"We picked on something people identified with - a decent job of work, a relationship and a boss who needs to be loved going through a mid-life crisis."
It seems fitting that, what with our topic this week being ‘Quote’, that we talk briefly about Ricky Gervais.
My Dad’s generation had Monty Python and Derek & Clive to parrot inanely whenever they found themselves with nothing actually funny to contribute to conversation. The generation before him had The Goons and, um, Winston Churchill whenever they were short of banter.
My generation has Anchorman and The Office.
I won’t complain about this, The Office (before you say anything, of course I mean the British one) is one of the finest things ever filmed. Five hundred years from now, people who want to better understand our society so that they can write theses about the paradigmatic subtext of Simon Armitage’s oeuvre will definitely watch The Office.
There has never been a better, more honest and entertaining representation of the tertiary sector than Gervais and Merchant’s debut project. Every line of dialogue spoken is imbued with that sense of banal claustrophobia that characterises life in any type of office.
As a result of its ‘nail-on-head’ brilliance, people of my generation quote segments from The Office ad nauseum, swapping snippets of naturalist dialogue through mustered smirks as a substitute for witty comments in a way that is… well, imbued with banal claustrophobia. Ironic, innit?
So, with no hesitation, I’ve made the effort over the years to watch, listen to and read everything Gervais has ever done. It has been hit and miss, but the hits have outweighed the misses and the misses have outweighed most comedians’ hits. I was therefore fairly excited about the release of his latest stand-up routine, ‘Science’, on DVD this week.
I suppose Gervais’ entire creative range would place ‘The Office’ on one end of the spectrum and his stand-up routines at the other (the podcasts serving as a fairly tidy bridge between the two). Whilst his TV series strive for, and achieve, a certain level of down-played pathos and his movies aim at a slightly glossier version of the same, his stand-up shows represent an altogether darker, unsympathetic side to Gervais’ comedy.
Structurally, Science is the tightest, cleverest show that Gervais has performed so far. His seemingly erratic and tangential themes are all intermingled and cross-referenced in a way that suggests a real coming of age of Gervais as a comedian – he’s learnt the spinning-plate technique that allows Ross Noble to get away with being so incomprehensible by creating the illusion that it all fits together somehow.
In terms of content, however, I have always seen Gervais’ stand-up as a step backwards. As a writer and director, the guy’s at his best when he’s playing it subtle.
Take Cemetery Junction for example. There are two shots (one at the beginning, one at the end) of the street where the main character lives. At the start of the film, subtly during a tracking shot, you see a young boy hitting at his garden fence with a cricket bat as if to compound the theme of ‘breaking out and getting away’. At the end of the film, you see the same boy hitting at the same fence, even though there is now clearly enough room for him to have climbed through. Just like one of the film’s main characters… the boy could escape but chooses senseless violent rebellion instead. That entire thing takes up no more than 4 seconds screen time.
That’s the Gervais I love… the subtle, nuanced one that wants you to pick out the details of what he has achieved.
In his latest stand-up, Science, the comedy springs from Susan Boyle looking like a “mong”, an obese, mentally disabled woman masturbating in public at a Ken Dodd gig, God choosing to give AIDS to African babies and the fact that (wait for it…) the fact that the story of Noah’s Ark doesn’t make any sense.
I’m not saying that comedians should never handle these things, but I would really rather it wasn’t Gervais that was doing it. Everything about his script-writing style is so antithetical to uproarious laughter, his wit is far more potent in producing awkward winces during pregnant pauses. For him to make the concession from being auteur to crowd-pleaser seems a little sad to me… I’d much rather his stand-up was more at odds with the very genre of live comedy in the way that Stewart Lee manages so convincingly.
But then, that’s what poets do too, right? We write books and magazine submissions that can be silently, appreciatively, thoughtfully frowned at. But put a live audience in front of us and we’re banging out the punch-lines like a crack-fiend clucking for an appreciative half-laugh.
If you enjoy Gervais’ work, you’ll buy ‘Science’. And, to be honest, you’ll enjoy it, the guy’s quite good at doing stand-up. What I really think he needs to do though, is strip away the impressive sets and the desperate provocation and give his live routines the uncomfortable, nuanced, drawn-out awkwardness that makes his television shows so haunting and entertaining.