Ricky Gervais, you big bully

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are a dream comic team. Toby Green finds out how they get their kicks off-screen.

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Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are a dream comic team. Toby Green finds out how they get their kicks off-screen.

If you're wondering why Ricky Gervais seems so rejuvenated recently, what with bathing in the afterglow of a successful second series of Extras and selling out dates within the hour for his new stand-up tour Fame, perhaps it's because the Reading comic has found himself a new victim.

After basing what has become the world's most successful podcast around "that round-headed freak" Karl Pilkington, and spending the whole of his 2004 Politics stand-up tour persecuting his friend and support act, Robin Ince, Ricky has found himself a new "muse".

"For the Extras DVD we've done a variety of extra films. But my favourite is a programme about the different ways in which I torment our editor, Nigel Williams; he's prepared to do anything. In one sequence, I tie him to a machine. It's like one of those experiments they used to try in institutions during the 1950s before they got stopped on grounds of cruelty! I couldn't even get away with that with Karl. He'd say, 'Alright, that's enough.' When I wanted to paint Karl's head orange and put it in a fruit bowl, he wouldn't do it. But Nigel would be up for that."

His co-star and long-term writing partner, Stephen Merchant, also seems to take a certain pleasure in Ricky's child-like tormenting. "During the first series, Ricky tried to fashion costumes for him out of Sellotape. This series Ricky reached Blue Peter levels of inventiveness with the costumes he made, doing things like locking him in a cage. At one point, Jonathan Ross even joined in with the bullying."

The duo's good mood may also have something to do with defying the age-old truism that it's tough to remain at the top. Ricky has recently enjoyed starring roles in the hit movies Night at the Museum and For Your Consideration and Stephen seems to be enjoying the higher profile afforded him by his part as Darren Lamb, the useless agent of Ricky's character, actor Andy Millman. "I really enjoyed it, although I had to rely on Ricky to rein me in because my inclination is always to ham it up. I particularly love those moments where Darren bashes his leg against the furniture - I think my two-dimensional perfomances really make that work."

The recent release of Extras Series Two on DVD has presented yet another opportunity for plaudits of the duo, although the irony of having such mainstream success through openly criticising the kind of shows that normally achieve Extras' ratings is by no means lost on Ricky. "I'd rather make something that is the favourite show of one million than the fifth favourite show of ten million. Anything artistic is about making a connection, and Stephen and I have always tried to do that. We make our programmes for like-minded people. We also make them on our own terms and we are never interfered with."

Similarly, a factor in the show's success is the frequent guest apperances; yet, thanks to the self-reflexive nature of the show, this is equally ridiculed. "If you just get someone for the 'ooo, look who it is' factor, that dates very quickly," Ricky observes. "We're asking people to play original characters around their personas or the opposite of their personas. It's not just a case of dressing up for Comic Relief and thinking 'it doesn't really count'. "Viewers have got to be able to get who these stars are in five years' time. I think after 91 films, Samuel L. Jackson will be OK, and I reckon David Bowie is safe. I think people might just about know who he is next year."

Stephen is particularly pleased about the magnitude of the stars he and Ricky recruited for the second series of Extras. "The danger is that everyone is so jaded about celebrity that they take these stars for granted. 'Oh look, there's Robert De Niro in a sitcom, so what?' Do they know how hard we had to work to get these people? I think they should buy two copies of the DVD as a sign that they appreciate all our hard work!"

Ricky and Stephen have not ruled out a further jaunt into the world of Extras. "We're a bit intimidated by the administrative headache of it, but Ricky and I have recently been musing about the idea that there might still be enough life in Extras for a special," says Stephen. "It feels slightly like unfinished business."

Ricky agrees. "The Americans are gagging for a third series. The cachet is very high now, and it feels like we could get anyone we want. It would be a good time to do another. We've got an idea for a special, but that would certainly be the last of Extras."

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