Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais

NEW YORK — Ricky Gervais is more than an award-winning comedy superstar. With the academic approach he takes to his trade, Gervais is more like an emeritus professor at the University of Funny.

In advance of Tuesday’s DVD release of his HBO stand-up special — “Ricky Gervais: Out of England” — Gervais visited The Associated Press.

The interview felt more like a Comedy Theory 101 course than a promotional visit.

Q: In your stand-up, there’s a lot less of the cringe-inducing awkwardness for which you’re so renowned.

A: Yeah, it doesn’t work live because there’s no one to react. The excruciating social faux pas — that we do in “The Office” or “Extras” — it works because there’s witness within the setup. Whereas, this is straight from me to them. So who’s going to be embarrassed? If I’m really awkward or embarrassed, it’s really uncomfortable. No one wants to feel uncomfortable at a stand-up show.

So I play a slightly different persona there. I play this sort of brash, more arrogant, more confident version of myself where there is no taboo. But, I don’t go out there to shock.

The taboo subjects are to get me to a place, where the targets aren’t what they seem. Targets aren’t disability, famine, race. They’re actually people’s prejudice. And me. I’m the biggest butt of the joke because I’m in the wrong. So, it always comes down to me being totally out of touch, or saying the wrong thing — with their blessing.

Q: In the special you go after a lot of the old standards of comedy — obesity, autism, AIDS, cancer and the Holocaust…

A: That’s my set list! That’s exactly what’s written on my hand. On every stand up I ever do!

There’s no point in having me go out there and go after corporate swines or fascism. We know that’s wrong, so I pick soft, wrong targets. I have a go at Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. I always come down on the wrong side.

I’m sort of delivering this comedy in a Trojan horse. The audience thinks they’re seeing something, but they’re getting something else. But they know that it’s coming from a good place, and I think that’s the important thing with comedy. Comedy is about empathy.

Q: Who have you empathized with the most?

A: My comedy heroes are Laurel and Hardy. They nailed it a hundred years ago, it doesn’t get any better. It’s about the relationship and it’s about empathy. And it’s about those two characters, the blind leading the blind. One wants to do well, he’s got pretensions, he’s a gent. And the other, he’s blissfully happy in his stupidity, but he’s not the one that ends up in the fish pond.

Q: So the joke is on the guy in the know?

A: Groucho, he can do all the one-liners, but he’s the one that’s getting conned. Woody Allen, he’s an intellectual, but he’s not getting what he really wants. That’s what’s funny about these characters and that’s why character elevates above everything else. It elevates above lines, story, everything.

If you’ve got a character, particularly on TV, you can watch him doing nothing if you like him. If you haven’t got a great character, you could be delivering the greatest lines in the world, but who cares? There are stand-ups that just aren’t likable. They can have the best lines in the world, but you go, (yawn) “Yeah. Brilliant. Don’t like you though.”

Whereas, someone shambles out and they’re a putz and they get their hands dirty and they tell you what a bad day they’ve had, you want to hug them. They don’t say anything funny, they are funny.