One of these days, Ricky Gervais is going to tweet the N-word.
We all know it’s coming. The further he descends into his self-satisfied rabbit hole of arrogance and comedic ineptitude, the deeper he sinks into the belief that what he is doing is interesting. The man who was once credited with shepherding in a new age of British comedy with The Office is now a public embarrassment. Perhaps it was always this way, but before he was self-aware enough to drape his ego in some wit. These days, his approach has more in common with a sun-starved teenage boy who just discovered Reddit than that of any serious comedian.
This month, Gervais announced his new Netflix comedy would be centred on a man whose wife dies, and whose suicidal state inspires him to say and do whatever he wants. This is warmed up territory for Gervais, who previously explored a similar idea in the critically panned film The Invention of Lying, wherein he lived in a world where nobody could lie. The hilarious antics of that story derived from the notion that forced truthfulness leads up unfunny rudeness. Whatever shape this Netflix series will take, the chances are it won’t deviate far from his most recent stand-up special, Humanity.
Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture called the approach taken in Humanity ‘the power dynamic preferred by a playground bully, in which all the discomfort flows in one direction: away from them.’ The special features at least 20 minutes of deeply transphobic material directed at Caitlyn Jenner, where Gervais insists he isn’t transphobic while gurning that he can get surgery to become a chimp and ‘use chimp toilets’. The rest of the show is a narcissistic pity-party over how oh so easily offended everyone is these days, a point Gervais makes with no hint of irony, given his own habit of self-searching his name on Twitter and jumping on anyone with the mildest critique of his work.
Gervais isn’t a stand-up. He didn’t put in his time on the circuit or spend decades crafting his material like his contemporaries. Rather, he did a bit of stand-up in the 90s then, following the meteoric success of The Office, he made the leap into the stadium sell-out tours. He went from zero to multi-million with little hard graft and has coasted from that peak since. Stand-up is a brutal field that requires elephant-thick skin. You need to be able to cope with hecklers, scathing reviews, and screeds of bullying, particularly if you’re not a straight white dude. Gervais bypassed that entirely, and it shows in his complete inability to deal with the frequently bad reviews his stand-up receives.
Instead of taking that in and honing his craft - and his television work has also offered diminishing returns since The Office - Gervais has decided to lean into this reputation for egotistical mediocrity and pretend the problem is everyone else, not him. Now, he says, he’s just too edgy for the snowflakes of the world. He’s so incendiary and truth-telling that people keep trying to shut him down, he claims as he repeatedly books high-profile gigs for millions of dollars. This is the man who kept getting invited back to host the Golden Globes while screaming about how dangerous he was to the Hollywood establishment because he joked about Robert Downey Jr. being a recovering addict. Now, he’s making a supposedly daring TV show about a straight white dude who says and does whatever he wants.
It’s not just bad comedy: It’s insufferably dull.
There is literally nothing revolutionary about someone who looks, talks and acts like Ricky Gervais spewing racist, sexist and transphobic epithets under the guise of ‘it’s just a joke’. Drawing parallels between gender reassignment surgery and wanting to be a chimp is the same nonsense spewed by the right-wing evangelicals Gervais claims to oppose (and it’s also a gag South Park already did years ago). If comedy is about brutal honest and speaking truth to power, Gervais is the schoolyard bully who thinks being reprimanded is tantamount to oppression. The meat of Gervais’s best comedy was found in his often scathing self-deprecation, and to replace that with unfettered ego merely highlights how little there is to be mined from self-imposed infallibility.
Not that Gervais is actually infallible: He simply believes himself to be exempt from the realities of comedy and celebrity. Nowadays, he’s the kind of man who uses the phrase ‘haters’ with utmost seriousness. If you wish to be truly no-holds-barred - and I question whether such a concept even exists in stand-up - then you have to occasionally direct that ire at yourself. You must to understand that you can’t sit out what you dish at everyone else. Gervais isn’t just excluding himself from that part of the conversation: He’s insisting that nobody can ever say anything bad about him ever. It’s not that his jokes are bad: It’s that everyone else is a meanie who’s too sensitive to understand his edge. His targets are cheap, but he tells us he’s speaking truth to the highest of powers. He calls it free speech when all he does is say exactly what our bigoted society has mandated as acceptable discourse.
The image of British comedy has evolved greatly since Gervais made his name. Figures like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel have redefined the genre for a new age, while comedians like Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar have become the new faces of primetime stand-up on U.K. TV. Even old-school offence-fests like Frankie Boyle have fine-tuned their acts to focus more strongly on political targets that feel earned. As much as American TV networks try to insist that appealing to the Trump crowds is the way to go, shows like Atlanta, black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Speechless and Insecure prove otherwise, while comedians like Hari Kondabolu, Ali Wong and Kumail Nanjiani revive the medium in exciting ways. Gervais’s weakened shtick feels utterly out of place on both sides of the pond. It’s Reddit meets InfoWars meets that one guy you had classes with in 1st year who read Richard Dawkins and wouldn’t shut up about it. The only difference between Gervais and your standard 4Chan user is that Gervais gets vast amounts of money for his one-trick pony, while simultaneously claiming he’s oppressed.
Gervais got lazy a long time ago, and there’s nothing duller than a lazy man just spinning the wheels and waiting for the cheque to clear. Eventually, this act will wear thin for him, but the question is whether he possesses the self-awareness to understand when that moment has come. If not, he will simply continue as is now normal for him, screaming into the void while audiences roll their eyes, which he will translate into gasps of shock. He’ll still be shrieking about how offended we all are, even as the lights have gone out and we’ve moved onto something actually funny. That may offend him more than anything else.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)