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COMEDY OF ERRORS: Actor, comedian, and acoustic guitar aficionado Ricky Gervais finds the humor and pathos in failed rock star dreams with David Brent: Life on the Road, his new Netflix film.
By Dan Epstein | Photographed by Eleanor Jane
Guitars courtesy of Fender EMEA
In all my years as a musician and a journalist, I’ve never met anyone who knows more about guitars than Ricky Gervais.
At least, that’s what Ricky Gervais wants me to tell you. “Make it look really good for me,” he says, gleefully punctuating his instructions with a manic cackle. “Say, ‘In fact, if I worked for a guitar company, I’d send him a free one. Immediately.’”
All joking aside, the Emmy- and Golden Globes–winning English comedian/writer/actor/director—and creator and star of such TV comedies as Derek, Extras, and the original British version of The Office—readily admits that he’s “no expert” when it comes to the playing or collecting of guitars. Which is why he feels a tad conflicted about posing with several exquisite axes for our Guitar Aficionado photo shoot.
“My worry is that I’m a fat little comedian,” he says. “Me trying to pose like I think I’m Eddie Van Halen would not go well, so I went for mucking around a little bit instead.
“But I know guitarists take guitars very seriously,” he continues, “so it would be quite easy for your readers to see me having fun with these beautiful instruments and go, ‘How dare he? How dare he treat a White Falcon like that? You fat little idiot!’”
Rest assured, however, that Gervais’ affection for guitars is very real indeed, even if he’s not exactly your classic guitar hero. “Guitars are beautiful objects to me, as well as something to make music on,” he says. “Apart from its status and how cool and important it is in the history of music, a guitar is a piece of art—it’s sculpture as a functional object.” A guitar player himself for more than 40 years now, Gervais utilizes his picking and songwriting chops to excellent effect in David Brent: Life on the Road, a Netflix original film that makes its U.S. debut this February.
The mockumentary film follows David Brent, the socially awkward main character Gervais portrayed on The Office, as he makes a last-ditch bid for rock stardom. Armed with well-meaning but cringe-worthy songs like “Free Love Freeway,” “Native American,” and “Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds,” Brent, who now makes his living as a sales rep for a lavatory-supplies firm in the suburban town of Slough, cashes in his retirement savings and hits the road with a band of high-priced sidemen (including Razorlight’s Andy Burrows) for a two-week tour of small venues primarily located within a short driving distance of Brent’s apartment. At once agonizingly uncomfortable and screamingly funny, David Brent: Life on the Road also makes some pointed observations about our culture’s current obsession with fame, as well as the absurd lengths that people will often go in its pursuit.
“David Brent is a character in the classic British comedy tradition, an ordinary guy trying to do something he’s not fit to do,” Gervais explains. “In The Office, he wanted to be loved, he wanted to be thought of as a great philosopher. He wanted his life to turn out better and get these great rewards, and he thought appearing in a docu-series would make that happen.
“But people think fame is a shortcut to happiness,” he continues, “and it’s just not. And David Brent, now he’s even sadder. He’s 55, he’s a sales rep, and of course he still wants to be famous. He sees people like Susan Boyle making millions, and he thinks, I could do that! He’s putting a band together, he’s writing songs. But he’s wrong for that world, because no real A&R man is going to come along and sign a 55-year-old tampon rep,” he says, laughing. “He’s unlucky, and he’s been sold a lie, like most people have, and he’s hemorrhaging money to achieve his dream with this vanity project. So there are all these conflicting emotions to it.”