Looking at Extras, the second comedy project from Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, a decade on, you realise for all the Leveson enquiries, disgraced newspapers and changing models of television, the world of media and entertainment looks a great deal similar. Few lessons have been learned. Most structures and institutions remain the same.
Because, let’s not split hairs, Extras was and indeed remains a quite clear cautionary tale about the lure and subsequent perils of fame. Not just fame either but fame for fame’s sake, both of which are areas Gervais’ show touches upon the deeper it propels into its narrative over the course of two six part seasons and a feature-length Christmas special finale.
Extras turned out to be much like The Office, its predecessor that took Gervais from a memorably offensive supporting player on late-90’s edgy Channel 4 comedy and made him a star of international, indeed Hollywood proportions. Not in style, not even in story, but in the sense of how it constructed a story arc around a concept and concluded in strong, often quite dramatic fashion.
Though it lacked the iconic nature of The Office, Extras had the heart, many of the laughs, and certainly had the point of why it existed, right up to the very final scene.
Coming just a few years after The Office, in many respects Extras was a natural, organic evolution of storytelling for Gervais & Merchant. If you examine The Office, it was as much about seeking fame and adulation as it was about unspoken love, friendship and loneliness. David Brent, Gervais’ still iconic comedy creation, was a figure of deep pathos but right up to the two-part finale, his story arc was all about wanting to be “a chilled-out entertainer” as he once described himself.
Granted, for Brent, it was more to do with his own psychology about self-esteem and human companionship as needing the limelight—a lesson he truly learns in Life on the Road, the sequel movie which came in 2016—but much of the comedy surrounding Brent, from which most of the comedy in The Office itself stemmed, came from Brent turning an office meeting into a stand-up gig, or a training day into a guitar session, through to memorable embarrassing Red Nose Day dance-offs and roping poor receptionist Dawn into carrying his sweaty clothes while doing motivational speaking after work, which again he turns into a one-man show more about him than his messages. Always on, always entertaining. These were writers fascinated by the attraction and drawbacks of fame and performance.
It therefore made sense for them to explore this in Extras and, to some degree, parallel Gervais’ own rise to fame. Many have commented how Gervais always plays himself to some degree—whether as Brent or even an Irish terrorist in American TV spy show Alias (no, really, and believe it or not he’s actually rather good)—but never has this been more apparent than as Andy Millman, the middle-aged, ex-bank clerk from Reading who saves money, quits his job and becomes a film/TV extra who hopes to shop a comedy script and get his big break as a writer/performer.
Andy, certainly in the first series, is often the straight man surrounded by eccentrics – be they his amiably sweet and dim best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen), his loud, ignoramus of an agent Darren (played by an often scene-stealing Merchant) and any number of A-list celebrities sending themselves up beautifully, whether it’s Patrick Stewart as a pervy director or Daniel Radcliffe as a horny teenager. Andy is frequently the outsider looking in at a bizarre, funhouse mirror world, often filled with people who may be rich and famous but are either depressed, loathsome or bewildered.
Extras is one of the more fascinating British comedies in recent years precisely because it seems to be a channel for a great deal of Gervais’ own psychology, not just about fame but about existentialism and the realisation of potential. He has talked at length about his own long-held absence of ambition and how retrospectively frustrated he ended up because of it:
I never tried hard at anything. I was born smart on a very working-class estate. A couple of people I knew went to university apart from me, but all the way through I was the smartest kid in the school. That’s luck, but I was proud of it. And I was also proud of doing well without trying. As you get older, and it took me a long time to realise it, that’s a disgusting attitude, revolting. It’s ignorant and it’s a tragic waste, and I realised that the work itself is the reward. The struggle itself is the reward.
Andy essentially embodies this philosophy, only he hasn’t learned the last part, or has rejected it. He is the smartest man in the room most of the time and he knows it, precisely because he surrounds himself with buffoons and idiots. There is a central contradiction in his character which plays out in the second series (when Extras really begins to figure out the story it’s really telling), where Andy manages to make a BBC One prime-time sitcom but in order to chase ratings, sell merchandise and appeal to a mass audience, his original piece of work is strip-mined by producers who turn it into a throwback to 1970’s, corny, audience-baiting catchphrase excess – the exact opposite of what Gervais made his career on.
Yet despite hating the fact the ‘stupid’ mass public watch the show, it gets six million viewers. It makes Andy famous, and rich. And when, in the episode ‘David Bowie’, he rejects moronic fans who court him in a local pub only to be ridiculed openly by bigger celebrities and middle-class people in a London wine bar, he returns to the bosom of the original lowest common denominator he rejected for validation and respect.
Ego drives Extras, as you sense it drives Gervais. He consistently attempts to underplay his own abilities and insecurities, or throw a sense of self-awareness on his words, yet he equally plays up to the very accusations he denies. His third stand-up tour is even called ‘Fame’, has him come on stage wearing a crown and King’s robes, and he spends most of the set talking about his Golden Globes. He’s both self-effacing and yet not, just as Andy is. He is self-aware but at the same time seems to believe in the very things he mocks, or is distrustful of them. You wonder, indeed, just how tolerant of minority groups Gervais is given the sheer volume of jokes about gay people (especially gay people), black people, dwarves, the disabled, Down Syndrome, the homeless, Japanese people, Jews, and on and on and on, you find in Extras. It’s really quite remarkable with distance. The episode ‘Sir Ian McKellen’ is really quite hard to watch these days in places, as good a sport as McKellen is.
It’s an inherent contradiction that helps Extras, if anything, because the very point is that Andy doesn’t really know what he wants out of fame, bar the sheer fact he achieved it. Through the first series, as an extra, he chases opportunities to ‘get in’ with the right people and Gervais/Merchant’s comedy is frequently built around how spectacularly Andy (often with Maggie as his sidekick) unwittingly digs the deepest hole he can’t get out of and messes up his chances. It’s part of the three sides to Extras’ comedy – the embarrassment, in the same manner Gervais pioneered in many ways in The Office; the stupidity of Maggie, which only increases as the series goes on for comic effect (sometimes to the detriment of the character) and the aforementioned bizarre behaviour of the celebrities in each episode, playing extreme versions of themselves usually. The episode ‘Les Dennis’ (possibly the best episode of Extras overall) is a great example of all of these things.
Yet its the second series when Gervais & Merchant truly give Extras a level of commentary which touches deeper into the very history of situation comedy itself, and the evolution of the art form. By anchoring each episode with scenes from the set of ‘When the Whistle Blows’, Andy’s fictional sitcom within the series, Extras manages to pick apart retrograde studio comedy from the inside, with all the terrible jokes which abandon the very concept of narrative and structure.
In the episode ‘Chris Martin’, when Andy and his producer meet the Coldplay singer at a charity shoot, Martin casually claims he’s a fan and wants to be in the show and, despite the protestations of Andy, Martin ends up appearing as himself and singing a song to promote his album. In a scripted series about factory workers in Wigan. It’s as ludicrous as it sounds yet Andy feels like he’s the only person who can see it, the only person frustrated the integrity of what is supposed to be a fictional construct is being abused in order to chase ratings and appeal to bigger stars.
Gervais certainly has choice words about the place of such comedy, which still exists today in shows such as Mrs Brown’s Boys, which if anything have seen a more populist reversal toward retro-British fare that the writers of Extras may have seen coming:
I just wouldn’t do it, and I know that I wouldn’t be happy doing it, because it’s too easy. There’s nothing wrong with it. Those shows still exist in England, they have for 30 years, there’s no change there, but you know what? On one side, there’s people wearing wigs and doing smutty innuendo and shouting a catchphrase, and on the other side, there’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development and Larry Sanders and Christopher Guest. I don’t sit through shows and go, “Damn them, why do they put that on?” I just don’t watch them. It’s not a crusade. It’s a source of comedy for me. That those shows exist is better for me, I think. That’s great. Long live them! Unfortunately, I’m compared with The Office. I can’t win. That’s what’s unfair. I want Extras to be compared to When The Whistle Blows. For every wacky postcard, there’s a million people waiting to buy it, and for every $10 million of those things, there’s one Rembrandt. Purposely, I think I want to aim at doing something that a lot of people won’t like. You want a door policy on your club. It’s as simple as that. I’m just worried that it looks like I’ve compared my work with Rembrandt. “Gervais says he’s better than Rembrandt!”
It all comes together in the Christmas Special finale of Extras, in which Andy’s flash new agent Tre Cooper, in trying to convince Andy not to end the sitcom, describing it as “like killing a cash cow”, gets him to produce a special episode set in Spain, against Andy’s better judgement. He’s us, because he’s seen this all before. Much like many tropes inside the fictional ‘When the Whistle Blows’, the staff outing to Spain was a common, lazy piece of storytelling employed by some of the most retrospectively questionable sitcoms of the 1970’s and 1980’s – Are You Being Served? even got a big-screen version out of the concept! Gervais & Merchant seem fascinated by dissecting why these comic tropes were lazy, are lazy, and yet why people remain consistently entertained by comedy they—and Andy—consider inferior, even to this day. They’re like social comedy scientists, attempting to understand the same audience everyone is chasing: the mass audience.
This becomes Andy’s central problem, especially by the final episode. He’s famous. He’s rich. He could make a comedy the public love but the critics regularly pour scorn upon for years. He could be on panel shows, date well-known celebrity women, appear in guest spots on popular BBC shows such as Doctor Who and Hotel Babylon. Yet what he wants is respect. He wants critical admiration, which he sees in the smug rise of his casually undermining nemesis (and fellow former extra) Greg Lindley-Jones as a serious theatre & film actor. Andy is consistently restless about his place in the landscape of fame, and what it means. In the end, he wants both critical respect and fame & fortune, and his new agent spells it out: “there are only a few people in the world who have both of those things… and you will never be one of them.”
It’s a hard lesson, and one Gervais never had to learn, because he is the representation of a successful version of Andy. As a middle-aged man coming out of nowhere with a script and a lead role, he didn’t make ‘When the Whistle Blows’, he made The Office. He made the comedy Andy believes he wrote originally in the pilot for the BBC. Andy is almost what could have been of Gervais and once you realise that, Extras as a whole falls very clearly into place as not just a cautionary tale about how the promise of fame may not be what makes you happy, but Gervais perhaps communicating how lucky he knows he’s been as a writer & performer to avoid becoming Andy along the way. Much as Merchant wrote co-wrote Extras (and his skills tempering Gervais’ excesses have always been a key reason why most of their collaborations work) and ends up playing a key supporting role, the show feels like an extension of Gervais himself, and his philosophy, even more so than The Office was.
Hence why, at the end of Extras final episode, Andy’s defining catharsis comes on Celebrity Big Brother in what remains perhaps the most powerful moment of comedy-drama Gervais has ever delivered, after David Brent begging to keep his job in the second season finale of The Office. He delivers a powerful and incisive takedown of facile celebrity fame, the British press, and mass entertainment, which prefigures Leveson, the fall of the News of the World, and the reactionary bite-back at Rupert Murdoch’s pervasive newspaper & media empire which has taken place over the last five or more years. Gervais talked fairly recently at where the culture has developed in the wake of these British media developments:
My career is sort of because of bad reality shows. When I wrote The Office, apart from working in an office for 10 years, the biggest influence on that was me watching those docu-soaps of the ’90s where it all started. It was quite quaint, then, and about a normal guy being famous for 15 minutes, and now he’s got a DVD to show his kids and that was the end of it. Now, it’s insatiable. Now, there’s a new breed of famous. They will do anything to be on TV and to be famous. They will live their life like an open wound, they will let the cameras into their lives 24/7. There’s no difference now between fame and infamy. They will do awful things if it keeps them in the limelight. You’ve now got trolls that are famous, that are so-called journalists, and they get invited to say awful things for clickbait. They do morning shows and Celebrity Big Brother. It’s a new breed of, ”I’d rather be hated, than not known.
These comments underline where he was afraid we were going in that final moment in Extras, brilliantly delivered by Andy while surrounded by a group of real-life vacuous D-list celebrities (Lionel Blair, Chico, Lisa from Steps), who you can’t help but wonder were themselves unaware while filming of the place in Gervais’ mindset they featured. Extras ended at the close of 2007, the same year Facebook launched and kickstarted the modern social media revolution which has consumed and changed our society. It serves as a last bastion warning, almost, of where this obsession with fame for fame’s sake would take us – in a world where YouTube stars are now disgraced for filming the aftermath of suicides or, of course, a repellent TV show pantomime villain has manipulated the media to become the most divisive, nay hated, President of the United States in decades. Extras didn’t see everything, but it sensed something.
For Ricky Gervais, it serves as, to date, his last truly great piece of work. His later collaborations with Merchant lacked the same potency and piquancy; Life’s Too Short, which focused on one-time Extras guest star Warwick Davis’ attempts to be a success in the entertainment world barely made a dent and Cemetery Junction, their auto-biographical comedy-drama movie set in 1970’s Reading flatlined when it should have sparkled.
His own personal projects have if anything been even worse; anaemic comedies such as The Invention of Lying, miscast major Hollywood roles in films such as Ghost Town, and his last British TV series—the old people’s home set Derek for Channel 4—can only be described as a powerfully misjudged piece of work, which only serves to prove Gervais is in a position Andy Millman would never reach – he can make anything, no matter how poor it is.
While people will always fete The Office as a British comedy classic—and it indeed is—Extras deserves not to fade into obscurity. Broad as it ends up becoming, replete with some incredibly awkward moments of stereotyping minorities for quite nasty comic effect, it is also a very keenly observed exploration of the price of fame, particularly in the pre-social media, post-reality TV period of the mid-late 2000’s. It almost couldn’t have been made any later. Gervais may have been too depressed by the state of the world around him to even then try.