Ricky Gervais tackles grief, loss, and anger in his latest comedy, After Life.
How would you respond to life's daily frustrations if you had nothing to lose?
That's the question Ricky Gervais takes on in his latest series, After Life. After his wife dies of cancer, Tony (Gervais) feels he has nothing left, contemplates suicide, but realizes he has a few obligations that keep him alive, so he does the next best thing - he acts on the idea of having nothing to lose and says and does whatever he wants.
Gervais explains, "The seed of the idea was this sort of high concept, really. Imagine if you lost everything. You have no future at all, so you have nothing to fear. You could do anything. It would be like a superpower and then when it all got too much, you can always end it all.
"That was the seed of the idea. Which is odd for a sitcom, because you see, those sort of things are for films, and miniseries, and you know, things like that. And every other sitcom I've ever done, it came from my character-verse. David Brent existed years before I wrote The Office. Derek existed years before I found a place for him. Usually a sitcom is much more about character than plot or concept.
"So this is a bit of a hybrid. Not that I've ever done a completely traditional sitcom, but it is a comedy. What's different about it, I suppose, to the average sitcom, is that it is like a miniseries. It is to be binge-watched. It's not episodic.
"Everything doesn't end back to square one like the average sitcom does, I suppose. Also, the mood is different. The mood's more like a drama, or a miniseries. It's paced more like a miniseries."
The six-episode series can easily be watched in a day, but Gervais wanted to be sure there were breaks built in to the story.
He says, "I always like them to be half hour. I always knew I wanted to do six half-hours. Because I think that's the best vehicle to me. That's where I'm best, you know? Two and a half hours, chopped up, is the best thing to watch, the average attention span. If it's up to me, a two, two and a half hour movie is too long.
"And if it goes the right length you can't explore as much as you can in six half hours. So I would be happy with it. But yeah, if the very first bit of it was done, imagine I've lost everything and I've nearly been a few weeks out. You think you'll go. You stop, the dog's hungry. And then that gives you time to think.
"And so that was the fun vehicle for me. I say, 'fun,' obviously it's about grief, but you know what I mean. I think the laughs come from vicariously living through new freedom. Accept that we want to say what's on our mind but we can't because we have restrictions. And we worry about consequences.
"And so I think I've given the audience this superhero who says what most people wish they could say but, you know, for whatever reason. It might be what society thinks of you or you don't want to hurt people's feelings.
"But that's the biggest consequence. You don't want to hurt people's feelings. That's the only time I lie in real life is when someone invites me to a party or Christmas, I say, 'Oh, I can't, I'm busy.'
"Because I don't want to say, "I'd never want to come to your party, you're boring." You know what I mean?"
Tony's feeling of nothing to lose even carries over to unexpected areas of life. Gervais says, "And then there's extremes, right? When we're mugged, we hand over our money. Because we don't want to get hurt. But we have a baby in a stroller. Or they know where we live.
"But you know, when that happens to Tony, he thinks, 'I'm not scared of anything anymore. Bring it on.' So it is quite liberating."
But liberation comes at a cost. Tony tries to be totally free, but it doesn't necessarily work out the way he hopes. Gervais explains, "I think also the laughs come in the traditional way. It's just a bit disguised. A normal sitcom, we're laughing at usually an ordinary guy trying to do something that he's not equipped to do. And there's still that element because Tony's trying to be a psychopath so he doesn't hurt anymore.
"But he can't. He can't be. So he's got all these burdens. He doesn't get his help because the dog's hungry. He's got to take the dog for a walk. He's got to keep his job so he can afford to get drunk. He's nice to the dog because it's innocent. He's nice to his nephew because he's innocent. He's nice to the new guy because he's naturally a nice or nurturing sort of bloke deep down.
"So he's still trying to do something that he can't do. So that's where the comedy comes.
"But I think predominantly, it's just a story of a man trying to cope. And sometimes it's funny and sometimes it's really sad. Sometimes it's frustrating, sometimes he's wrong.
"I think what sums it up is, real. I think it's real. And I think that's what people think is different about it in a way. But you can't usually see those things on telly."
Gervais is well-versed in what you can't usually see. In his comedy, he's often been accused of being "offensive." He doesn't see it that way. He says, "I think people want to start off to do something uncompromised with all good intentions. And then someone says, "oh, it really isn't very nice, it's got the, 'C-word,' in."
"And I go, 'okay, yeah, I'll take them out.'
"They go, 'you can't really show drug use. Oh, you can't really use that language. You should really think about that. You shouldn't.'
"And people start talking, "oh, yeah, yeah, I want a good slot. I don't want to be some..." And soon everything's watered down again. And that's the beauty of Netflix. They don't interfere at all.
"Anything I come up with I can justify it to myself. And it's not actually breaking the law. Then you can put it in it. And people back it up. Because producers, and all these people are in charge.
"They say, 'oh, I don't want to get complaints,' or, 'people will be offended.' But they're assuming that's true. When you give people something they haven't seen before, they absolutely lap it up. And they can take it."
He has honed his sense of what people can take in his long career in stand-up comedy. "All the things I talk about on my live show. People go, 'oh, oh, that's a bit offensive. Oh that's pushing the boundaries. That's cutting edge.'
"And I think, 'not if you walk around a factory. Or get on a bus. Or go to a building site. Or hear what people talk about in their families.' Those people are talking about these things all the time.
"And if we imagine it on the telly it makes everything... 'Oh that's a bit much for telly.' Why? Why is it? It's like they've switched century. And in case someone, somewhere doesn't like it, which is ludicrous. They don't have to watch it.
"And it's funny because even people that love the show, they say, 'oh I didn't like that bit.' And I think, 'well, fine.' If you do write your own sitcom, you can only put in the things you really like.
"That's what got you. That's why I started making television because I wanted to make something that I really liked.
"If someone, somewhere, isn't offended about something you've done, you haven't done anything."
One of the taboos Gervais deals with in After Life is suicide. Tony is at the point where he is genuinely wondering if life is still worth living. Gervais says, "It's nice to play. It's nice to play. And it's nice to move from trying to be that cruel, kind-of wise-cracking psychopath to actually admitting that you're in pain. And he breaks down.
"You know, we know why he's doing it. We know why he's acting like this. And obviously once again, kindness is the only thing that can save him really. He can't have his life back but the big question we ask is, once you lose everything, is life still worth living?
"And the answer is, it depends. Personally, I think it's worth living for Tony. You know, I think he could. He'll grieve. I think he'll grieve until the day he dies. But it's because it's forever, I think he might as well stick around and see if he can have any good days.
"But you know, again, on an honest level, depending on what's wrong with you, if you're in constant pain, and there's no light at the end of the tunnel, then I'm all for saying, 'that's enough.'
"You know, I agree with voluntary euthanasia and [the show] doesn't really get that serious but I do think there's a point where people should be allowed to say, "that's enough." And I want to if there's absolutely no joy in living. What's the point?
"But I don't think he's at that stage yet. I think that he can sort of get over this."
Tony gets a great deal of help in getting over his grief, and Gervais cast the show with some of his favorite actors to play them. He says, "I was lucky enough because I've been around a bit now, that I cast those people before I wrote the script.
"I knew what I wanted. And it made it twice as easy, twice as much fun, when you know who you're writing for. You know what they can do. You know the physicalities. You know what they're good at, whether they're good at improv or there are lines where you know whether they can cry.
"You know all these things about them and they all know they're in it and just to have them around in the workshop process as well. So yeah, it's always been bizarre to me when people write a screenplay or something and it's ready to go and then they cast. And then they have to pick who's around.
"I think it's so arbitrary. And they're usually fine. I mean, those are good actors, that can play loads of different parts. But it all seems a bit arbitrary to me.
"And so, it's very, very exciting when all your first choices say yes, and then you write around them. They're all great. I mean I think it might be the British comedy cast of all-time.
"With people from Penelope Wilton and David Bradley up to the new guys like Mandeep Dhillon and yeah Roisin and Diane Morgan. It's great. It's like three generations of great comedy actors.
"I think I've probably worked with 90 percent of them before. Or knew their work really intimately, like Penelope Wilton. I've been a fan for 30 years. And let's not forget the dog."
The dog was a very important part of the cast. Gervais is an inordinate animal lover. He notes," They're the greatest thing on Earth, dogs. It's the closest thing I get to spirituality, when I see a dog playing or just happy. Or rolling.
"I just I smile. I want to be its friend. Every day, me and Jane go for a walk to scruffle dogs. I've scruffled about 15 dogs today.
"Great day. It's a great day. Yeah, I've never taken heroin, like in the series, but that's my fix. Scruffling a dog is my hit. And that keeps me going for a few hours.
"I can't stand the idea of an unhappy animal. It's just, they've done nothing wrong. And honestly a part of it, why I put a dog in there, I will admit, is I had a dog for six weeks.
"But it said a lot. It did say a lot about Tony.
"And also one of the themes of the show is the mundanity of life, the minutia, the things you have to do. The chores. They're the things that eventually keep you alive long enough to get better.
"We all have to do them. And it gets us out. It just gets us out and I think that's why people who are lonely and don't work, it's worse. If you just have to do something, you know, even get out and post a letter, or you know, do something.
"Because I think the saddest thing is people having no work. I think those people think they're worthless. That's when it really kicks in. And it keeps you going. And you know to do a chore that's for a dog isn't a chore, you know?
"I love feeding a dog. I love walking a dog. I love playing with a dog. So those joys kept him alive long enough to think, 'okay, I'll stick around for a little while longer.'"
Much as he loves the dog, the people in Tony's life help him along the journey, as well. Gervais says, "And then obviously the comfort of strangers and people who cared about him, his brother-in-law. His friends that remember him when he was a nice bloke. You know, Lenny, who was his friend and is now coping with a really, grieving man. It's slightly different.
"But he hangs on in there, because he knows [Tony]'s been body snatched. And he knows that there's a good guy in there. That it's worth hanging around for. And so yeah, all-in-all, I sort of wanted to say that it is worth it for Tony. And people do care when they have to.
"And the other side of it was that I want to make Tony, sometimes, feel a little bit spoiled. Because he was often meeting people as bad off as him or sometimes worse off than him.
And that was another theme I wanted to explore. Because I know whatever, whenever people feel sorry for themselves or they've got a problem, they think theirs is the only problem in the world. They think theirs is the worst problem in the world.
"I talk about this in my Humanity talk. I did a joke on Jimmy Fallon about nut allergies. And I got a really furious tweet from someone saying, 'you should never joke about food allergies!' Right?
"'My daughter's got a food allergy, it's terrible.' I sent back, I said, 'the thing is I joke about AIDS, cancer, famine, and The Holocaust, and so you're telling me I shouldn't joke about food allergies?'
"And she sent back, 'Yes but the Holocaust didn't kill children.'
"She was so consumed with her thing being the worst thing in the world that she thought there was no other bad thing. That there was nothing in the world that was that sad.
"And I want to give Tony a little bit of that. Like, 'no, no one's as bad as me.' And then he meets people, well, they are as bad off as you. And they're dealing with it. And I want people to go out thinking, 'yeah maybe I'm a bit spoiled sometimes,' you know?
"That's the thing about grief. You can get addicted to wallowing in attention and sometimes you have to let it go. You know everything's there, the framework's there, the kindness is there, and sometimes you've got to go, 'Okay I'm in as well. Yeah I'll do my bit. I'll meet you half way.'
"And I really like to explore those contentious, delicate, minutia."
The series wraps up in the final episode, and it seems to be the perfect ending. However, Gervais is already working on the second season.
He explains, "I did do it as a one-off, just in case. But I always do that, in case I die tomorrow. Secretly, I've fallen in love with it. Even before I finished it. So I've started a second series and I'm really excited. I mean, the challenge is there because of how well it's gone down. and how many people say it's their favorite show.
"But then you should have that challenge. You should try to make it the best thing you've done, so, whatever, even if it didn't go down well. It's even more reason to make it better. So, I do like that challenge.
"The second series is going really well. You've got to push the boundaries even more. Now they're used to that. You've got to push it a little more. And yeah. I'm in a good place. I'm very excited.
"I'm about a third of the way through, a quarter of the way through. But yeah, I think it's going to be good."
After Life is streaming now on Netflix.