How Ricky Gervais Became a Comedy King

Lesley Stahl Profiles the British Funnyman Who Created "The Office"

The British comedian Ricky Gervais, known to his fans as "the funny little fat man," created the original version of the TV sitcom "The Office" for the BBC. He based the series on his own experiences doing drudge work in cubicle jobs.

The show was such a huge success that Gervais became a celebrity. And now at 48, he's all over the place: in movies, starring in comedy specials on HBO, and a frequent guest on Letterman and Jon Stewart. The Golden Globes announced he'll be the host of their big award show in January.

Gervais is an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere - he didn't even begin his comedy career until he was 40, just eight years ago when the first episode of "The Office" was broadcast.

Gervais wrote, directed and starred in the British "Office;" his character is a cringe-inducing loser of an office manager. It's a comedy of embarrassment.

Photo Essay: Ricky Gervais
Web Extra: Ricky's Office
Web Extra: A Visit to 60 Minutes
Web Extra: Elmo & Ricky

It's "watch and wince," as he explores the squirmy awkwardness of real life situations. Take for instance the episode where Gervais mines the misery of being fired: "There's good news and bad news. The bad news some of you will lose your jobs, yeah. Yeah. The good news is, I've been promoted. You're still thinking about the bad news, aren't ya," he told his staff on the show.

Gervais says there were no ad-libs in "The Office." In writing the show, he worked on playing up his character's lack of self-awareness.

"There are a lot more important things than jokes in a comedy. Jokes aren't the most important things in a comedy," he told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl. "Character. A situation can be funnier than a line."

Gervais' innovation in "The Office" was heightening the sense of reality by shooting it like a fake documentary, with awkward pauses and no laugh track.

One of Gervais' specialties is dead-pan handling taboo subjects.

Gervais has come up with a formula for what's funny that seems to have people laughing all over the world. "The Office" airs in more than 100 countries. Local actors were hired in France, in Chile, and five other countries to play the parts.

In the United States, his character is played by Steve Carell.

"I think that was part of the success of 'The Office.' Everyone knew what they were watching. Everyone worked in an office," Gervais told Stahl. "We weren't explaining things about law or order or, you know, everyone got it straightaway."

With all his success, there was little evidence of the wealthy man he has become when 60 Minutes first met him at the Central Park Zoo in New York City.

"Apparently all polar bears are left-handed," he joked.

He's the one who chose the zoo, telling us it's one of his favorite places in the world.

"So in other words, if they fish, they go with their left paw, or are you making this up?" Stahl asked.

"Well, they'd put the fork in their left hand and the knife in their right. That's what I heard," he replied.

He came dressed down and without a big star's entourage. But right away, he began telling our cameramen what to shoot, and when to shoot. "Turn the camera off, let's not talk, let's just find the red panda!" he instructed.

And then, ignoring Stahl, he totally took over, and began doing his shtick right into the camera: "Look you see, two penguins up there, gone behind a rock. I don't know why they've gone behind there together. But they're both male which is fine, but a hundred years ago that was frowned on in penguin circles," he joked.

Gervais invited us to his office in London, his comedy headquarters.