Picture credit: Karwai Tang/WireImage

You can criticise comedy without cancelling it

Ricky Gervais should ask himself who he is satirising and why

Artillery Row

Words. Bloody words, damn all the words, everywhere, to hell.  

There they are, minding their own linguistic business, meaning what they’ve always meant — then and along comes a comedian with a Netflix special, or the NHS with an awareness raising health campaign, and boom, nothing means anything dependably anymore. 

Couple that with the perma-comedy culture wars, the rising tide of woke loathing and attempts and — for want of a much better word — successes in cancel culture and, double boom, the Netflix special meets the mob and the only winners are owners of social media platforms.

So in the fictional words of a stereotypical, middle-aged female bigot, in an otherwise woke comedy series, “For god’s sake what is it now with these people?”

Well, as has been the case for a while now, “it” is Ricky Gervais, “now” is him being “non PC” and “these people” is me.

I suppose the terminology of “political correctness” is a little passé now for the fans of comedians who, like Ricky, specialise in being controversial, intentionally or otherwise. Their defence is that they want to say whatever they like — illegality aside — whenever they like, about whoever they like.

But the reality isn’t quite so cut and dried. This idea of “equal opportunity offensiveness” fails on closer inspection.

Thankfully, Ricky isn’t racist, homophobic, misogynist et cetera. A regular target for what his devoted fans call satire over the years is another demographic — learning disabled people, in one form or another.

I’ve been criticising this for years. Interaction with his fans often doesn’t always extend as far as a discussion of the finer points of comedy or indeed language. Sometimes they just settle for the more direct approach and inspired by all the clever satire they’re so steeped in, they just call me a brain damaged cunt, mong, retard or similar and leave it at that. “Job done, woman told, on with the day…”

I saw recently in an interview that Ricky had said he hates seeing comedians apologising for tweets. That’s interesting given his very public and private apology to me in 2011 when he tried to get the word mong trending on social media.

Social media cancellation was in its infancy then

As it’s something I campaign against, but also as I had enormous respect for him as a writer, I’d tried privately and unsuccessfully to suggest there might be a better way for him to make his point about the nature of language and how it evolves. One that didn’t involve Downs Syndrome. Anyway, I think he felt cornered and perplexed. Social media cancellation was in its infancy then but he ended up quote tweeting me in temper and I got savaged by his fans, despite not being a hater. So, he phoned me and apologised.

I expect he regrets that now — the apology I mean — but unlike many criticising him online at that time, I understood him to be genuinely distressed and so I stood between him and the mob sending him death threats. 

As soon as I did and interviewed him online, the mob morphed instantly and seamlessly from his aggressively abusive fans tweeting at me, into his aggressively abusive haters tweeting at me. 

It was a fun time.

I have to say the most unusual of his abusive fans are grown adults who pretend to be animals online. They descend from their twitter accounts dedicated to tweeting everything Gervais (with tens of thousands of followers) when they sense their hero is under attack, with gasp-inducing speed. Almost as fast as Ricky can cancel a dog meat festival.

As a nation we love animals far, far more than we love some people. That’s how we’ve arrived at a place when between 2018 – 2021 alone 761 learning disabled children and 11,138 learning disabled adults died, with the majority from an avoidable cause. These are figures from the LeDeR report. This report exists because there were so many excess deaths of learning disabled adults and children in the UK every year the government had to implement an improvement programme. 

It’s fun facts like those that make me feel very tired when I see the most successful writer in the UK do the “edgelord” thing. 

LeDeR highlights other aspects of privilege and elitism, in the learning disability demographic, like the fact that the life expectancy of learning men is 22 years less, and the life expectancy of learning disabled women is 26 years less, than the non-learning disabled population.

I like Ricky and much of his work. I certainly don’t want to see him “cancelled”. Yet I like him rather more when he isn’t using pejoratives for learning disability than when he is. But he does seem to favour the vulnerable demographics as targets in his edgy, no holds barred comedy — rather than say, the oil industry or terrorist groups.

I’ve also defended him previously for his satire, when his satire appears. But as I watched his latest trailer for his latest comedy special, I struggled to see how saying retarded repeatedly, and doing the Netflix version of popularising mong, as he tried to do on Twitter previously, is smashing the political elite, the privileged decision makers or the leafy mansion dwelling establishment; which is what I understand that satire is usually deployed to do.

Satire doesn’t have to exist purely for those purposes of course, but I’m not sure who Ricky is satirising when he says that not getting the joke he’s making is “retarded”. 

That plays more like a statement of his personal opinion by using a pejorative for learning disability, rather than smashing the power ceiling. He sets up the joke with himself as the ignorant celebrity sending mythical video messages to imagined dying children for the “Make a Wish foundation”. Something which, understandably, hasn’t gone down well with parents of children who’ve died. 

I know after my 17 year old brother died when I was 12, laughing at child death wasn’t on my mum’s distraction list because, oddly enough, it’s hard to have an objective sense of humour about a dead child. It’s hard to look dispassionately at a situation which rips the heart of your chest and which, remembering my own mum, is often only survived as a parent through sheer force of will and love for your surviving children, or partner. 

Perhaps that’s just more evidence of being woke, though. It’s so very hard to know these days isn’t it.

This is a recurring theme of his e.g. a sick child in hospital in Extras and the child’s pushy mother and also an old gag he first did with Stephen Merchant with accompanying Christmas themed song “Don’t Cry it’s Christmas”, in their XFM radio show, several years ago. 

It worked really well in that context, because it was tempered by Stephen Merchant pleading with him not to do the song, on a mythical children’s ward of terminally ill child patients. Ricky deploying a takedown of nauseating, narcissistic celebrities “giving back” to the little people for his own ends and lacking the self-awareness to discern his self-centred failings.

He ridiculed himself, not dying children and not learning disabled people.

That’s the kind of considered comedy that deals in subjects without creating targets that he often talks about, in respect of himself and his material. But fashions and comedy trends change and — as we’ve seen recently with much younger, male comedians like Matt Rife — learning disabilities are part of the “woke monster”, that apparently needs slaying — along with anyone who has concerns around jokes targeting survivors of domestic violence.

From the “godfather of podcasting” to the grandfather of comedy, from online selling his own sustainable (isn’t that woke?) brand of vodka, to multimillion pound, stadium tours, “Brand Gervais” rumbles on, doing exactly as he pleases and is answerable to no one. Which of course renders him as the polar opposite of the majority of learning-disabled people in the UK today.   

Two decades on from the brilliance of his and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, and now solo on a commissioning platform, which lets him do and say whatever he wants, Ricky is one of the most powerful men in the entertainment industry. 

He has — I don’t doubt — unfettered access to anyone he wants, and anything he wants, whenever wants. He’s firmly part of the establishment, not the outsider calling it out. 

He’s no one’s “cocky little nobody” anymore. That self-declared ship sailed decades ago.

I’m sure his fans, and Ricky himself, might think that’s me.

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