Ricky Gervais is a salesman; the product he sells is himself. He does this very well, like any decent ad agency employee would — according to practically all mainstream media, he is a comedy god, end of story. It’s fortunate that he’s so good at this, seeing as everything else he turns his hand to is always a complete failure.
Not in a financial sense, of course — he’d only be too happy to show off his awards shelf to you, groaning as it is with tchotchkes from the movie and TV industry. But artistically his work is continually feeble, featuring scripts that always play out like a first draft with a generally dismal, small-minded tone. It is remarkable when you look at his efforts using a more critical eye and you see the sheer contempt he has for the audience he holds in the palm of his hand.
And that audience loves him. His previous show, Derek, provoked weepy tweets from people saying how touched they were at the comedy programme that was secretly a mockery of the mentally disabled, only cunningly disguised as a patronising head-patting tribute to them via the use of Coldplay songs and montages. The fact that one character regularly sexually assaults elderly people in the care home he’s running never factors into the discussion.
When you do bring it up, you tend to get a baffling response along the lines of “Well, those sorts of things happen in the real world”. The bit of their brain that’s meant to pipe up with “Hold on — that’s a character we’re meant to root for…” never actually does pipe up. It’s disturbing to realise just how easy it is to trick people.
He’s so good at this that even those with functioning critical faculties fall for the Gervais hype train. A number of very intelligent people, some of whom I admire greatly, have approved of his latest creative stillbirth (and his other projects). It just goes to show that even the best of us can be preyed upon by a con artist.
A big factor in this may be down to his constant use of music over image — the aforementioned Coldplay montages. So much of what he does has melancholy rock / pop slathered over the “emotional” bits that many can’t help but feel something for this nonsense, even through it’s entirely unearned, and all down to the work of musicians rather than Gervais himself. What you may not realise is just how strongly the soundtrack of a TV show or movie can affect your perception of what you see. You know how trailers for superhero films use popular 70s / 80s / 90s songs that everyone loves?
As a result of his manipulations, he gets to do a lot of exciting things and everybody hangs onto his every word. He does photo shoots where he smokes cigars with an axe in his head, and writes “ATHEIST” on his chest while dressed as Hunky Jesus With His Stomach Sucked In. People think he’s some sort of truth teller who’s telling those transgender people where to go, and then they sob like children when he says something about dogs.
There is a bewildering conspiracy of silence around him — his projects, reliably terrible, get glowing reviews. Those reviewers trip over themselves trying to not call that absolutely awful programme he’s done as being absolutely awful. He gets invited to speak at the Oxford Union as if he’s a great thinker. America gives him endless chances to make a good show with the resources of Netflix at his disposal, and he comes up with things like some reheated five-year-old Reddit threads clumsily melded into a stand-up special.
The cognitive dissonance is somehow not happening. A former cast member of The 11 O’Clock Show has hypnotised the world into thinking he’s an artist — like something Nigel Kneale might have written while extremely drunk. And seemingly all because he made one show in 2000 that people liked and that he said Ernest Borgnine smelt of poo or something.
But for some of his peers that cognitive dissonance is clearly present, ringing out loud like a fire alarm. These people rightly think very little of his work; take a look at the interview he filmed with the late Garry Shandling, who saw right through him. And look at Tim Heidecker’s blunt tweets at Gervais whenever he announces anything, which Gervais remains silent on. But he’s been quite happy in the past to have a go at ordinary citizens via Twitter, after which his audience would attempt to tear apart whichever poor sod it was who dared to voice an opinion. He’d delete the online evidence afterwards, of course.
His latest show, again on Netflix, is more of the same only even lazier in its construction. Various characters drift in and out with numbing regularity in each episode, telling him that he’s really a nice man and he deserves nice things. It feels like he’s projecting, quite honestly. The dialogue he’s given these characters to speak feels more like Gervais trying to convince himself that he’s a great guy, when deep down he possibly suspects he’s worthless.
The saddest and most infuriating thing about all of this isn’t the “offensive” nature of what he does, which is actually debatable in part on account of its sheer lameness. It’s that a body of work that is plainly deficient in all sorts of areas goes unquestioned, and is held up as equal to the likes of Fawlty Towers. When the hype is stripped away, it looks ridiculous. Beyond ridiculous.
Good salesmen can persuade you to buy anything. Stuff you don’t need, stuff that doesn’t work as it’s meant to. TV ads do this all the time, and comedians can do it too. And it seems that a lot of people are fine with that.
This article was partially re-written on 16th May 2019.