From their onscreen personalities, you’d likely peg Ricky Gervais as the prankster, and Stephen Merchant the ballast. But the team behind Extras and The Office actually play equal roles in creating their well-known vehicles for poking holes in bombast and pretension.
"It’s a fluid process—there’s endless conversation and bantering back and forth," said Merchant recently at the Television Critics Association Press Tour. "It’s like a pinball machine. We never sit and think, 'What can we do that will be shocking or outrageous?' It’s always to do something honest or observational."
"We don’t go away and write scripts by ourselves and hand them in," added Gervais. "We’re always in the room. We act things out and it all comes from improv and impressions. What’s worked for us, is that we see eye-to-eye on most things. We also have a rule: it’s one veto and it’s out. It’s not tit for tat. So what we’re left with is a half hour that we both love."
Their latest effort, Life’s Too Short, which premieres Feb. 19 on HBO, continues their exploration of the corrupting elements of fame and ego. In it, Warwick Davis (Willow, Harry Potter and Star Wars films) stars as a fading little person actor who tries to connive his way back to the limelight while contending with the humiliations that accompany a literal and figurative short stature. "I’ve never had so much fun directing," laughed Gervais. "There’s nothing he won’t do. Dress him up, throw him around, make him climb a bookshelf, shove him down a toilet—that’s a good day’s work…"
Many of the scenes spring from Davis’ own life and observations. "What starts as an amusing anecdote becomes hilarious once they put their hands on it," added Davis. "The things that hadn’t happened to me that Ricky and Stephen wrote, I always wondered why they hadn’t happened to me."
Still, to make their points on celebrity’s bottomless well of need, Gervais and Merchant had to put a malicious twist on the real-life Davis. "He’s drenched in humanity," lamented Gervais. "We had to make him like a Hitler for you to get the gag."
"Fame these days is much more aggressive," he added. "There’s no shame in anything. You can’t exaggerate it—you can’t do something that’s so ridiculous that it isn’t happening in Hollywood. I think the job of a comedian isn’t just to make you laugh, but to make you think as well. There’s no difference now between fame and infamy. We always want to show someone who’s got a skill, as an actor, write, director—and someone who just shows their false breasts."