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An extra dose of fame

Recognize Ricky Gervais? He'd rather you not, but celebrity fuels his BBC import.

January 13, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — RICKY GERVAIS was hanging out with some friends here recently when he experienced another brush with the uncomfortable byproduct of fame.

A group of Australian tourists approached the British comedian and asked casually, "Hey, you want to come have a beer with us?"

Gervais adopted a look of befuddlement as he recalled the exchange. "I'm with friends," he told them with disbelief. "No, I don't want to go have a beer with you."

The Australians seemed surprised.

Such awkward moments simultaneously amuse and appall Gervais, who harbors a deep dislike for celebrity and the superficial sense of intimacy it creates. They occur frequently when he's back home in London, where the pudgy actor-writer is well-recognized as the creator and star of the original BBC version of the television comedy "The Office."

"Everyone knows who you are, so you're always on," he said in a recent interview at HBO's Midtown offices, sporting a white T-shirt and stubble as he sipped from a coffee mug. "You're always thinking, 'How am I behaving?' "

Yet such discomfort also provides great fodder for his latest comedy, "Extras," which has aired in England and returns for its second season in the U.S. on Sunday on HBO. Conceived as a sardonic look at unsuccessful actors trying to make it in the movie business, the series takes a new turn this season when a sitcom script written by the long-struggling Andy Millman, played by Gervais, is picked up by the BBC.

Andy's exuberance is quickly diminished when network executives proceed to dumb down the workplace comedy, titled "When the Whistle Blows." They make him don a curly black wig and outsized glasses for his part as a dim factory boss. They insist his character utter an annoying catchphrase whenever someone appears to have cracked a joke: "Are you having a laugh?"

Critics pan "When the Whistle Blows," which is nevertheless a popular hit, a fact that only further depresses Andy. In one scene, he is accosted at a pub by fans of the sitcom who urge him to deliver his character's catchphrase, which he does with no small amount of self-loathing.

"The big theme of it, I suppose, is 'Don't compromise,' " Gervais said. "Be careful what you wish for. Success without respect is nothing."

Some of the incidents that befall Andy on "Extras" -- like getting recognized by the homeless -- were drawn from Gervais' own experiences.

But the 45-year-old comic has found the path to success substantially smoother than his on-air alter ego.

"The opposite happened to me, really," said Gervais, a former radio programmer who wrote "The Office" with his onetime assistant Stephen Merchant. The show was purchased by the BBC, developed a huge fan following in England and inspired the American version now airing on NBC.

"They left us alone completely," he said of the BBC executives. "Extras," on the other hand, shows "what could have happened. What would I have done? Would I have been a man? Would I have walked away? I would like to think so. It's a difficult decision. A lot of people say, 'I've been struggling for a while. Let's put on the funny wig and glasses.' "

Joining Gervais this season in his exploration of the trade-offs of success are A-list celebrities such as Orlando Bloom, Chris Martin and David Bowie, who pop up in cameos throughout the six episodes. The stars gleefully puncture their own images; Bloom, for example, is astounded that Andy's friend Maggie Jacobs does not find him attractive and insists on kissing her to prove his desirability.

"I think actors love taking the mickey out of themselves, because it's with their blessing," Gervais said. "They really like exorcising all these ridiculous auras and myths and legends around them, so they can debunk all these things and have fun with their press persona. It shows they're a good sport."

Like "The Office," "Extras" thrives off of what its creator terms the "comedy of embarrassment." Andy's contorted efforts to promote himself inevitably result in cringe-inducing humiliation, such as the time he persuades Maggie to ask for his autograph in front of a female neighbor he's trying to impress, only to have her stumble and reveal the ruse. The neighbor looks at him with scorn and disgust.

"In a society where it's safe and we've got enough food and we're not being shot at, the worst thing that happens to most people every day is they might have embarrassed themselves or they have bad service," Gervais said. "I think everybody can relate to that."

Of course, some people in England never got the humor of "Extras," he admitted.

"The real irony is, people shout the catchphrase to me on the street. They go, 'You having a laugh?' " he said, sighing heavily. "I want to sit down and go, 'Let me explain.' "

For the most part, though, Gervais believes the theme of "Extras" is universal, which is why he dismisses the idea that American audiences don't understand British irony as "total rubbish."

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