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Artillery Row


Ricky Gervais’s tiresome adolescent offencemongering sent me to sleep

Ricky Gervais’s new comedy special recently launched on Netflix. Entitled Armageddon, it is, in his own words, about “how the human race is destroying itself”. It reaches for a tradition of bleakly existential and absurdist British comedy that can be found in Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and the Pythons. Gervais seeks to marry this with shocking material, and ends up producing a darkly cynical, consciously offensive hour of jokes about disabled children, the holocaust, pedophilia, transgenderism, homosexuality and illegal immigration (etc). 

When I say it was boring, self-indulgent, and nihilistic, I’m not claiming to be above stuff that is gleefully offensive. In many ways, I should be the audience for this. I’m as exercised by stupid puritanical progressivism as the next man. I grew up reading Pratchett and Adams, and watching Monty Python. I very much enjoyed Dave Chapelle’s clever and well thought out explorations of offensive material on Netflix. I don’t care if Gervais wants to test the limits of taste if anything he has to say merits the journey there. There’s a simple, basic problem: it’s not funny. As others have noted, he would simply trot out offensive statements or topics, or denounce wokeness, then pause for laughter and applause. 

The punchlines largely never came, and the exercise quickly started to feel masturbatory. “Look at me, look at what I’m saying, imagine how SHOCKED the woke are going to be”. It’s the mirror image of the mediocre left wing comedians who take to the stage to declare how much they hate the Tories, and are seeking applause rather than laughter. 

There were a few jokes that raised a chuckle, and felt real rather than narcissistic. One of the more offensive gags of the evening, about the local paedophile, benefited massively from having nothing much to do with the culture war, and instead explored the scare stories working class parents especially use to protect their children. It was a rare moment where you actually felt he had something to say, and was sharply observational. 

It was a stand up routine that sends you to sleep, and not just in the obvious sense. The great justification of offensive comedy is its power to unsettle as well as entertain. The spice that raises tears of laughter is our subtle discomfort with our own laughter. Good offensive humour is like an electric current, shocking us into greater awareness. “You can’t choose your thoughts” is the throughline of the show, “you can’t choose your sense of humour”. The point of the show is that we should be comfortable with our own dark thoughts and feelings. They’re “involuntary”, about “testing yourself” and “you’re a good person, right?”. Under the spiky jokes is a soft Christmas jumper — don’t think too hard, don’t worry, don’t judge yourself. 

I’m struck by the contrast to genuinely challenging comedy, much of which doesn’t have to use foul language or controversial topics to get a laugh or unsettle its audience. One of the main points of using shocking material is to make audiences feel bad as well as good. What are we really like, what might we be like if we acted on the thoughts and urges that offensive comedy shines a light on? 

it’s on this level that Gervais’s shtick is at its most limp and ineffectual

There’s a case to be made, of course, for comedy as a satirical weapon wielded against bad ideas or irrational social convention. But it’s on this level that Gervais’s shtick is at its most limp and ineffectual. There are no language games — no satisfying inverting twist that unravels stupid ideas and leaves the audience in stitches. No delicious shiver of outrage even when it’s your own fond dogmas getting the axe. Just plodding, nasal “isn’t this all silly”, “look at how often I can say the word ‘c*nt’” adolescent claptrap. 

Those who despise the same stupidities as Gervais will be tempted to defend this sort of idiotic, feeble stuff on ideological grounds. They should resist the urge — not only is better “anti-woke” satire possible, it’s already out there in the shape of the work of those like Dave Chappelle, the late Norm MacDonald and Andrew Doyle. Go watch their stuff instead, and save yourself a wasted hour.

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