The English comedian has a new stand-up special premiering on HBO on Saturday, just weeks before the DVD release of the first season of "The Ricky Gervais Show," an animated incarnation of the popular podcasts he does with "mates" Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington that also airs on the cable channel.
The series' second season premieres the same weekend Gervais is due for a return engagement hosting the telecast of the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 16 on NBC; the day before that ceremony, he'll shoot a small, walk-on part in Disney's new Muppets movie, due out in November.
"I feel a bit like Mickey Rooney or something," Gervais quipped. "I just went straight to cameo without having the 50-year career."
But when asked if he's at all stressed about his workload these days, Gervais, calling from England, demurs that his schedule really isn't so bad — since he typically turns down projects that would demand too much of him.
"I get offered these great scripts all the time, and I say, 'How long is the shoot?' They say 35 days, and I go, 'Oh really, where is it?' If the answer is not near my house, it's usually a no. The questions I'll go through, I only need one no, and I usually get to it before the bottom: 'Who else is in it? Do I have to wear a wig? Can I do my own accent?'"
Does Gervais get offered a lot of roles that would require him to wear a wig?
"No, but you still have to check it, because you don't want to be surprised on the day."
Gervais has joked before about his laziness, a trait that seems difficult to reconcile with the prolific clip at which he works. Since his breakthrough comedy of discomfort, "The Office," he's created, written, directed and starred (with Merchant) in HBO's "Extras," produced a whole slew of his podcasts and appeared in three feature films, " Ghost Town," "The Invention of Lying" and, most recently, "Cemetery Junction," writing and directing the latter two, in addition to touring solo performing stand-up.
Filmed during a stop at the Chicago Theatre, his new special "Ricky Gervais: Out of England 2 — The Stand-Up Special" sees a slimmed-down Gervais take on all sorts of politically incorrect subjects; if you're not up for long stretches of jokes about overweight people or the Bible (one extended bit has Gervais riffing on the story of Noah as told in a storybook he received while in Sunday school as a child), consider yourself warned.
Gervais said that working in America has made him a better stand-up comedian. Instead of easy cultural references that would play at home in England, he's had to search for more universal material. As for the controversial nature of some of his targets, that's entirely intentional. Those choices go to Gervais' firm belief that the best comedians don't just make people laugh, they provoke their audiences to think deeply too.
"I think that a comedian should take you to places that you haven't been before," Gervais says. "I really do feel that there's enough anodyne comedy, people that are huge but they're not saying anything. 'Don't old people say funny things?' Sometimes they do, yeah. OK, good."
Rather, Gervais admires people like Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks, or Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock and Louis C.K., the trio with whom he just recorded a wide-ranging conversation about the art of comedy that he's going to edit into an hourlong special for HBO. Gervais uses words like "honest" and "innovative" and "groundbreaking" to describe those men, and he hopes to be considered alongside them.
"You see all these people and you go, 'I want my name to be mentioned No. 9 after those,'" Gervais says. "I'd say you give yourself pressure in your mind, but I've just said it publicly to one of the biggest papers in the world. These are thoughts you should have and never tell anyone. 'I'm trying to be bigger than Jesus, but I'm keeping that to myself.'"
The 49-year-old gleefully tosses off comments seemingly designed to make the thin-skinned bristle because he enjoys provoking a strong reaction from people. But Gervais says that it does matter to him what others think, that he doesn't set out to alienate anyone. He insists that comedy comes from either "a good or a bad place," and his humor, he says, stems from the right side of that dividing line.
"The point of any art, even one as lowly as TV comedy or stand-up, the point is to make a connection with a stranger," Gervais says. "For me it's the size of that connection, not how many people it slightly connects with. When I did 'The Office,' I said I'd rather this was a million people's favorite show of the year than 10 million people's 10th favorite show. I'm still very conscious of that. Originality is very important to me.
"Of course, now I get accused of ripping myself off. So I can't win."