Both Gervais and Merchant grew up in comfortable middle class homes with stable families. Unlike many of their comedic forebears, they had no childhood trauma to mine for comedy, and so they were forced to look elsewhere.
"If you don't come from such an extraordinary background where you have to deal with, you know, racial prejudices and so on, what do, as Ricky says, a couple, white middle class from a fairly cozy background, draw on?" Merchant says.
"People in a fairly cozy middle class life -- but in relationships they didn't really want to be in, they settled for second best, they didn't pursue their dreams those are very real things to a lot of people. And for us, that's as dramatic as Tony Soprano having to dispose of a body."
That philosophy has translated well across national boundaries and turned Gervais and Merchant into a wild global success.
The British version of "The Office" quickly garnered a cult following, critics around the world fell in love with it and the show eventually picked up numerous awards, including two Golden Globes.
Though Gervais and Merchant insisted that their show not continue beyond its limited run of 12 episodes and a Christmas special on BBC2, they have aggressively franchised their creation. Not just the United States but Canada, France, and Germany now each have their own "Office."
"They're thinking of going to Guatemala," Gervais quips.
Maybe not Guatemala yet, but definitely Hollywood. The success of "The Office" has helped Gervais land roles in major network shows and movies. In what he says is his greatest honor to date, Gervais received a personal invitation to write an episode and voice a character on "The Simpsons," Fox's long-running animated satire.
Just as impressive are the things Gervais has turned down: "The Da Vinci Code," "Mission Impossible III," and "Pirates of the Caribbean," to name a few.
Instead, he and Merchant holed up to focus on their most recent foray into off-beat comedy. The second season of "Extras," a show about struggling actors, arrives on American shores next month on HBO.
Gervais says it is a more traditional comedy than "The Office," but, like that show, its focus is human relationships.
The popularity of "The Office" has created an all-star list of Hollywood celebrities itching to guest star on "Extras." Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller, and Robert DeNiro have each appeared -- all in the name of self-mockery.
Back in the United Kingdom, Gervais and Merchant's latest vehicle for their comedy doesn't involve any television network at all. They have gone back to their roots of radio in a podcast, available for download from the Web site of the British newspaper, Guardian, and from Web sites like www.audible.com.
In each show, Merchant and Gervais are joined by Karl Pilkington, a nondescript bloke from northern England. "I always think of him as a kind of real-life Homer Simpson," Merchant says.
Gervais and Merchant don't mince words about the quality of their co-host. "What's the PC word? Stupid, I think," Gervais says, but they admit he's indispensable.
Their swift and hilarious dismantlings of Pilkington have proven hugely successful for the Ricky Gervais Show: The podcast has been downloaded over 2 million times, enough to land them in the Guinness Book of World Records.
"It's great," Gervais says. "But then again, in the Guinness Book of Records, there's people who walk the furthest with a milk bottle on [their] head."