Ricky Gervais, the meta-audience and the continuum of irony

Arthur Chu points out that

The Office was largely built on the sadistic glee of watching a shitty comedian bomb

The ‘comedian’ being the character David Brent, of course, whose attempts at humour fail to impress his co-workers, not Ricky Gervais, the real-life comedian whose writing of and performance in the show notably impressed audiences and critics.

Gervais’ comedy has always blurred this distinction, with mixed results. I know this is obvious, but I think it bears a bit of unpicking, with an anecdote that carries some exclusive information about early Gervais. That’s my sell line right there.

Not everyone will remember Ricky’s first mainstream incarnation as a comic turn on The 11 O’Clock Show, a Channel 4 topical satire slot which launched several careers better than it deserved. The act revolved around Gervais being a dick who wasn’t funny. Since he hadn’t been seen in anything else, nobody could tell whether he was doing a character or was just a dick who wasn’t funny. The consensus was that either way, he wasn’t funny.

It’s impossible to completely escape that feeling when you watch some of the standup he did after he was famous, but it’s now clear that Gervais is playing himself, with a sort of wry acknowledgement of the possibility that he’s a bit of a dick, while really intending you to like him and find him funny ‘on the square’, as Al Franken might put it.

I still don’t quite know what level of irony he meant to operate on in 11 O’Clock, but it seems most likely that he was, and to an extent still is, relying on a postmodern continuum of irony that absolves anyone making a joke from deciding whether they’re making it in their own voice or the voice of someone whose attitudes — whose belief, specifically, that this is an OK joke to make — they tacitly abhor.

Even on this supposed continuum, even jenseits von Gut und Böse, a gag still has to work. And that may not be enough. For example, Justine Sacco’s gag worked; it wasn’t great, sure, but you’d have to be ignoring context really hard not to understand that it was tweeted in the voice of a stupid racist, not ingenuously by Sacco as herself.

James Charles’ gag, satirising a malapropism as well as a prejudice and thus perhaps technically a superior joke, worked in basically the same way. The real problem with both jokes wasn’t that they malfunctioned as jokes, or that they betrayed a secret or unconscious racism in their authors (although middle-class women and gay men are, of course, the worst racists ever), but that the distinction between being the butt of a joke and the fulcrum was lost on, or consciously rejected by, many people who were already tired of hearing what white people thought was funny.

Despite playing with all the right kinds of fire, Ricky Gervais hasn’t been burned in quite the same way as Sacco or Charles. When Gareth says ‘In this room I have special…’ and Tim finishes ‘Needs,’ following up with ‘No, I am a special…’ ‘Needs child?’ we seem to be OK with laughing at how stupid this is rather than laughing at the joke, which works by casting children with learning disabilities as a negative role model, something we don’t want to be and fear being seen as.

If we admit we’re laughing partly at the joke, that’s our fault, isn’t it? Writing this, Gervais gave us both options. It’s not his fault if ratings increase because some of us took the wrong one. Gareth even says, ‘That’s not even funny.’ But Gareth isn’t the relatable character. Tim is.

When these problems are surfaced, Gervais’ defences tend to be less sophisticated, and less self-aware, than such analyses might imply. (‘I don’t think of Derek as disabled’ neither convinces nor addresses the issue.) If there’s a part played by irony, it’s that he talks in terms that really ought to be David Brent dialogue — or perhaps Alan Partridge — but are apparently meant seriously. This almost feels like the universe using irony against Gervais, but no, I think he’s just being a dick.

Following The 11 O’Clock Show, two changes in context, more than content, were required to make David Brent work. First, to let us know we were watching a character. It’s there in the credits, for the avoidance of doubt: ‘David Brent—Ricky Gervais’. Second, not quite so obviously, to show us an audience (the rest of the office) watching that character. We then became a meta-audience experiencing this audience’s reactions.

(In the US version, Tim is Jim, who famously reminds us we’re watching his reactions by periodically looking to camera. I presume the subtitles say ᴊɪᴍ ʟᴏᴏᴋs ᴛᴏ ᴄᴀᴍᴇʀᴀ ᴛᴏ ʀᴇᴍɪɴᴅ ᴜs ᴡᴇ’ʀᴇ ᴀ ᴍᴇᴛᴀ-ᴀᴜᴅɪᴇɴᴄᴇ.)

Consider in this light Gervais’ side gig hosting awards. When he presented the Golden Globes in 2010, reactions were divided between those who thought turning up and insulting everyone — not in a Billy Crystal hey-not-really tip-your-waitress way, but needling celebs on topics they’d rather have left alone — was hilarious and iconoclastic, and those who just found it rude.

This was a refinement of the meta-audience ploy. Perhaps the Golden Globes guests would be aghast at the treatment they and their friends and colleagues were getting from the podium. But the real audience was in Peoria, cackling at the fancy Hollywood types getting their come-uppance. Were those in the room who did laugh genuinely amused by those around them being made uncomfortable, or were they claiming a role in a meta-audience? It no longer mattered, as long as it worked. And it worked.

Again, Gervais learned the hard way how to pitch this. Everyone assumes the 2010 Golden Globes was his first award show, but a decade earlier he presented the MacUser awards. Yes, all right, not quite so prestigious. We did hire a proper ballroom and everything. Other years we had Jonathan Ross, Peter Kay, Phill Jupitus, Nicholas Parsons, Graham Norton — you’ve heard of these people if you’re British. And then there was Ricky.

This would have been around 2000. Fresh from his not particularly well received run in The 11 O’Clock Show and with The Office not yet airing, Gervais was within our fairly generous budget. I still wouldn’t have hired him (see above) but someone with more foresight (Tara?) did.

And yes, he did the insult shtick. As far as I know, that was where he invented it. He turned up in front of a mix of hardware and software engineers, executives, retailers and creatives who’d paid three figures apiece to be told they were great for one night, and told them they sucked.

We always rehearsed the nominations phonetically with the host, because they could trip over stuff like ‘QuarkXPress 4.0’ or ‘Apple PowerBook Duo 2300c’, and they were always respectful about trying to get it right. Ricky just made a performance out of not being arsed. It was stupid boring techie stuff and we were stupid boring nerds who thought we were fancy because we had dinner suits. Some products and companies were specifically stupid and boring in ways that he lost no time in pointing out.

Not that he’d taken the trouble to write zingers that showed any grasp of the subject matter or attendees; he was just abusive, in a wheedling, look-at-me-not-caring-if-you-look-at-me, annoying-child kind of way.

Now, this might — might — have been hilarious to a meta-audience that was watching in the knowledge that we’d paid him the price of a small car to impress people whose support we depended on and he was dismissing and bad-mouthing them, for an hour straight, and not even entertainingly. But there was no meta-audience. Everyone in the room* was having a bad time. The shitty comedian bombed, for real.

Was that what he meant to happen? Was there a meta-audience in his mind that appreciated the stunt and made it a success? Did he think we’d be drunk enough to play our own meta-audience? Did he realise he’d misjudged it, or did it not matter as long as the cheque cleared?

I suppose I’ll never know. And I still can’t decide if that uncertainty is part of what makes Ricky Gervais more interesting or edgy or significant as a comedian, or shows that you have to risk fucking up to innovate, or just means he fucked up.

*A couple of people who were doing a lot of coke did find it funny, in a car-crash way. Make of that what you will, Golden Globes fans.