Ricky Gervais, the king of cringe comedy

British actor-writer-director Ricky Gervais.
CBS News

(CBS News) British comic Ricky Gervais gets laughs by saying things that go just that little bit too far. Mark Phillips recently pinned Gervais down for some Questions and Answers:

"I shouldn't be this famous, or rich, with the stuff I do," he laughed. "No, I should be a fringe comedian that a few people have heard of that isn't allowed on telly, yeah."

One of the first things you learn when you talk to Ricky Gervais is not to take everything he says seriously.

Although, for a funny guy -- one of the most popular mainstream comics of his generation -- he can get pretty serious.

"I think that's because if you do what you do and you're uncompromised, you don't listen to focus groups and it's not by committee, something's going to come out that wasn't there before."

What came out for Gervais was an obscure little British sitcom that conquered the world - "The Office."

Gervais wrote the series and played its tragic-comic main character, David Brent. It re-drew the comedy landscape.

But it turned out the inept boss who only wanted to be loved, but who everybody loved to ridicule, was a character with international appeal.

Cringe-comedy could sell.

The show was exported to about 90 countries, and re-made in eight, including Steve Carell's version that ran for nine seasons in the United States.

Phillips asked, "Nobody's surprised that 'The Office' worked in the British context, just because of the ideas we have about British humor and that kind of thing. But are you surprised that it's played that well everywhere, including in the States?"

"Yes. I'm surprised it was as successful as it was in England, full stop. Just because, you know, it was challenging to people," Gervais said. "No stars. No one knew who I was. My first thing I'd written, directed. No laugh track."

In the American version, David Brent became Michael Scott. The scripts -- at least in the beginning -- were almost identical.

But if Britain and America are two countries separated by a common language, they're separated by a common TV culture, too. The American boss had to become more American.

"I don't think that Michael Scott has such a dark side to David Brent," said Gervais. "There is a hint of breakdown in David Brent."

"Because the audience wouldn't stand for it?" asked Phillips.

"Because Americans are more positive than Brits, I'd say, in general. And that's another myth that goes around Britain: that Americans don't get sarcasm, or irony. Total myth. Totally exists. What they mean is, Americans don't use it every second of the day, you know? Two Brits meet and it's the first one to get out a sarcastic comment: 'Oh. Yeah, they're good shoes.' You know, we can't resist it, particularly two blokes. You know, two blokes, two British blokes could not meet and go, 'Your hair looks good.' That couldn't happen."

"You look great!"

"Yeah. They couldn't say it and mean it," Gervais laughed. "Yeah. It'd be weird."