I have something of a fascination with artists that make it big, and the effect it has on their work. To take two obvious examples – the careers of Coldplay and U2 – I have no desire whatsoever to listen to them, but pondering over their choices, which when they reach this point are often career focussed and less artistically driven (though they are creators, so that must still feed in) is an interesting thing for me.
Ricky Gervais doesn’t quite sit in that category. The Office and Extras are sublime for me but nothing much else he has done has made a huge impression. But I do appreciate his journey, a ‘late-bloomer’ in the industry who made it big in later years, he hails from a working class background. He now finds himself richer and more famous than he could ever have imagined whilst creating David Brent. He seems to deal with that with mock arrogance but I think a genuine “I’m lucky, I’m going to enjoy myself” approach which feels right to me. He has causes he believes in, but doesn’t pretend to be a Bono like saint.
Ricky Gervais hasn’t toured stand-up for seven years. With a show titled Humanity, I’d kind of hoped it might a) be a return to form in line with his first couple of stand-up sets and b) maybe hold a mirror to the world. From his serious interviews online, usually about Atheism or Animal Rights, he’s clearly a smart and informed guy with something interesting to say. I didn’t want a serious show, but I expected a smart one. I was pretty disappointed.
The show was disjointed and there wasn’t much of a through-line, with the exception of the public taking offence, and how that makes sense in different contexts. Which is a big theme in today’s society.
But the delivery of the show undermined this. It felt more like ‘An Evening With Ricky Gervais – see the man you know from TV talk on stage for 75 minutes’. And to that end, it didn’t really matter what he said, the audience would laugh along anyway. Gervais was enjoying himself, yet it’s kind of sad when a comedian laughs more at their jokes than you do.
Don’t get me wrong, I smiled and chuckled, but I felt I’d heard all this before. There were few surprises. Yet around me, the audience were indeed lapping it up. It made me think of Gervais’ potential dilemma of having such a mainstream audience. I wonder if he goes as far as he wants. Indeed, part of the show sees him talk about the Golden Globe jokes he wish he could say, yet they are still aren’t extreme to my ears. It’s that they are presented as being extreme. I felt the audience around me were enjoying him ‘saying what you can’t say these days’ and Ricky sticking to the invisible PC police. “Oh, I liked it when he said that thing about Trans people, you can’t say anything about them now can you” which isn’t the intention, but it’s set up so easy for them to think that way.
The talk about online offence, though a strong subject ultimately revolved around him talking about his funny comebacks to stupid comments, him literally getting his phone out and reading it from the screen. Again, no deep insight, just an insight into the world of Ricky Gervais via the medium through which he presents himself anyway. He’s probably more known to his fans for Twitter than scripted comedy now so, it’s not that exciting.
I wanted him to dig deeper, and I believe he could if he wanted to. But towards the end he spoke about his brother Bob and how, when they were young, they had a pact that if you thought of something funny, you had to say it. No excuses. Which is a nice insight into his character and the bit about his Mum’s funeral was a nice example of this.
But the appearance of this story kind of put the whole set into context. It just felt like the first 75 minutes of funny stuff he thought up, and so he had to say it. Most of it was so surface level funny, but the majority of the audience seemed pleased with the dick-joke level of comedy.
He spoke more eloquently about animal rights and I wished so hard he’d worked the show around important stuff like this, because that seemed to be the real Gervais, not the class-clown personality out once more time to soak in the laughter.
The thing is, like those big bands that make it to such a level we can’t comprehend, I guess they can do no right. To a point, Gervais uses his platform (on social media) to highlight important global causes. He gets unending shit for it, but he feels obliged to, and I think that’s great. But unlike those big musicians, he is in a position to bring that into his art too. Chris Martin may write the names of charities on his hands but the music can’t ever deviate from the formula.
Comedy is different, and I’d love to see a righteous comedy set from Gervais that is as fearless as he supposes to be online. If he really doesn’t care what people think, he may actually find a more interesting way to (supposedly) offend than jokes about peodophiles and dogs mauling kids – by challenging some core beliefs of his audience. Not many could afford that risk, but he could.
I still like the guy, but I guess I bought into the hype. Comedy needs more than this right now.