For a long time Ricky Gervais believed that, to stay big, he had to go small. “I’m all for freedom of speech and not being censored. And I’ve always sort of demanded final edit. And I’ve always got it. But there’s been a compromise: I’ve always gone to small channels. So it was BBC Two, not BBC One, Channel Four not ITV, HBO not NBC.”
That was before Netflix, which this week releases season three of After Life, Gervais’s unflinching sitcom about grief and recovery (he writes, directs and plays the lead character).
Netflix has in recent months found itself at the centre of a debate about comedy and censorship – about where freedom of expression ends and hate speech begins – amid claims a recent live ‘special’ by the American stand-up David Chapelle contained anti-trans jokes.
That argument has raged and raged. But Netflix hasn’t pulled The Closer. And it has confirmed that Chappelle has two more Netflix specials in the works. Given that Gervais is on record as stating that, when it comes to a joke, no subject should be off the table, it’s tempting to conclude that, at Netflix, he has the perfect home.
“Netflix come along and they say, ‘we don’t interfere… and we’ve got 200 million subscribers’. It’s a no brainer for me,” Gervais says in a Zoom interview (over his shoulder is a cabinet laden down with Baftas and Emmys). “They’ve got it financially and in terms of global reach of the viewership. And the non-censorship – I mean, they’re out ahead. At the moment it’s a no-brainer for me. It’s Netflix all the way.”
In After Life Gervais’s character, Tony, is a reporter on a local newspaper struggling to move on from the death from breast cancer of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman, seen in extensive flashbacks). It’s a black comedy and is at times dogged in its bleakness: one nadir came in season two when Tony attempted suicide.
Now, as the final series begins, he’s in a relationship with care-home nurse Emma (Ashley Jensen). And yet, still mourning his wife, he keeps Emma at arm’s length.
After Life is hugely popular though its whiplash swerves from angst to crude humour are perhaps not for everyone. Gervais certainly isn’t reluctant to make Tony unlikeable: at times he comes across as a mewling man-child who seems to think he’s the only person in human history to have ever been bereaved. Grumpy and sweary, the character is certainly far less fun than Gervais’s most famous creation, toe-curling boss David Brent from The Office.
“After Life is the most popular British sitcom in the world in the last 10 years, I think,” says Tony Way, who plays the Tambury Gazette’s sad-sack photographer Lenny. “And the c-word is used regularly. Both c-words: cancer [and the other one]. There’s all sorts things in it you wouldn’t expect.
“But its popularity – it’s huge. It’s made me rethink what ‘mainstream’ means. I don’t think you’d see this on a major channel being put out at a popular time. Say sort of the same time that Only Fools and Horses or something like that. I think you probably wouldn’t ever get the language and the topics covered in the show on telly, you know, probably before 10pm. So it’s sort of insane. I think we might have to all rethink what mainstream sitcoms are because people clearly can handle it. And they clearly like it.”
The show is also unique in that it frankly addresses the often taboo subject of death, says Way. “We don’t spend all day on set morbidly talking about death and grief. But it is something that is talked about, especially in rehearsals. Much more than you would in any other sitcom. It’s a topic of conversation – and for better, not for worse. It’s good to chat about this stuff. But we don’t chat about it. Especially not blokes.”
Diane Morgan, who plays Tambury Gazette advertising executive Kath [and is best known for her character Philomena Cunk], was struck by how admired the series was when she went overseas. “I’ve never been involved with anything like this. It is international – loved all over the world. I went to Australia and people were coming up to me talking about After Life.”
“This isn’t the biggest it will be,” adds Gervais, 60. “People are watching it again. Everyone tweets me they’re watching the first two seasons again. Some people are saying they’ve watched it 11 times. It’s just going to keep growing and growing. And the knock-on effect of all the people who watch After Life is that they find [Gervais’ earlier sitcom] Derek. Because Derek apparently went up 40 per cent in its viewership when After