Ricky Gervais: 'Muppets inspired my comedy career'
"The Muppets were very important part of my childhood," reminisces Ricky Gervais.
"I think they affected me more profoundly than I first realised because once I got on set with these guys and I saw the cameos and the way they worked, I realised I must have been influenced by them when I did Extras."
Extras, which first aired in 2005-2007, followed Andy Millman (Gervais) and Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen) as extras working on TV and films.
Every episode featured a celebrity appearance, with particularly memorable turns from Kate Winslet, Samuel L Jackson and David Bowie.
Now Gervais, whose previous movie projects include Ghost Town and The Invention of Lying, is one of the human stars of Muppets Most Wanted, alongside Tina Fey and Ty Burrell.
Gervais plays Dominic Badguy (pronounced "Badgee"), the right-hand man to villainous frog Constantine.
Among some 30 celebrity cameos in the film are Tom Hiddleston, Celine Dion, Salma Hayek and Christoph Waltz (who dances a waltz).
It was this element of the original The Muppet Show, with its celebrity guest every week, that Gervais recognised in his own comedy work.
"That was the first thing I'd seen with really famous people coming onto a kids' show and having the mickey taken out of them and being upstaged by the locals.
"That's exactly what I did in Extras. Andy and Maggie being the Muppets and Sam Jackson or David Bowie doing twisted versions of themselves."
Gervais adds: "I've always been fascinated with fame. In The Office David Brent wanted to be famous."Cameo motivation
But what does he think motivates celebrities to appear as cameos in Extras and the Muppets?
"They did Extras because it's like a day off," asserts Gervais.
"When you're rich and famous and pampered and get 'yes' all your life sometimes you want a bit of relief and someone to be rude to you for fun.
"The reason they say 'yes' to The Muppets is for the same reason that I did. It's a safe pair of hands. You can't be stitched up doing a Muppet movie.
"If someone asks you onto Jerry Springer you know there's bad news coming, but when they ask you onto the Muppets it's all good."
Gervais describes The Muppets as "normal people in this crazy Hollywood world."
"They are always trying to just put a show on," he says. "The message with the Muppets is about trying your best - a theme I've always tapped into.
"My favourite comedy of all time is Laurel and Hardy - and I liked them because they tried their hardest. They could fall but they got back up and dusted themselves off.
"I tried to inject David Brent with that. He's an idiot, he makes mistakes but he tries again - and that's a lovely message."'Criticism proof'
With Muppets Most Wanted having had a lower-than-expected opening weekend in the US, I ask Gervais how brave were the film-makers to open with a song and dance number about film sequels not being as good?
"It's criticism proof. People go and see these films and they will keep going," he says.
"There's no reason why this can't keep going, supported by this wave of affection and nostalgia.
"And as long as they keep doing it like they're doing it, it's never going to go away. It's like The Simpsons. They don't get older. So long as they reflect the times."
He adds: "There's a deep humanity to it. It is a frog and it is a pig and it is a turkey - or whatever Gonzo is - but really it's all about human values: hope and friendship and trying your hardest."
Muppets Most Wanted opens in the UK on 28 March