He just wanted to be like Bob Hope, striding among the glitterati at this year's Golden Globe awards, handing out good-natured jibes to A-listers like the Hollywood insider he still can't believe he might be.
But sharp-tongued comic Ricky Gervais instead found that he became the punch line, as the same critics who celebrated when he got the Globes hosting gig tore him down after he did it.
"Some people were going, 'He talked about Mel Gibson's alcoholism but didn't talk about his anti-Semitism; oh, that would have been a nice little show, wouldn't it?" Gervais says, calling from his home in Britain. "'Here's some pictures of the Holocaust, and now, best actress!'"
Then he lets loose that cackle, an unbridled burst of laughter to let you know that, in Gervais' world, the only critic who matters stares back at him in the mirror.
That's why he's having so much fun touting his latest gig, HBO's The Ricky Gervais Show, an animated version of the podcasts he has recorded for five years with longtime collaborators Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington; it debuts Friday night. Gervais especially savors needling Pilkington, the eccentric producer whose oddball musings delight and infuriate him to sidesplitting effect.
Critics might snark that sticking cartoonish images onto podcasts recorded years ago hardly constitutes a significant new work. But Gervais hopes the show will introduce the world to Pilkington, whom he credits for "blossoming from an idiot into an imbecile."
Here's a bit of Gervais' wit, heavily edited from a long-ranging conversation.
Question: Karl is a producer who has written and illustrated his own books. Is he really that dense?
Answer: It's totally real. Have you read his books? The last book he did was a travel book. There's one chapter called "Australia," and it starts off with, "I've never been." Then he went somewhere with his girlfriend's parents. He writes, "Dad liked the biscuits in the cupboard." But those biscuits aren't going to be there for anyone else. How is that useful information?
Q: You're one of the few British comics to consistently have success importing your work to America. Why?
A: Secretly and cheekily, I think it's because all my influences are American. All I've done is put it through a filter. The U.S. is my Mecca. Laurel and Hardy, they taught me empathy, they taught me relationship. It's not enough to be funny; there has to be a witness to that stupidity. I'm still overwhelmed that I'm making a living in America. It's a real privilege for me. Do I get to be a citizen after that speech?
Q: I'll look into it. But some people might be surprised to hear you say Brits take a back seat in comedy to Americans.
A: Brits do comedy well, but there seems to be a lack of pushing it with artistic ambition. All the best things in the world that have ever been achieved in art have been done for the artist. I'm certainly not saying Americans can do comedy better than Brits. That would be turning the gun on myself. It just so happens that over the past 40 years, if I listed my top 20 comedies and top 20 dramas, I think I'd put one or two British shows in there.
Q: You seem to have a particularly arm's-length relationship to fame.
A: You must never get caught up in it. Never be an Andy Millman. Andy Millman (lead character from his HBO series Extras) was a decent man, but he got body-snatched by fame, competition and jealousy. If you only care about what you think, you're bulletproof. You can't moan about the critics. It's like a fisherman complaining about waves. You can ignore them, or you can ride the wave. The only people who ask other people's opinions are executives.