Derek: The kindest thing Ricky Gervais has ever written
For Ricky Gervais and comedy, it's his way or the highway. Matt Isard meets the controversial comedian to find out why his latest TV show Derek is 'the kindest thing he's ever written'.
You can fathom a guess that making people laugh and making money are pretty high up on most comedians' priority lists. Not so for Ricky Gervais.
"I do this for myself. I do it for the sheer pleasure of it and I always have. I did it 'cause I loved it when I was poor and I do it because I love it now I'm rich," says the 51-year-old, with a cackle.
"I don't care if you watch, I don't care if you don't like it."
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It turns out that the creator of The Office is quite a dictator when it comes to his work.
"You have to be a complete fascist in art," he says. "It's not a democracy at all. You have to do your own thing... people don't know what they want."
So when he sat down to write the pilot of Derek, a comedy drama about a man working in a care home, he wasn't worried about whether people might like it.
That's just as well because, although it received an audience of two million and has since been viewed by almost twice that many on 4OD, the critics were not that kind.
The Radio Times said it was interesting but that the slapstick was "clangingly telegraphed". The Guardian described Gervais, who plays Derek, as a "self-serving hypocrite" and accused him of "feeding bigots their lines" against disabled people.
"I have never considered Derek to be disabled, I never understood it when they started trying to second guess," says Gervais, who plays Derek with a shuffle walk and a facial tic.
"Some are saying, 'He is autistic', 'No, he's got Down's syndrome', 'No, he's...' If I say he is not meant to be, he is not meant to be, it's as simple as that."
He points out that many other characters on TV have been more extreme than Derek and no one tried to diagnose them with anything.
"What's Father Dougal [from Father Ted]?" he asks. "[Derek's] smarter than him. What's Mr Bean? What's Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em?"
Gervais says he's used to hearing the worst about his shows.
"People often think my work is cynical. I am always aware that whenever I launch a new show I feel like I am landing at Normandy, I can hear the bullets, but you've still got to open the door," he says.
In fact, he claims his programmes are less cynical than people think. "The Office was always about hope. Same with Extras. It looked like a biting satire against fame but it was about a group of friends, really. I like happy endings," he says.
He claims Derek is the "kindest" programme he's ever done. "It is sincere, it is down the line."
Although it appears to be a different writing path for the Londoner (yes he still lives in the UK with his novelist partner Jane Fallon, not in Los Angeles as everyone believes), it's still him writing about what he knows about.
With The Office he wrote about his life in an office, and when that shot him into stardom, he wrote about fame.
Now he's writing about care homes, and his writing is well-informed. Marsha, his sister, works with children with learning disabilities, his sister-in-law helps in a care home for people with Alzheimer's, and his nieces work in old people's homes.
The character Hannah, played by comedy actress Kerry Godliman, was inspired by the women in Gervais's family. He admits there is a little bit of his sister and a bit of his mum Eva, who died in 2001 before her son found fame.
Derek might confuse some people. Although there are enough jokes in it, thanks largely to Gervais's best friend Karl Pilkington getting all the good lines, there are several heart-rending scenes.
"I got loads and loads of tweets about the pilot, saying, 'Is it a comedy or a drama?' And I said, 'What's your life?' It's about real life."
The internet buzz around the pilot was huge and Gervais, being a prolific tweeter, understands the importance of this. He embraces the idea of watching sitcoms online rather than on TV.
All six episodes will go up on the LA-based website Netflix, which has 30 million subscribers, allowing Gervais to quickly go global like he has done in the past.
While he's pleased to be on Channel 4 ("they gave me my first break"), Gervais - who worked as a booker at the University of London Union before attracting the attention of television executives - knows he doesn't need to rely on being commissioned for another series which, in turn, often relies on viewer ratings.
"Whether Channel 4 wants it or not I will be doing another six episodes. I don't need them, I've got 4 million twitter users. I can just put it on there," he says.
But he has plenty to keep him busy until anything's decided, as he's currently filming the new Muppets movie in which he plays the main non-Muppet.
"I love the fact we have to say, 'lead human'. I know my place. I know Kermit's in charge," he jokes.
It's a rare moment of democracy for the comedy dictator, but that's because his number one priority is being fulfilled.
"I am going to thoroughly enjoy it. I can't believe my luck. It's going to be two months of fun for me," he says.
Derek starts tonight on Channel 4.