As Ricky Gervais prepares to perform to Yorkshire audiences, he tells James Rampton about fame, our worrying obsession with celebrity and why fat definitely isn't funny.
Ricky Gervais has learnt a lot of things since he became
He's mastered the art of acceptance speeches at glittering awards ceremonies, he's become expert in persuading A-list celebrities to appear on his show and he's even found out what makes American audiences laugh.
Less life-changing, but nevertheless enlightening, he's also discovered he could do with shedding a few pounds.
"I never knew I was fat until I got famous," he smiles "Then I suddenly realised I was overweight. The papers can't simply put 'comedian Ricky Gervais'. They have to put
'rotund comedian' or 'chubby fatster'.
"The other day, I was trying to keep fit by going jogging with my iPod, and the paparazzi leapt out a bush and got me. The headline the next day? 'Ipodge.' What can you do?"
It's the kind of material which will no doubt find its way into the comedian's new stand-up show, Fame, which focuses on the bizarreness of living in the celebrity spotlight.
After Animals and Politics, Fame, which has already sold
out at Sheffield City Hall on February 22 and 23, is the third part of a loose trilogy of live comedy shows, and the critics have already been favourable, with a couple of enterprising journalists, who snuck into Gervais's warm-up gigs in London before Christmas, having nothing but praise for the new show.
"The idea of desperately seeking fame is all about ego, and people saying 'love me or I'll kill myself'," reckons the comic,
who has been dubbed the "hottest Brit" in Hollywood after the American success of The Office and Extras which have won him and his co-creator, Stephen Merchant, a mantelpiece-endangering number of Emmys and Golden Globes.
"People who want to be rich and famous think it's a direct route to happiness. They think it'll solve everything, but of course, it solves nothing.
"I don't know why people search for fame. For me, I know it's merely the upshot of what I do. I don't take
coke, I don't hang around on the red carpet, I don't come out of China White with a slapper on my arm, and I don't phone the Press to say, 'I've got a great story – my cat's ill'.
"That sort of behaviour is embarrassing. Some people are so desperate for fame, they buy every publication every day, and if they're in two papers on a Monday, they have to be in three papers on the Tuesday and four on the Wednesday. It's like a drug. Even though everybody knows Andy Warhol's line about everyone being famous for 15 minutes, fame is getting more and more sought after. They've seen how it can eat you up, but people just don't learn that lesson. They think, 'I'll be different'."
Gervais recently interviewed two of his comedy heroes, Christopher Guest and Garry Shandling, for a Channel 4 programme. It was, he says, a dream come true, but he recognises that the power celebrities have over the public is in danger of getting out of control.
"There's a show called The Teacher of the Year Awards," he says. "Viewers must sit there thinking, 'Yes, teaching is a very noble profession, but you don't have to televise their awards. Who's that going up to the podium? It's not a celebrity. I want to see actors'.
"Teachers could never replace actors and nor could doctors. Imagine an actual doctor trying to perform an operation like Hugh Laurie in House or George Clooney in ER. A real doctor
could never perform open-heart surgery and manage to
hit his marks at the same time. He'd kill his patient because
he'd be too worried about the cameras.
"We idolise people like Shane Richie. He can sing, dance and tell jokes. Compared to him, Stephen Hawking is just wasting his life, isn't he? If Stephen Hawking asked a question about, say, String Theory at An Audience with Shane Richie, Shane would say, 'Sorry, Stephen, that's no good. Can we have a proper question from you please, Faith Brown?'"
Key to the success of the Gervais/Merchant partnership has been their ability not just to poke fun at the likes of Kate Winslet and Les Dennis, but to celebrate their own inadequacies.
"I'm always the one getting the raw deal and being outwitted," he says.
"I'm not going out there as a winner. I've got to be the butt of all the jokes. I've never understood why a comedian would come on and say, 'Aren't I clever?' That feeling that you're better than an audience is ridiculous in a comedian.
"That's why I play on it ironically, falling into the persona of the confused right-wing bore. I pretend to be angry about things and I adopt a mock-vanity. I'm having a lectern built which will be a four-foot-high replica of an Emmy."
While there is no easy formula for successful comedy, since The Office first aired Gervais does seem to have been possessed with something of a Midas touch.
While it may have been tempting to cash in on the commercial success of The Office, he and Merchant quit while they were ahead after two series.
As the critics were busy wondering whether anything they did in the future would ever be as good, they returned with Extras and Gervais has also been busy promoting himself stateside, starring in the films For Your Consideration, with Christopher Guest, and Night at the Museum, opposite Ben Stiller.
He knows that at some point this favourable tide will turn, but since he started out on the comedy circuit he has never been worried about critics, so he's not about to start now.
"I've never asked to be reviewed. Nobody called up the paper and said, 'We've made this programme called The Office. I don't know if it's any good – would you please tell me?'," he says.
"The editor just shouts out to his office, 'Is anyone here a professional comedian? No? Okay, then, has anyone got a computer and half-an-hour to spare? Good. Tell Gervais where he's going wrong, will you?'"
The 45-year-old admits Extras may have run its course now and while he adds that they might revive it for Comic Relief, for the time being he is happy to concentrate on his thriving career as a stand-up.
"An audience is the most wonderful barometer of comedy," he beams. "You only know if you've nailed a joke from the roar or the whimper of the crowd. It's the best feedback you can get.
"I've only done as many gigs in my life as most comedians do in a year, but I feel like I'm getting there now. I'm gaining confidence. I used to treat stand-up like a telly performance and I feared the audience's judgment.
"But now I just don't think about it. It's like golf – you can only hit the ball perfectly when you don't think about it anymore. I want to be as funny and relaxed on stage as I am in a pub full of friends.
"Might it be in my blood to stand in the middle of a room and show off? I reckon it just might."