A Live-Action Comic in the Animated Flesh

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s popular podcasts come to life in HBO’s new animated venture, The Ricky Gervais Show.

With successes in television, film and stand-up firmly tucked under his belt, British comedian Ricky Gervais sets out to conquer the animated airwaves this month. The award-winning Extras and The Office creator/star’s inimitable brand of Queen’s English humor is sure to win over American fans yet again as The Ricky Gervais show brings his off-beat musings into the toon world, thanks to Media Rights Capital (which previously collaborated with HBO on The Life and Times of Tim) and W!LDBRAIN’s (Yo Gabba Gabba!, Higglytown Heroes) animation efforts.

The show, which is written and directed by Gervais and his long-time partner in crime Stephen Merchant, is chock full of material plucked straight from the duo’s popular podcasts in which they’re joined by eccentric friend and collaborator Karl Pilkington, who provides much of the off-kilter material.

Like any good pop-culture cult, the idea for the show sprang from the podcasts’ loyal followers. ‘Fans of the show started animating their favorite bits and sticking them on YouTube,’ Gervais explains, ‘We realized that it was perfect for animation because of the ludicrous scenarios Karl came up with! ‘ Anything is possible [in animation]. So when Karl is imagining himself having superpowers, or living on another planet, or monkeys hosting chat shows, we can actually see his crazy ramblings in living color.’

This animation inspiration led to the production of some tooned-up podcasts for U.K.-based The Guardian‘s website, which went on to set a Guinness record for most downloaded video (move over, Tila Tequila). Soon after that, the wheels at HBO were set in motion to bring the project to American TV audiences. Glyn Hughes and Bob Higgins joined the trio as exec producers, and MRC set W!LDBRAIN to work on the series.

Revenge of the Round-Heads

According to Marge Dean, the show’s supervising animation producer and general manager at W!LDBRAIN’s So. Cal.-based animation studio, the series’ animated aspects were fleshed out over a three month period. ‘The unique aspect of this production was that we had no scripts and no actors,’ she notes, ‘We worked directly from preserved material ‘ the story was ‘developed’ over several years while Karl, Ricky and Stephen did their podcasts.’

The studio created the show’s graphically interesting look using a combination of Adobe’s Flash, Illustrator, Painter and After Effects, cobbling the episodes together with Final Cut Pro. Dean says that the average turn-around per episode is about 25 weeks and is usually bustling with creative challenges the show’s material presents. ‘We are animating random musings about everything in the world!’ she explains, ‘The demand on design is huge, with no re-use and no limitations.’

Gervais‘ quirky, adult humor is whimsically levied with a cartoony design sensibility that Dean says took inspiration from classic Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward works. And the process has proved interesting for helmer Gervais, who’although he has provided voice talent for toons like The Simpsons (his self-confessed all-time favorite), SpongeBob SquarePants and Valiant‘is gaining a whole new perspective on our enigmatic industry.

‘It’s been fantastic,’ he beams, ‘all the really hard work is being done by someone else. They are a great team and I love the results. I can just oversee the project and say things like, ‘Make his head rounder,’ and ‘The eyes should be more bulbous.’ I’ve learned a lot, too. I found out why cartoon people only have three fingers and a thumb: It saves 20 percent of your time and money animating a hand. Genius.’

Dean is equally enthusiastic about this uniquely crafted show. ‘Visualizing the insanity of Ricky, Stephen and Karl in funny drawings makes what is already funny even more hilarious,’ she says, adding that the pure comedic value of the source material keeps the studio excited for each new challenge. ‘Even in the throws of production, we know we’re working on something great and we laugh every time we develop and watch an episode.’

Invaders from Across the Pond

Up until the BBC and HBO joined forces to bring live-action hit Extras to U.S. airwaves, Gervais’ rib-ticklingly misanthropic antics were celebrated mostly in his U.K. homeland, and by a devoted Anglophile audience. Since launching into the mainstream he’s become an in-demand comedy commodity, with the Gervais Show adding to his overflowing plate. But he seems up for the challenge: ‘I get a solid eight or nine hours a night, but I dream some great jokes so no time is wasted,’ he reveals. And it shows!

With the obvious example of the American vs. British The Office debate, one wonders whether there were concerns that some of Gervais and Merchant’s humor wouldn’t translate with American TV audiences. But Gervais is untroubled. ‘America is my Mecca for comedy,’ he admits, citing idols from Laurel & Hardy, to Larry David, to Dave Chappelle (with many more in between). ‘The best of American comedy is audacious and HBO is the perfect channel for this odd little show.’ Which is good news for the podcast purists, although the creator does note that ‘any parochial cultural references’ tended to be cut from the cartoon adaptation.

For those not yet familiar with the material, some high point bits the quirky trio recommend you not miss in the new series include Pilkington’s hilarious childhood remembrances, the popular Monkey News segments and one of Gervais’ personal favorites in the second episode in which an enterprising fellow invents a Sex Machine. (Parents, no matter how charming the characters look, remember this is an HBO show!)

While Gervais is easily old-hat at the TV biz by now and is finding his foray into animation an enjoyable romp, that can’t prevent him from the worry that many creatives face when moving a project into the major network spotlight: keeping it real. ‘I suppose the biggest challenge when you’ve got millions of pounds to spend and some of the best talent in the business working towards excellence, to to keep what made the show so popular in the first place’the simplicity and honesty of a strange little man called Karl Pilkington,’ he muses. ‘We’ve had 180 million downloads so far, so we want to stay faithful to the casual nature of the show.’

The Ricky Gervais Show is shaping up to be a great example animation fans can turn to to show that with the right star power, the right material and the right studio, the animated art form can not only bring an outside concept into its world, but bring it to life in an all new shining way for the world around it.

The Ricky Gervais Show premieres February 19 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Clips and info can be found at hbo.com and rickygervais.com.