The adoration of celebrities is, for the large part, a facile trait. However, there are those whose work has a genuine effect on us, and who in turn become a crucial part of our makeup. You may be thinking “yes, he’s referring to Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama (or Rory Bremner – those two might get a bit heavy)”. Well, not quite. I am referring to Ricky Gervais.
Gervais’ work has had a profound impact on my life. The Office shaped my humour (much to the dismay of those who know me); it became the cornerstone of my thoughts, and shaped my views on the world (working in an office now, it is impossible to go a day without deeming someone’s behaviour as ‘Brentian’, or an incident as like something straight from The Office). It has acted as the key cultural reference point, affecting my conversations down to language, tone, intonation, and actions. I can barely finish a conversation without saying “sure, sure”, “wellll”, “big time”, “ahh that’s a shame”, or casting a generally smug Brent look (it helps that this is my face’s natural resting state). Conversations with my cousin contain nothing save Office quotes. This is a genuine text conversation from this week, apropos of absolutely nothing:
Him: “Because professionalism is…and that is what I want”
Me: “I could come out with something really witty and biting, like you’re a bit…but I don’t”
Him: “Because it’s nothing vicious”
Me: “Milligan, Cleese, Everett…Sessions”
That is the whole discussion. There was nothing before or after. This is one of hundreds similar (this is one of the shortest). It will seem strange to others (we’ll just start cracking up, and people watching will go ‘Why’s that funny?’ and we tell them why and they go “Oh yeah, yeah, you are the best”. It’s their opinion). My girlfriend has told me that she believes that I no longer know when I am ironically acting like Brent and when I am being genuine. I fear she may have a point. Hell – this very blog is named after a Brent quote.
Bearing this, and the wonder of ‘Extras’ and the Karl Pilkington radio shows/podcasts, in mind, it is with a heavy heart that I have to say: I am starting to resent Ricky Gervais. I still hold him in high esteem for the works of unquestionable genius, but he has lost his way. Of course, even the worst of his work is better than anything I have ever produced, so who am I to criticise? When asked about never again hitting the heights of ‘The Office’, he could borrow a line from Joseph Heller. When Heller was asked why he had never written anything as good as his early novel ‘Catch 22’, he replied “Who has?”
However, it feels deeper than that. Gervais has not simply failed to recreate ‘The Office’; he now appears unrecognisable from the man who produced such a masterpiece. ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras’ had pathos, emotion, genuine feeling (in the best possible way). Watch the scene where Brent begs for his job back, or finally stands up to Finchy, or the scene in ‘Extras’ where Andy apologises to Maggie while on Big Brother. They had heart. The subsequent trajectory follows that of ‘The Simpsons’, as Gervais seems to have abandoned all subtlety and nuanced sentiment in favour of characters either being perfect or monsters. It has become completely black and white (ooo, racist).
There are two sides to Gervais (or at least Gervais’ comedy – I cannot denigrate the man as I don’t know him and, by all accounts, he is a thoroughly likeable person in ‘real life’). His Twitter persona is a rather grim embodiment of his decline. Gervais, in the days of ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras’, repeatedly emphasised that he wanted to make work that had an impact, that went deeper than pure comedy, that did not pander to everyone but could affect those who persisted with it. He succeeded. He did not, in other words, want to be Andy Millman, the protagonist of ‘Extras’. Millman is torn between artistic integrity and mainstream popularity, and succumbs to the lure of the latter, despite wanting a body of work to look back on, like his hero Robert De Niro. One cannot help but feel that this was somewhat prescient to Gervais’ own current situation. Now, Gervais tells his Twitter army that the masses are all that count, and dismisses the dissenting voices as “haters”. His mere presence on Twitter, a medium he previously lambasted, could be seen as a sign of his decline, as he now appears more concerned by atheist rants (the frequency of which even bores and infuriates me – a “devout atheist”) and bath pictures than creating a work of any significance.
I am aware that an easy response to this would be to point out that Gervais has done far more already than I ever will, and that I am simply fulfilling the worst kind of role – the armchair critic. However, it is Gervais’ comments this week that have saddened me; something of a final straw. On its own, a joke about celebrities avoiding hacking by not taking nude photos is relatively inoffensive, but as a Gervais obsessive, I could not help but think of the majestic Big Brother scene in ‘Extras’. While condemning the culture of celebrity and tabloids, Andy Millman rants:
“You open the paper and you see a picture of Lindsay Lohan getting out of a car and the headline is ‘Cover Up, Lindsay! We Can See Your Knickers!’ Well, of course you can see her knickers. Your photographer is lying in the road pointing his camera up her dress to see her knickers. You’re literally the gutter press.” This is a magnificently poignant scene:
Gervais showed awareness and sensitivity to privacy and rights, regardless of whom for, and knew the perpetrator was to blame for this invasion and subsequent vacuous culture – not the victim. Of course, maybe celebrities should be more careful with their sensitive material, but it feels rather like victim blaming – the equivalent to the abhorrent argument that scantily-clad, or drunk, girls are “asking to be raped”.
This is in no way to say that all comedy should avoid areas of controversy – far from it. Much of the genius of ‘The Office’, ‘Extras’, and Gervais’ early stand-up is the use of taboo subjects, but it is the way that they are handled. The clear use of irony makes them, contrary to many people’s views, PC comedies. One of The Office’s greatest features is Brent’s discomfort around these issues, coupled with his belief that he is progressive and liberal. His interactions with Oliver, the mixed-race member of staff (“You are half and half aren’t you? That is my favourite”), the woman in a wheelchair (“she doesn’t want to, up to her, yeah? Her own decisions”), and his general musings on sensitive issues (“at least the little handicapped fella is able-minded…Unless he’s not – it’s difficult to tell with the wheelchair ones. So, just give generously to all of them”) show a writer with self-awareness, and a brilliant comedy mind. My favourite line in television history, “I think there’s been a rape up there”, is hysterically funny as an example of Brent going to any lengths to get one over on someone, to the point that the training activity becomes about nothing other than Brent outdoing his opposite number, even if it means saying the most horrific thing. It is not, in any way, laughing about rape; it is all about context.
No topic should be off-limits, but Gervais is now dealing with them in a heavy-handed, crude way. His recent use of the word “mong”, and his subsequent refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing, was painful. Comedians such as Louis CK and Stewart Lee are able to deal with such issues in a clever, delicate, and ultimately hilarious way. ‘Mong-gate’ brought to mind Stewart Lee’s stand-up piece about Top Gear, and the frequent Jeremy Clarkson defence: “It’s just a joke” – one to which Gervais is increasingly resorting. Lee himself said that he hopes Gervais doesn’t do something so awful as to undo ‘The Office’. I too fear he is on the verge.
This is a view reinforced by ‘Derek’; a mawkish, syrupy travesty of a programme. One cannot help but feel that ‘Derek’ is one long apology for ‘Mong-gate’, as Gervais repeatedly says that he has “left the veil of irony behind” as Derek is “perfect” and evidence that “kindness trumps everything”. Well, that’s all well and good, except for the horrific portrayal by Gervais, as he shuffles around, gurning maniacally, and speaking in a ridiculous “special” voice. Why he had to play the character is beyond me. ‘Derek’ is a car crash, and everything that Gervais once stood against. If The Office was nuanced, intelligent and subtle, then ‘Derek’ is the equivalent of being smashed over the head with an emotional hammer, with montages of old people set to Coldplay music (yes, really) and the worst exposition, with people actually just saying how perfect Derek and Hannah are. The first episode starts with Derek explicitly telling us that Hannah is the nicest human in the world. The golden rule of “show, don’t tell” is dropped within 30 seconds. The subtlety is on a par with the ghastly ‘Mrs. Brown’s Boys’, with one of the ‘big laughs’ coming from Derek sitting in a bowl of custard. It is less ‘The Office’ and more ‘When the Whistle Blows’. The only saving grace is Karl Pilkington effectively playing himself – and even he has left the show behind. Another problem is that Gervais’ continuous extolment of Derek’s kindness is in contrast to his own actions, as he turns into something of a Twitter bully. Ridiculing celebrities at the Golden Globes was amusing, light-hearted comedy, but there is a danger, exemplified by ‘Mong-gate’, of him crossing a line that he has previously, skilfully blurred.
One immediate conclusion with all of this is that the criminally underrated Stephen Merchant was the genius all along, but his recent show ‘Hello Ladies’ is, sadly, equally poor, and the duo’s Life’s Too Short was a substandard merging of ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras’ (with everything that made them great taken out). Gervais now seems to be fumbling around in the dark, knowing that he used to be great at something, but apparently unaware of what it was. The upcoming Brent movie is the ultimate horror. Merchant has stuck to his word, refusing to revisit something that concluded so perfectly, and that should remain untouched. Gervais has forgotten everything that he previously said, and is returning to a cash-cow. Can anyone say that they expect it to pick up where The Office left off? I fear that, like Homer Simpson, Brent will now be a mean caricature, devoid of the depth and pathos that made him such a wonderful character to begin with. I want to avoid the film but, as such a huge Office fan, I doubt I will have the willpower. I am fully prepared for disappointment.
It is genuinely sad to see a person one actually regarded as a hero slip further and further (something I experience more and more every time Morrissey opens his mouth). Then again, as I say, who am I to criticise? Gervais will never even hear of me, and he co-wrote ‘The Office’. He co-wrote ‘Extras’. He discovered Karl Pilkington. He has the biggest selling podcast in history. He was the only person to write and guest-star in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’. He has won seven BAFTAs, five British Comedy Awards, three Golden Globes, and two Emmys. He had the fastest selling stand-up tour of all time. He is friends with Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David. He is worth $80m dollars. I have done none of those things. I am in my overdraft. I spend my Fridays ranting angrily about a man I will never meet, and eating popcorn. Who am I kidding? No one will read this far down. Not even my friends. No one will get past the first paragraph. So…not a happy home life.