When comedian Ricky Gervais walks onto the stage in his black t-shirt, jeans a different shade of black, and shoes, another shade of black, telling his audience to shut up and stop clapping so he can get on with the show, he pleads in his cocksure British accent, “Shu’ up, you cunts,” and the energised cunts — the audience — laugh back at him, excited to be called cunts by the man they paid good money to listen to.
Why laugh? Is it something about the way the word “cunt” hits the ear, a monosyllable of such striking phonetic sharpness, like “fuck”? Or is it the sheer impropriety, the brazen balls of saying the word out loud, and so they are laughing at the idea of other people being horrified by the casual throw of cunt? Oh, to be subversive. A fuck-you to all those who think art must be morally valid, politically well behaved, ethically sympathetic. Gervais, a second later, reacting to the laugh, puffs his chest — mission accomplished. To have spun ourselves into such mutually exclusive echo chambers that one loves being called a cunt just so the other is horrified by the sheer act of it. Who is the buffoon here?
Gervais calls this irony. It is a neat explanation. He jokes about something — “summat” in British — he doesn’t mean “for comic effect”, like trans women being the new women with “beards and cocks”. The audience will laugh at the “wrong thing” — Gervais air quotes this — because they know what the “right thing” is — again, air-quotes. (This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last time his jokes centre on the trans woman punch line. Earlier, he circled his humour around Caitlyn Jenner, noting that he wanted to self-identify as a chimp named Bobo.)
I found this explanation odd — insincere, obviously, given the air quotes, but more odd — because here is a man who has made a career out of being provocative, and is suddenly trying to be apologetic about it by calling his crude humour “irony”? Just be provocative, problematic, assume yourself to be superior to the sallow-faced snowflakes, and move on. Why this pretence of being ironic? Is Gervais going soft on us? Does he want us to see him as a good guy who says bad things to make good people laugh? “Okay, full disclosure. In real life, of course I support trans rights,” Gervais says mid-way through the show. Why? So he can point to when accused of transphobia — the kind of writing that is produced anticipating a reaction, a backlash?
Or you know, maybe I am wrong about this. He was, afterall, using that line as a set-up, for his punch-line, asking trans women to meet him half-way and “lose the cock”. I croaked a soft laugh at this. I shouldn’t have, I know. But I did. And part of having “problematic faves” is to test the malleability of your politics, to go dizzy between the infinity mirrors of your cerebral convictions and your visceral reactions. Sometimes, you just want to get out of the tent and breathe.
With every joke, we begin to wonder what the distance is between the joke and the beliefs of the joker, the distance between the laughter and the convictions of the laugher.
A caveat which Gervais has often emphasised in interviews, “[to laugh] at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is… [to] worry about … a person at the end of that joke.”
That is to say Gervais is not totally unfunny. He’ll somehow take a joke about paedophiles — already hot coal territory — and wrap it further, digging the grave of his fuck-all attitude, and use “dwarves” as the punch-line. But where does one locate the humour in these jokes? Why do we laugh at things that we understand are unsavoury, or is it precisely because we understand that they are unsavoury that we find them funny? That for centuries philosophers have been trying to perfect the rational human being centered around sense and sensibility and philistines in the garb of aged male comedians come along and flip a finger with a joke on rape or laughing at a child’s funeral. What a world, huh.
Again, a caveat which Gervais has often emphasised in interviews, “[to laugh] at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is… [to] worry about … a person at the end of that joke.” If the audience is unsophisticated enough to take his irony as opinion, then they are stupid and that is that. The joke is on the stupid audience member, not the trans woman feeling tired at having to defend themselves, experiencing every joke as a barb.
The thing is, I just don’t believe that Ricky Gervais is being ironic. I don’t believe that he has a grasp of what the right thing — in air quotes — is. Because what is the “right thing”? To not make jokes about trans women? To not make offensive jokes about trans women? To not speak of trans women in anything but cloying, progressive spiels?
There is a fundamental dichotomy here. Gervais believes words cannot be violent. Those who oppose him speak of the violence of words — of how it can embolden violence, how it can validate it, even if it isn’t physically, literally bloodletting.
Gervais understands this disagreement, knows exactly what it is that will make people sit up straight and take notice of him, and he cranks it up, recycling it till our spines slump in boredom. In an interview with the New York Times, he notes, “If I’m doing a warm-up show and I’m about five minutes short of material, I’ll search Twitter for provocative things.” But what if he is an hour short of material for his hour-long special? The entire act of comedy has become an exercise in provocation, and then congratulating oneself for holding one’s ground, not ceding to the moral bores. Gervais is so used to this, that in the pockets of his special where he isn’t being provocative, he is just being dull. The title of the show is about nature and its glory and I felt bored just thinking through till the end of this sentence. “No filter” “Provocative” “Dark comedy” “Crude humour” “Language” — Netflix warned us for all of this but not “Existential Stink”.
The only way for a white heterosexual male multi-millionaire — his words — to stay relevant is to keep insisting on it.
There’s also a disturbing amount of repetition. Not just the trans jokes, but ones about his atheism. In an earlier special, he had made a joke about asking god why he invented chocolates to kill dogs, and here, he has one on AIDS. The frame is all the same, recycled to churn money for him and outrage for the anti-him.
All of this spews forth against a black backdrop with blue pockmarks, like stars in a night sky — apt for the long, boring patches on the beauty of nature and the miracle of our existence — with a beer behind the lectern that he keeps reaching out for. A man’s man! Grr. Gruff. Maybe that is it. The only way for a white heterosexual male multi-millionaire — his words — to stay relevant is to keep insisting on it. To style oneself as a bastion of irreverence and free speech and whatever he thinks he is doing, positioning himself against the woke brigade. But irreverence is not a superpower. It is a cloak behind which the insecurity of becoming irrelevant throbs. That much is clear from watching this comedy special.
After years of seeing and hearing about the woke brigade, the only acceptable response to someone bringing up the word “woke” in a conversation — or a monologue, as many conversations devolve into — is to roll your eyes and let it wash over you. There is never anything new being said in these contests. Same old, same old. Art VS Artist. Can you separate the two? No? Okay. Yes? Okay. Sometimes? I get that. Now what? Are you happy living your life like a manifesto? Are you happy selling comedy as conflict? Are you happy being a bore?