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Gervais : A Rising Empire

The writer-performer who immortalized the understimulating workplace in the British TV comedy "The Office" might just be the hardest-working man in show business.

He's developing a second series of his sitcom, "Extras," has written an episode of the U.S. version of "The Office," appears in Christopher Guest's forthcoming ensemble movie, "For Your Consideration," and wrote and starred in an episode of his favorite show, "The Simpsons."

His weekly podcast has just entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most-downloaded ever. He has an acclaimed standup show, and he's a best-selling children's author.

Might the 44-year-old Englishman be just the slightest bit driven?

"Everyone wants to leave their mark on the world, I suppose," Gervais said during an interview in his own office. "This is mine. It's the modern, slightly more sophisticated equivalent of me writing on a wall, 'Ricky Gervais woz 'ere."'

Gervais' latest project is "More Flanimals," his second kids' volume, published this month in the United States. A sequel to the best-selling "Flanimals," the book explores the cuddly, funny yet cruelly Darwinian world of sprot tumblers, splunges, clunge amblers and other colorfully named creatures.

Their lives; described in the tone of a scientific field guide and the playfully absurdist vocabulary of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear ; are full of futility, senseless violence and death. Kids love it. "Flanimals" and its successor have sold almost 750,000 copies in Britain and inspired a range of CDs, T-shirts and collectibles.

"As far as children's books go, it's pretty subversive," said Stephen Page, head of the books' British publisher, Faber and Faber.

"One of the great strengths of it is it's not some concocted brand, some idea that has been made to measure. It's the creative genius of Ricky."

Gervais said that the books were a natural follow-up to "The Office," which exposed workplace dynamics in excruciatingly funny detail.

"I put just about everything I know about human nature into 'The Office,"' he said. "This is what was left."

Gervais likened creating the Flanimals' characters, inspired by creatures he created to amuse a nephew and illustrated by Rob Steen, to "therapy, like spring-cleaning your head."

"I've always been fascinated with nature and science," he said. "I've found that to find things weirder than real nature and real science, you have to go into the realms of surrealism. There's nothing more amazing and incredible than evolution, or the circuitry system, or cross-pollination in plants. It's phenomenal. It's incredible. You couldn't make it up. It's fun to deconstruct that, and just get really ridiculous.

"It's a parallel universe where things aren't quite what they should be."

Gervais' own office; one of a warren of rooms above a shop on a London side street; contains little more than a large desk and a cardboard cutout of Homer Simpson. Yellow Post-it notes outlining "Extras" plot points cover one wall. It's the domain of a busy artist, not a TV star.

Yet Gervais is a star, famous worldwide as nightmare boss David Brent in "The Office," the mockumentary-style sitcom aired by the British Broadcasting Corp. between 2001 and 2003.

Set in a paper company in the unfashionable English town of Slough, it has been hailed as the best British comedy since "Fawlty Towers." Brent; a deluded boor who thinks he's "basically a chilled-out entertainer"; may be the greatest comic monster since John Cleese's sociopath hotelier, Basil Fawlty.

Millions of viewers responded to the show's depiction of workplace boredom, petty struggles and tentative office romance. The show has been broadcast in 80 countries, and a U.S. version starring Steve Carell is a surprise hit. A French version; "Le Bureau" ; is in the works.

"It's all about recognition," Gervais said. "And I'd go one step further; I think it's about empathy. Even though you may watch David Brent and go, 'Oh God,' I think whether you feel you are like that or not, you put yourself in his shoes and realize there are certain aspects of David Brent in all of us."

Gervais attributes the success of "The Office" to the uncompromising way it was created. It was his first big break, after years spent working as a talent booker for a university student union, but was intentionally nonpopulist. Shot in unglamorous gray hues, it has no laugh track and few obvious jokes.

"I knew 'The Office' was an acquired taste before I did it, and I know more people hate 'The Office' than love it," Gervais said.

"Before I started, I said I'd rather be a million people's favorite show than 20 million people's 19th-favorite show. You want something to resonate, and the more it resonates, the more you've added to the world."

The notion of a legacy is important to Gervais. The man who maintained a student's frugal lifestyle into his mid-30s is now so hot he finds himself turning down wildly lucrative offers. He said no to a part in "Mission: Impossible III," and recalls with amazement being offered $1 million to film a liquor commercial.

"I said no," he recalled. "They came back with 2 million. They thought I was negotiating. I never regretted saying no. That would hang around, it would be there. I just want to be proud of everything I do."

At the moment, he's proud of his "Simpsons" episode, which sees Homer and Marge participating in a "Wife Swap"-style reality show.

Gervais thinks "The Simpsons" is the greatest show on television, and writing for it "was the most daunting thing I'd ever done."

"It's the only thing I'm a nerd about," he said. "I'm Comic Book Guy for 'The Simpsons."'

Although he is a confessed Luddite, Gervais is enthusiastic about the half-hour podcasts he has recorded for The Guardian newspaper. The series of loose-limbed chats involving Gervais, "Office" co-writer Stephen Merchant and radio producer-comic foil Karl Pilkington recently entered the Guinness Book of Records for the most-downloaded podcasts of all time.

The Guinness certificate hangs on Gervais' office wall, although he notes that podcasting is "so in its infancy it's rather like Alexander Graham Bell having the biggest phone bill that year."