by Mark Follman / Rolling Stone
27th December 2007
The encore Christmas special for the British television comedy Extras, debuting Stateside this Sunday, is a dissonant and satisfying coda to the acclaimed series starring comedian Ricky Gervais. Wickedly funny and at turns surprisingly dramatic, the feature-length special follows the further travails of the self-absorbed, wannabe actor Andy Millman (Gervais). After gaining commercial success with a lame-as-hell lowbrow TV comedy in Season Two of the series, Andy has slid deeper into his obsession with fame and fortune. He drifts away from his sweet but mopey pal Maggie (Ashley Jensen), and dumps his bumbling agent Darren (played by Stephen Merchant, Gervais’ longtime creative partner). Andy hires a slick corporate agent who couldn’t give a crap about artistic integrity — and neither could Andy, apparently. All he really wants is a star turn in a Hollywood film. He plummets to a humiliating new low to boost his profile, signing on for a stint with a bunch of inane D-listers inside the locked-down house of Celebrity Big Brother.
The Hollywood-minded finale of Extras comes at a fitting time for Gervais: He has in fact just wrapped work on his first starring role in a Hollywood feature film. On Tuesday, at the conclusion of two months spent in New York shooting Ghost Town (a comedy due in theaters later next year), Gervais is doing a scene with a Great Dane. Unfortunately, the dog refuses to bark on cue; it’s as if he’s just snacked on Quaaludes back in his kennel. After four or five takes and some useless coaxing by the dog trainer, Ricky Gervais the Movie Star seems to be getting royally pissed off.
OK, not really. “I think he’s probably a writer,” Gervais tells me in his best deadpan, eyeing the docile hound. “He’s on strike.” Gervais then busts into that impish guffaw of his — having a laugh, as it were, on behalf of all those abused Hollywood scribes who’ve been out howling on the picket lines since early November.
Gervais is a damn dedicated writer himself — as with Extras, he also penned and directed the meticulously crafted hit series The Office, along with partner Merchant. (Gervais starred in that series as well, as the pitifully self-inflated office manager David Brent.) The comedy duo’s masterful portrait of workplace banality, insecurity and barely repressed depravity became one of the most successful shows in U.K. history, and gave rise to the popular American version starring Steve Carell.
The Office and Extras landed Golden Globe and Emmy awards on Gervais’ shelf, but it was perhaps winning a Grammy that he once dreamed about. “Music is still my first love, more than film or comedy,” he says. Long before TV stardom, back when he was a student in London in the early 1980s, Gervais was part of a pop group called Seona Dancing. Their songs blipped briefly on the U.K. charts and reportedly lit it up with teens in the Philippines, of all places. “You don’t really talk about your failures, do you?” Gervais laughs.
But some of the greatest moments in both hit series riff from music. In one episode of The Office, Gervais’ David Brent whips out a guitar to break up a tedious employee seminar by performing “Freelove Freeway,” an original acoustic rocker worthy of Spinal Tap. And perhaps the most darkly brilliant moment in Extras comes with the now-famed song ridiculing Andy Millman, performed by David Bowie, who guest-starred in the second episode of Season Two.
“It was amazing of course, having Bowie on the show,” says Gervais. “I’ve been into Bowie since I was about sixteen. I sent the lyrics and called him up and asked him if he got them, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah …'” (Gervais switches to a slightly spaced-out, ruminative voice when he does Bowie talking.) “And I said to him, ‘We’re thinking of the music to be sort of retro, like “Life on Mars” ‘ — and Bowie said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just knock off a “Life on Mars” for you, shall I?’ ”
Gervais was giddy but didn’t quite know what to expect. “He came to the rehearsal the day before the shoot and said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this thing …'” Gervais shakes his head. “It was perfect!” he exclaims. “All the little bits to it. It was amazing, because what he did was, he gave us Bowie!”
“I felt a bit worried about it,” Gervais adds, “because we didn’t ever go with surreal in the series — and that was nearly surreal, having Andy Millman bumping into Bowie in a club, and having everyone singing along like that. But then I thought, Andy Millman is going to clubs where Bowie hangs out, and Bowie does play piano, and wouldn’t it be funny if he just did this? So it wasn’t surreal so much as unlikely — and when we saw it, it was just too good.”
The Extras finale continues with cameos by big stars such as Clive Owen, who appear as extra-sullied versions of themselves. And Andy Millman reveals a personal streak toward the end that might even be worthy of, well, a Hollywood ending. The special also includes one well-known British pop star — you’ll have to watch to find out which, but here’s a hint: One of his greatest hits involved a lewd act in a public bathroom. Maybe only someone with Ricky Gervais’ talent could enlist such a guy to step in front of the camera for an encore riff about the dark side of the Celebrity Age.
The Extras Christmas Special airs Sunday, December 16th, on HBO.