Ricky Gervais on the Good Life

From the Making Sense podcast with Sam Harris, episode #163, starting at about 1:53:50. Lightly edited for readability.


Everything I’ve done has been slightly existential. And it’s because I think this life is amazing and so finite, and you can’t have it again, so all you can do every day is: am I making the most of today. And by making the most of today I mean, did I laze around thinking of funny things to say, then open a bottle of wine at six o’clock and watch telly with Jane and the cat. That’s me. I’m like Homer. Living life to the fullest.


Sam Harris: What if anything do you wish you’d have done differently in your 20s, 30s or 40s.

Ricky Gervais: Oh loads of things. But they’re probably not — I think I got the big things right. Well maybe — I wish I’d have tried harder. And probably failed.

I remember when The Office won the first couple of BAFTAs. I was sitting at home, and I said to Jane — and we’d been poor, you know poor all my life, college, and then I’d bummed around — and then after the first couple of BAFTAs for The Office I said to Jane, why didn’t I do this before? And she said, because you wouldn’t have been good at it. And I wouldn’t have. You have to have a life to write about it. You have to come to terms with your own inadequacies. You have to get fat. You know what I mean? You have to get things off your chest. And so I’d have probably done it all the same again just by trial and error.

But if I could go back I’d have gone to the dentist more. I’d have probably worked out more. I’d say I’d have drunk less but I’m still drinking now so that’s bullshit. Haha.

Yeah I dunno.

SH: If you’d drunk less you wouldn’t be so good at it now.

RG: Yeah I wouldn’t be this fat.

SH: Ten years from now what do you think you’ll regret doing too much of or too little of at this point in your life?

RG: I suppose all the same things.

SH: Is there something that you know is out of balance and you just haven’t corrected it now and you’ll look back and say why didn’t I fix that thing.

RG: Again I think I’m doing what I like every day. I don’t think I can improve it.

I don’t mean I can’t improve me. I wish I’d have learned piano when I was 25 and I just thought it’s too late now. Think how good you’d be! I wish I’d learned languages, I thought oh I don’t need them everyone speaks English. So all those little things, usually it’s like I wish I’d have tried harder cause I was one of those guys that was sort of born smart and I almost reveled in not having to work hard to get this… there was an odd pride. Now I don’t agree with that, I love working hard for something cause I think that I can only call it success cause I struggled and tried. You can’t say winning the lottery is a success. It’s lucky. Bu you can’t say I’m a success. So it’s all to do with that I think.

Everything I’ve done has been slightly existential. And it’s because I think this life is amazing and so finite, and you can’t have it again, so all you can do every day is: am I making the most of today. And by making the most of today I mean, did I laze around thinking of funny things to say, then open a bottle of wine at six o’clock and watch telly with Jane and the cat. That’s me. I’m like Homer. Living life to the fullest.

I just tried to cut out the middle man. From the age of 14, 15, I saw people scrabbling around trying to do this do that. And I just said: I wanna be happy every day. I want to laugh, and do what I want, eat and drink, and see everyone I like, and just do what I want every day. And if you die, you’ve filled your whole life. Do you know what I mean?

I’ll tell a story that sums me up. When we were about 8, 9, 10 in school there was a big thing in the early 70’s where we got oil off the North Sea, and so laborers on 50 quid a week were suddenly going to these oil rigs, and getting 1000 pounds a day. And it was a big news story. And I remember the teacher saying look at this, people are getting a thousand pounds a day, do you know what a thousand pounds is, we say yeah a thousand pounds right. And they said what would you do if you earned a thousand pounds a day? And people were saying oh I’d work and after years and years I’d buy a house, and the teacher came to me and I’m 9 remember, and she said Ricky what would you do if you earned a thousand pounds a day? And I said I’d work one day a week.

SH: Give me the child and I’ll give you the man.

RG: Exactly.

Survival is not enough

Imagine that the year is 12019 — ten thousand years in the future. Humans long ago populated the galaxy — and almost as long ago, were effectively enslaved, Matrix-style, by a superior intelligence. They keep us alive in order to harvest a resource from us. They are really good at keeping us alive — so good that we’re effectively immortal. This is the case for billions upon billions of humans —  alive, immortal, and enslaved.

And suppose that, to our terrible misfortune, the resource that this alien intelligence wishes to harvest from us can be extracted from each human in proportion to the magnitude of suffering experienced by that person. As a result, the aliens are maximizing not just our survival, but also our suffering. This is just about as bad as it gets.

Which would you prefer: that world, or the world in which it’s 12019 and all humans are extinct? Do you want existence with infinite suffering or non-existence?

The point is that survival is not enough. There’s something else that has to accompany survival in order for the world to be good. If we want to evaluate the goodness of a possible world, our evaluation must take into account not just the bare existence of humans, but also the degree of psychological suffering or happiness that they experience.

I think that Sam Harris uses this thought experiment or something like it in his argument for a science of ethics.