Ricky Gervais Expires His Lifetime Pass


It’s been roughly fifteen years since audiences were first exposed to , one of the most influential comedy series in TV history. Its naturalist (and uncomfortably realistic) environment of the average beyond-belief life at a paper company could be breathlessly funny, cringe-inducing, and sweet. It used documentary style, not as a gimmick or short cut, but to inflate the comedic potential and add a layer of commentary on small-scale fame in the early years of reality TV. Even with its minimalistic romantic story-arc about Tim and Dawn, the show had the ability to make life’s small “movie moments” more emotional than some of cinema’s most sweeping love stories. It was near perfect over 12 episodes and its final special, ending with one of the most emotionally and narratively satisfying endings a TV series has ever achieved.

, one of the stars and co-creators, emerged as the biggest star when the show had its meteoric rise. And with partner , he parlayed that into another hit with Extras, and then its sort-of-spin-off Life’s Too Short, along with the underrated movie titled Cemetery Junction, and a bit of alternate reality on The Ricky Gervais Show radio program, podcast, and animated series with friend Karl Pilkington (and their travel show An Idiot Abroad). They were prolific in both output and creativity. But things changed in 2012 when Gervais and Merchant went their own ways and Gervais’ solo work (Derek, Special Correspondents, and this year’s David Brent: Life on the Road) suffered a dramatic drop in quality. Despite Gervais seeing himself as a comedy auteur who prides himself on getting his own way, it seems he needs what a collaborator like Merchant brought to the team to keep him from self-indulging to the point of artistic implosion.

DEREK

Gervais’ first solo project, Derek, was a much talked about and initially controversial comedy-drama he wrote and directed between 2012 and 2014 (13 episodes total). Even before premiering, Gervais was on the defensive because of his decision to focus on (and play) the character he performed earlier online which was considered by many an offensive, stereotyped impression of an intellectually disabled man.

The show was noticeably different from the web-show, as Gervais played down some of the ticks and mannerisms. And Gervais tried to make it clear that Derek wasn’t disabled with statements like “Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don’t mean him to be disabled then that’s it. A fictional doctor can’t come along and prove me wrong.”[1] It’s an interesting declaration, but highlights larger problems with the relationship Gervais has with his audience. Comments like that suggest he believes a viewer has no right to interpret the work themselves…an idea which robs them of the opportunity to personally connect to the work, and allow them to separate the art from the artist.

Comments like those suggest the audience has to educate themselves on the man behind the work to fully understand it. And unfortunately, the persona Gervais puts forth to the public is in opposition to the innocent, kind character he plays, and overall theme of the show that kindness trumps. It’s a prime example of a problematic fit between actor and character, creating a glaring disjunction between them, in which Gervais’ “arrogant persona [2] (a term he’s used) ultimately dominates his own character. Gervais wasn’t a strong enough actor to embrace Derek from the inside out and instead used the physical transformation as a crutch. It spoke volumes about why this was miscasting that when describing why he liked playing Derek, he frequently spoke of him as if he were a mythic-being rather than as a person who could exist. [3] Gervais’ increasingly smug public behavior and signature ‘”what did I do wrong” facial reactions after telling a joke which offended, made him the exact wrong actor to play Derek. And while he may intend these oppositional impressions of creator and creation to reflect a different side of Gervais himself, it ultimately feels like the decision to put himself center stage makes the entire project seem disingenuous.

I don’t fundamentally have a problem with the ideological themes of Derek. Highlighting the plight of the elderly in assisted care, difficulties facing caregivers, and kindness being the most important personal attribute, are all commendable. However, they’ve also been addressed better on shows. A show like Getting On, which explored the struggles facing the elderly, did so without treating them like props and simplifying their experiences (something Derek was frequently guilty of).

And the mission to instill kindness as a way of life has always been a staple of drama (Gervais previously addressed it in his ill-fated The Invention of Lying), and TV has explored the theme for decades. My Name is Earl, , Louie, The Last Man on Earth and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (to name a few) are examples of shows exploring the theme better. Because unlike Derek, they are all interested in examining the (internal and external) challenges to be good. Characters become relatable and promote empathy from an audience when their struggles mirror those of their audience.

Yet Gervais’ Derek is static, almost always presented as flawless in his goodness, which ultimately robs the show of dramatic tension. Gervais acknowledged that he wrote the character this way, saying in an interview that while “being good is managing your bad thoughts and your, you know, temptations and, you know, that is being a moral person. Derek doesn’t even have that dilemma, he is just good, and it is just a lovely, refreshing way to write for me.” [4] There may be something admirable in wanting see such a “good character” on TV. But Gervais’ decision not to give a character internal struggle robs him of the complexity we have to acknowledge to allow the audience to show true compassion…after all, it’s very easy to love the completely innocent. And Gervais feels the need to tell the audience over and over why they should love Derek; and after telling an audience this so many times in every single episode, it becomes a frustrating example of why we say ‘show, don’t tell’ in drama.

It’s an example of bad storytelling by Gervais, although it should be noted that Derek is arguably the best made of his recent solo endeavors. There is a level of basic competency and consistency on display in Derek, and even a few times when an emotional moment feels earned (almost exclusively due to the solid performances by Kerry Godliman and Karl Pilkington) by stepping away from forced sentimentality underscored by Coldplay. Derek isn’t as committed to the documentary format as The Office had been (despite Gervais claiming that he’s obsessed with realism).[5] But he fails to allow the audience to suspend disbelief in order to invest even momentarily in the character’s lives, and the show is so desperate to be consistently sweet and sentimental, is becomes saccharine almost immediately.

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS

But the worst example of Gervais behind the camera as a director has been Special Correspondents, a baffling example of where he lacks some basic skills and knowledge as a filmmaker. An English remake of a French comedy, Gervais’ film is simply a drag to sit through; a satire with no bit and farce with no finesse.

It’s almost baffling that from the beginning, the film is so lacking in cinematic competence, starting with the misguided decision to cast himself as the sympathetic everyman Ian, who says laughable (and unmotivated) lines like “I care about everything and I try my best, but nothing much seems to happen.” It’s an absurd statement to hear coming from his mouth, particularly after we’ve just heard the other lead (played by Eric Bana) called “an arrogant selfish hack who survives because everyone thinks you’re a local celebrity”…a description far closer to how Gervais was being perceived by the public. Instead of taking a role which could have allowed him to showcase some of the swagger he shows on stage when playing up his arrogance, he instead chooses to tamp down what can be an appealing comic aspect about him as an actor. What should be the sympathetic everyman is interpreted by Gervais as just bland. He then underwrites Eric Bana’s character to the point of sabotaging any attempts to establish a chemistry between the two. And chemistry is likewise lacking in the romantic relationship with Kelly Macdonald’s Claire, before being separated for almost the entirety of the film making their subplot feel completely inconsequential.

Gervais seems to lack even the basic directorial understanding of how to make and put together a movie of this kind. The dialogue is sluggish when it should be quick and crisp. He includes illogical plot twists which are dropped and picked up abruptly. And his projects lack a narrative pulse, made all the worse by some sloppy editing.

Yet, we know Gervais can direct–he’s directed or co-directed all his shows and co-directed The Invention of Lying (flawed but better than Special Correspondents) and Cemetery Junction. While certainly not a perfect film, the competency on screen in Cemetery Junction which is lacking here, suggests the partnership with Merchant compensated for some of the areas Gervais lacks.

In 2010, Gervais explained that Merchant provided the structure he and their project needed, explaining “Stephen is calm. He doesn’t get angry immediately. If someone starts to open their mouth and is even suggesting that I can’t have it my way my head explodes and Stephen will go Rick, let them finish” and that “Steve’s as willing to give that (establishing) shot as much attention, because he knows it’s important, whereas I’m going “just walk across the road, good, now let’s get to the exciting bit.” And he goes, no, we need to see him “walking” across the road.” I’m going, no, just cut to the house because once you get to the house that’s fun again, that’s acting and joking.”[6] Likewise Kate Winslet (one of the celebrities in Extras) mentioned the balance they brought to each other’s work as “they are quite different. Stephen is the thinker, you sort of see the cogs working all the time which does kind of allow for Ricky to indulge in being a little bit silly and have fun with the crew and the actors which at the end of the day does in fact make a big difference.”[7]

This awareness of how to build basic structure before playing around with it seems to be missing on screen in all of Gervais’ recent solo work. He knows how to throw in inspired moments and deviate from what’s expected, but isn’t analytical enough to know how to bring all the elements together into a cohesive work. Without Merchant (or a comparable collaborator) to make up for what Gervais lacks, his work will continue to feel muddled.

And there is another element missing which leaves me far more disappointed in Gervais’ work. In the same interview Gervais spoke in 2010, Merchant explained the ‘special something’ Gervais brought to their work, stating “I’ve excused Rick in the past of being like a child, and he is in many ways, petulant and annoying. But he also has exactly what a child has which is that enthusiasm. There’s not a better audience than Ricky…He will laugh more heartily than anyone else and like a child he will be instinctual. It might need to be neatened up a bit, but it’s kind of raw.”[8] But the work I see from Gervais now lacks the energetic spirit behind it that gave their projects their spark of brilliance. The impulsive, childlike energy Gervais brought to the screen (even when restrained by Merchant) made the projects more interesting as a spectator. Now there is a feeling watching these aimless projects of frustrations behind the camera dragging the work down.

DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD

But nothing has been more exasperating to watch than Life on the Road. Not because it’s the worst of Gervais productions (although like Special Correspondents there is a sloppiness to the technique which is inexcusable), but because of what it manages to tamper with. Gervais justifies bringing the character of David Brent back because he takes ownership of the character. As he claimed in an interview, “everything in The Office was 50/50, but Brent was always 100% my character.’[9] But he seems oblivious of the fact that returning to the character of Brent fundamentally changes the flawless ending he and Merchant managed to give Brent 13 years ago. An ending that was earned over 8 hours of watching a character finally take a big step (for him) in deciphering popularity from respect. It was the perfect way to end the show and his character.

Now Brent’s character has been distorted to the point of feeling more like a sketch than the fully realized character he once was. He’s given no character to play off of, despite casting some skilled comic character actors he’s given underwritten roles to. And the film’s lack of structure leads to a narrative which lacks momentum and is frequently dull, before throwing in unearned sentimentality which crushes rather than undercuts the humor and satire in the film. As if, like constantly telling us of Derek’s kindness and Ian’s decency, Gervais seems to believe telling an audience how to feel will accomplish his goals. It’s hard to believe that the Gervais once so exacting (almost dictatorial) in his approach to making comedic excellence would make a project like this. A project which does tarnish the legacy of their masterpiece, The Office.

None of which is helped by the fact that Gervais’ relationship with the themes of fame now seem less personal (and more preoccupations) than when he addressed them in The Office, as if unwilling to show any sense of insecurity to his audience. Prime reasons The Office and Extras were successful projects had to do with the insecurities Gervais and Merchant played out comically through the work. It made the work feel deeply personal and ultimately relatable. The Office played on the ordinary distress of settling in a profession and going unnoticed. Gervais has even explained that Brent not only reflected the unbearable “others” we have to tolerate in society, but referenced the universal connection audiences had to Brent himself, saying “there`s a bit of Brent in every one. We all want to be loved. We all care what other people think about us behind our back whether we admit it or not.”[10] This is the exact opposite of how Gervais now describes his relationship to embarrassment, claiming he’s impervious to being embarrassed because it would be “giving into it.”[11] Today Gervais sees the public as a growing population of “super narcissists”, although Gervais doesn’t seem to consider himself one of them.

In Extras, Gervais and Merchant were arguably more exposed to their audience as they were in the public eye while trying to deal with what was happening to them in the moment…their sudden experience with success and fear of compromising when Hollywood came knocking. In an interview from 2017, Merchant reflected that the show came from “a point at which we were transitioning from being nobodies to somebodies. I think it was an attempt to digest that. So at least for our experience at that time, it was us being honest.”[12] At the time, Gervais described it as a “look at fame as being a mask that eats into the face and all those things. I feared it at first. It’s not normal to be famous. You lose your anonymity, which is precious. But I knew going into this that my life would change, and I thought, that’s no reason not to do something you love.”[13] Extras was arguably broader than The Office (particularly Merchant’s character Darren Lamb), but was anchored by the profound fears and anxieties they really were facing. The show managed to work on the comedic and emotional level because of the vulnerability they were able to express to the audience through characters like Andy and Maggie. Likewise, Life’s Too Short allowed for the lead character of Warwick Davis (who co-created the show) to reveal the worst (and most exaggerated) sides of himself to the audience, expose an insecurity, and receive empathy for having the courage to share that part of himself.

But it seems that now Gervais is unwilling to expose himself to such scrutiny in his narrative work, or isn’t confident in the response he would receive from the audience. Brent is still unlikable, but now the pathetic victim presented by Gervais as a kind of everyman is to be pitied. David Brent is easy to give sympathy to now, but the audience is robbed of feeling anything for him. And meanwhile, Gervais seems to be becoming more and more like the original David Brent he once described as “dictatorial, smug, egotistic, brutally insensitive (despite priding himself on his sensitivity), fantastically unfunny (despite priding himself on his humor) and supremely uncool; he always thinks he’s right, yet he’s full of insecurities.”[14]

Are you Still a Fan?

The fact is, it is true that The Office (and Extras) were so good they have cemented their place in popular culture as important and well-made parts of television history. Gervais and Merchant’s collective works have probably already earned them a place in the history books as one of the most important comedy teams of the modern era. Their body of work deserves to be considered collectively as an example of excellence. But Gervais alone is not Merchant & Gervais and after three warnings for putting out this kind of mediocrity, it might be time to revoke the lifetime pass Gervais took with him from that partnership.

I consider myself one of these reformed fans who just a few years ago wanted to see Gervais transition as a stand-alone comic as well. But he’s squandered that goodwill a long time ago, and the unlikable persona he’s cultivated does not motivate me to give him the benefit of the doubt anymore. After the underrated Hello Ladies showcased talents hidden in his partnership with Gervais, I’m far more interested in seeing what Stephen Merchant will do next as “an auteur” than in seeing another Ricky Gervais production.

I’m sure this won’t be the case with many of his fans who already have tickets for his upcoming stand-up tour (a comic art form I believe now fits Gervais better than filmmaking at this point). And I’m sure plenty will watch his new game show too. But the quick descent of Gervais makes me realize the problem with the so-called lifetime pass granted for earlier work. I agree that a work of brilliance should stand on its own…but so must subsequent works. The “lifetime pass” we give artists we were earlier fans of encourages them to work in an insular vacuum, unwilling to test their sensibility and collaborate because of the assumption their work will be consumed indiscriminately.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/10/ricky-gervais-no-justification-lazy-cruelty

[2] http://www.gq.com/story/ricky-gervais-gq-interview-comedy-issue-june-2013

[3] “Conversation with Lionel Barber; Conversation with Astro Teller; Conversation with Ricky Gervais” The Charlie Rose Show : Transcripts; 9/17/2013

“Now to a reigning master of Twitter, king of controversy, and award- winning writer, director, producer and actor but mostly Ricky Gervais” Today; New York 6/4/2014

[4] “Conversation with Lionel Barber; Conversation with Astro Teller; Conversation with Ricky Gervais” The Charlie Rose Show : Transcripts; 9/17/2013

[5] “Conversation with Lionel Barber; Conversation with Astro Teller; Conversation with Ricky Gervais” The Charlie Rose Show 9/17/2013

[6] “Conversation with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant” DVD for Cemetery Junction

[7] An Extras Night In, Kate Winslet, BBC

[8] “Conversation with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant” DVD for Cemetery Junction

[9] http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/ricky-gervais-man-of-the-year

[10] “Conversation About a New Movie Called `I Heart Huckabee`” The Charlie Rose Show 10/21/2004

[11] Opie and Anthony Show, 4/11/2011

[12] “I WOULD RATHER PLAY THE SEXY TOUGH GUY LIKE IDRIS ELBA AND DANIEL CRAIG” Times, The (United Kingdom). 02/25/2017, p54,55,56,57,59-54,55,56,57,59. 1.

[13] http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/is-ricky-gervais-bigger-than-god-20110414

[14] “THE LENNON & McCARTNEY OF COMEDY: RICKY GERVAIS AND STEPHEN MERCHANT” The Guardian; London (UK), pg 18 9/9/2006

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Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.

4 Comments

  1. Harry

    April 11, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    Ah peckas

  2. Bloodklot

    April 11, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    The show Derek was so different in my opinion. You couldn’t tell if it was a drama or a comedy. And it was SO well written. It was a really good show. It’s a shame that it didn’t catch on. It was GENIUS!

  3. George Sears

    April 11, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    I loved the radio show which was similar to the podcasts. That was Merchant and Gervais, plus Karl P. That was comedy perfection, in my opinion, especially the XFM stuff where they were totally slicing through everything. After those years of comedy, The Office seemed like a joke. It was just too structured. Gervais was OK in a couple of movies and he’s funny doing awards shows, some interview shows. The comedy gold is that early radio stuff, which I keep on various media. It’s now on YouTube. I think the truly funny people are best in a streaming kind of format, like radio or some standup. He was a success, whatever happens. He’s the funny guy I respect the most, but Louis CK is pulling even. CK is a marathon runner.

  4. Mick

    April 13, 2017 at 2:00 am

    An absolutely brilliant piece. You made every point that could be made on the matter. The most telling part (for me) was your comparison of modern Gervais with original Brent. It was chilling. Great work mate 🙂