ... if we [think], 'Oh, can they take that sort of language? Can they take that about death?' Yes, because they're going through it in real life and real life is worse," Gervais said.

"They go through all these things and they actually laugh, and they actually cry, and at the end, they feel better because no one really got hurt. So it's almost an inoculation to real life."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Jennifer Warren.



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