I’ve never been one of the people who thought Ricky Gervais was a comedy genius. To me, ‘comedy genius’ implies being a great writer and a great performer.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were comedy geniuses. The Monty Python team were a collective comedy genius. Joyce Grenfell was a comedy genius. Stan Laurel was a comedy genius. Dylan Moran is a comedy genius. Billy Connolly used to be a comedy genius – the unexpurgated version of An Audience with Billy Connolly is arguably the funniest (recorded) stand-up show by a British comedian ever – and occasionally still shows flashes of his former brilliance. Rob Newman is a comedy genius. Linda Smith might have become a comedy genius if she’d lived longer. Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis are a collective genius (and criminally underrated, if you ask me). Bill Bailey has distinct genius-like tendencies, as does Jennifer Saunders. Marcus Brigstocke and Kenneth Williams and Jeremy Hardy and Nina Conti and Stephen Fry and Phil Jupitus and Julian Clary and Simon Amstell and Dawn French and Graeme Garden and Paul Merton and Eddie Izzard and Victoria Wood and Paul O’Grady probably aren’t comedy geniuses, but I still love them anyway.*
Ricky Gervais, on the other hand, is a lacklustre writer and an abysmal performer. He’s not as cancerously unfunny as Matt Lucas and David Walliams (who is?), but he runs them a close second.
For me, The Office was like a programme written by someone who’d only made it through two-thirds of Sitcom Writing for Dummies. He’d read the stuff about creating a good scenario, and he’d obviously been taking notes during the bits when they’d talked about creating well-observed characters, but what had completely passed him by was the need to write funny dialogue. A good sitcom – like The IT Crowd, or Black Books, or The Thick of It – is about well-observed characters in a well thought-out scenario who say and do funny things. As far as I could see, The Office was a sit without the com. Sitting and watching it I felt like I used to when I watched Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out as a teenager – why are people laughing at this? This is a good comedy setup, but they haven’t paid it off. There was, as far as I could tell, nothing that was actually funny, just a bunch of things that might have become funny if they’d been worked on by someone talented.
The ‘joke’ started to wear even thinner when it became apparent that David Brent wasn’t, as most people had assumed, a brilliant ‘comic creation’ but was in fact just a fractionally exaggerated version of Ricky Gervais. When people thought they were laughing at a fatuous idiot who made racist/sexist/everything-ist comments, it was all safely ‘postmodern’ and ‘ironic’, and so it was ok to laugh – ‘Oh, my dear, no, I’m not laughing at what he says, I’m laughing because he says it.’ But, once he started to do his ‘stand-up’ tours it became abundantly clear that, for at least two-thirds of his audience, he was a straightforward observational comedian – ‘he says what we’re all thinking’. And those two-thirds of his audience would be just as comfortable at a Jim Davidson gig.
(For the record, the problem with Jim Davidson as a comedian (as opposed to what’s wrong with him as a person…) isn’t that he uses ‘politically incorrect’ material, it’s that he does nothing with it. He gets a laugh from people who agree with him because they agree with him, not because he’s told a funny joke using language or ideas that some people find offensive. It’s an important distinction, I think – it’s what separates South Park from Bernard Manning.)
By the time Extras came along it was clear Ricky Gervais was rapidly vanishing up his own arse – the whole thing was basically an exercise in arrogance (‘look at all my famous friends…’) – and most people happily acknowledge that his ‘glory days’ are behind him. Judging by how enthusiastically he was booed at the Comedy Awards last year, here in the UK the backlash has well and truly set in.
But in America, he’s still seen as something of a star, and, going by the rapturous reception he got on The Daily Show this week, quite a big star. And it was something that he said on The Daily Show (shown on Wednesday in the UK, and broadcast in the US on Tuesday) that has inspired this post.
You can see the interview here, [edit: original link no longer works, but this one still seems to] but if you can’t be bothered wading through the whole thing, this is a transcript of the section that really pissed me off:
But now it’s…the new one is depression. [Sarcastic tone of voice] ‘Oh yeah, I’m bipolar, I suffer from depression’. And it’s always over-privileged performers. You don’t see like… er… like… blue-collar workers, people on minimum wage… er… with that. Imagine what they’re reading about, these people, going [sarcastic tone of voice] ‘Oh, look at this poor millionaire comedian, he feels alienated.’ It’s like – shut the –ck up. Jesus. [3’27 – 3’48 running time on the you tube video]
Well, where to start?
First of all, there’s the familiar idea that mental illness is some kind of designer accessory for the aspiring celebrity. Immediately before this, he’d been criticising comedians who talk about sex ‘addiction’, and immediately afterwards John Stewart (the presenter) went on to talk about performers who go to rehab clinics for ‘exhaustion’ because they don’t want to admit to drug addiction. The implication is that mental illness, like sex ‘addiction’ and drugs, is just a part of the celebrity lifestyle.
Now, to be fair to John Stewart (which I’m going to be, because I like him), he comes out of this reasonably well. He explicitly shifts away from Ricky’s attack on the mentally ill to talk about celebrities who feign ‘exhaustion’, and, by implication, he’s suggesting that Ricky was actually having a go at celebrities who pretend to be mentally ill, not the properly mentally ill. That’s actually a fairly good catch, and a subtle attempt at trying to finesse Ricky’s blunter point. It’s worth emphasising that it’s not Ricky Gervais who shifts the ground – he was happy to stand foursquare behind the idea that mental illness is a celebrity con.
Because that’s the second thing that’s so annoying about what he said – the idea that ‘ordinary people’ don’t get depression and bipolar disorder. I can’t actually work out which part of that irritates me more. Is it the sheer, breathtaking ignorance of a man who seems to genuinely believe that manic depression was invented by the Hello generation? Or the fact that he’s just dismissed the experiences of millions of ‘ordinary people’ who have to live with the relentless day-in, day-out grind of having a mood disorder?
This is a point that Seaneen makes fairly often, but it’s bang on the money, and she’s right to emphasise it – the huge difference in the way mental and physical illnesses are treated by the media and entertainment industries. Let’s take asthma as an example, or type 1 diabetes. Like bipolar disorder and severe depression, they’re chronic conditions that can usually be managed with medication, but can also have acute crises that require hospitalisation, and, if left untreated, can lead to death. Imagine the transcript above with asthma and diabetes in place of depression and bipolar disorder. No-one would have laughed, and by making those comments, Gervais would have risked doing serious damage to his career. So far so unfair, but that’s not the real issue. The real issue is that it wouldn’t even have occurred to him to make the ‘joke’ in the first place. That’s how vast the difference between mental and physical illness is.
People make jokes about embarrassing or painful physical conditions all the time, of course. If I had £10 for every male comedian of a certain age who I’ve seen make jokes about their prostate, and the experience of having it examined I’d have…er… well £20, at least. But with those kinds of jokes – at least when they get shown on the TV – there’s always a sense of laughing with the sufferer. There’s no sense that someone is being attacked as a bad person because they have an embarrassing physical illness. In fact, to get a big laugh when talking about a physical problem, a comedian pretty much has to explicitly say that they’re not laughing at the sufferer.
If that was the way mental illness was treated by comedians I wouldn’t have a problem with it. In fact, I’d be pleased. I’d sooner chew my leg off than become one of those arsehole killjoys who sit around waiting to be offended, or who assume that because some of the consequences of mental illness aren’t funny, the whole topic is off-limits for humour. As far as I’m concerned, no topic should be off-limits for humour (although there are several where you’d hope that comedians might want to tread carefully).
One of the greatest things about the MH blogosphere, I think, is that it’s not po-faced, and full of relentless woe-is-me misery. We all have our moments of that, of course, but the default approach amongst us all seems to be to play up an ironic or sarcastic approach to our experiences. We make jokes, usually at our own expense, and we’re pleased if people laugh at them. I’d be perfectly happy if comedians – even comedians with no experience of mental illness – joined in with that. Jo Brand is famously an ex-mental nurse, and she doesn’t often make jokes about mental illness, but when she does they’re funny, and they’re not attacking the mentally ill, just some of the absurdities that exist.
In that sense, she’s pretty much the opposite of Ricky Gervais. His ‘joke’ wasn’t about mental illness, it was about the mentally ill. And it wasn’t about laughing with the mentally ill, it was about laughing at them, because the whole concept of being mentally ill is a fake. But then again, of course, Jo Brand is very different to Ricky Gervais in another way, too. She wasn’t on my list of comedy geniuses at the start of this post, and I’m not sure she deserves to be, but she is about a million times funnier than Ricky Gervais.
* – this is, btw, only the edited highlights of comedians I like, and only taken from the ranks of British and Irish comedians.**
** – ok, I admit it – Joyce Grenfell and Stan Laurel are both Anglo-American rather than British or Irish. Why yes, I am a dyed-in-the-wool comedy geek. How ever could you tell? ;o)
[The title of this post was changed on 14/04/2012.]