Be a Cocky Little Nobody

Ricky Gervais on what's made him so successful

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Ray Burmiston
Ray Burmiston

TIME asked Ricky Gervais to write about the secrets of his success. 

Whenever I’m asked that standard question, “What advice would you give to someone who wants success like yours,” I say “work hard, be original and write about what you know” (I’m always tempted to add “and get final edit” but I’m aware that this is very difficult starting out, and that I’m an incredibly rare case to have always been afforded this privilege.)

The first, “work hard,” is not only the most important, but actually, essential. I believe that if you didn’t have to work for something, it can’t truly be considered success. Luck doesn’t count. I think success is allowed a certain pride and you can’t be proud of luck or even of being born smart, artistic, or talented. It’s what you do with it that counts. I think I learnt this lesson relatively late in life. I was one of those people who would pride themselves on getting results without trying too hard. Passing exams without revising too much. I realize now, that was the wrong attitude. You should always try your hardest. The Office was the first thing I really tried my hardest at. I don’t know why I started this radical new approach then, but I think it was one of those carpe diem type revelations. I came into the industry with a slightly older head on my shoulders than most and maybe deep down knew I shouldn’t blow the opportunity. I put everything into it. A lifetime of experiences, and I couldn’t have been prouder of the results. I don’t even mean the success of the show, but simply the finished product. I was the laziest man in the world before I made The Office but now I’m addicted to that sort of success. Pride in my work. Now I’m a workaholic, because I realize that the hard work is sort of a reward in itself. Winston Churchill said, “If you find a job you really love, you’ll never work again.” That’s what it feels like most of the time. I love it so it’s less like work and more like play. Although I’m a strong believer that creativity is the ability to play.

(MORE: Ricky Gervais on The Difference Between American and British Humour)

Secondly, being original is often considered dangerous if you want huge mainstream success. It seems safer to make anodyne stuff that most people might consume without offense. Homogenized by committee and focus grouped to be like something else that was quite successful. The white sliced bread of art. This is indeed a reasonably safe approach but where’s the fun, apart from the commercial gain? As a businessman this strategy makes perfect sense, but not as an artist. And here’s the thing. From my own experiences I’ve learned that quirky, different, fringe projects that may only be cult, often travel a lot better internationally. Mainstream comedians and TV shows that might be the biggest thing, on say, UK TV for a while, often don’t sell a sausage around the world. Comics selling out arenas in the UK often can’t sell a ticket in America or many other places. If you do something peculiar and remarkable it might not be for mass consumption in your own country but there are 7 billion people in the world. People everywhere in the world will recognize and appreciate its innovation. A world cult is many times bigger than a single country’s mainstream hit. So in the long run, being different can make commercial sense as well as artistic sense. And you’ll often hear the term “water cooler moment.” The broadest, most inoffensive, mainstream hits are so often the least “talked about.” They just happen and wash over a disconcerting majority once a week. Again, this is fine if you just want commercial success but it’s soul destroying if you have loftier ambitions.

The third thing is to write about what you know. Making The Office taught me this. I truly believe this was a huge part of the show’s success. I worked in a real office for 10 years and since I’ve always been a people watcher, or “piss taking twat,” as it’s also known, it was easy to keep an uncompromising attention to detail. Whatever I didn’t know starting out, I did know the truth of the minutiae of modern day behaviour, and exactly how it should look. In my case, it was paramount to get final edit but as I said earlier, this is very rare for a cocky little nobody, like I was back then, to attain.

I was going to call my autobiography A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Office, but I think Cocky Little Nobody is much better. Be a cocky little nobody. But work hard, be original and write about what you know.