First, an admission: after writing about Samantha Brick last week I wanted to try and avoid mentioning her at all costs – but after watching Ricky Gervais’s Derek last night (which he wrote, directed and starred in), I suddenly reminded myself about how profitable it can be to wring every last ounce of value out of just the one note. Fancy that!
If you didn’t spot it last night, Derek was a one-off comedy drama for Channel 4, in which Gervais played the eponymous character, someone with learning difficulties who worked in an old folks’ home.
“Oh, how controversial,” the PC pigs among you might squeal, remembering that the no-holds-barred funnyman had back in October been fiercely criticised for repeatedly using the word “mong” on Twitter – a slang term which a bunch of snarky people (ie those with direct experience) took to be disablist language. They further alleged that someone of Gervais’s standing ought not to use the word, lest it encourage bullying. He claimed they were wrong, and at some point in the future scientists will vindicate his brave stance. (Unfortunately that day is not today.)
Anyway, after being accused of mocking the disabled, what better way for the lauded star of The Office to prove that he wouldn’t mock the disabled than by creating (and inhabiting) a character with learning disabilities who – absolutely hilariously it goes without saying – puts a bowl of custard on a chair, turns round and forgets about the bowl of custard (of custard!) on a chair, then sits on the bowl of custard on a chair, then stands up BECAUSE HE’S SAT ON A BOWL OF CUSTARD THAT HE’D PLACED ON A CHAIR AND NOW IT’S ALL ON THE SEAT OF HIS TROUSERS AND HE JUST CAN’T COMPREHEND WHAT’S HAPPENED. That’ll teach them!
This is the beauty of irony (I guess!?!?! I should probably look up the word in the dictionary again), and as we now know Gervais is so ironic that he’s like a translucent jellyfish that’s eating itself and you don’t know which way is up and which way is down, or which way is in and which way is out, and you can only stand and gawp in admiration at this brilliant wonder of God’s designs.
Some people might have thought that he – Gervais, not God – had lost it after his films The Invention of Lying and Cemetery Junction didn’t live up to the success of The Office and Extras, but – oh yes! – it turns out that the man formerly known as David Brent still had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. (None involving that wacky dance of his again.)
With Life’s Too Short he proved that you could have a comedy about short people that wouldn’t be laughing at short people, it’d be laughing with short people! In order to do this he had well loved actor Warwick Davis fall out of a car and climb inside a toilet, because that’s the sort of stuff that short people probably want us to laugh at whenever we think of them. (I certainly do now, regardless.)
With Derek he proved that you could have a comedy about people with learning disabilities that wouldn’t be laughing at people with learning disabilities, it’d be laughing with people with learning disabilities! In order to do this he had himself – as Derek – sit on a bowl of custard, fall into a pond because he thought he saw a spider (or something), and cut the toenails of an old woman to get a toffee (or something) even though – get this – she didn’t have any toffee (or something)! He also ran through the main room of the old folks’ home naked, which in no way would be utterly humiliating if it were a real-life scenario.
Given that Gervais proclaims himself at every given opportunity to be brilliant, I think what he’s doing with these shows is proving – on the grandest and most gut-busting of scales – the same point about comedy that Samantha Brick did about looks. Yes, it turns out that being really really ridiculously funny has its downsides, too!
One major negative comes from the Twitter reaction that immediately greeted the airing of Derek, with loads of insanely jealous types claiming that the show had no point, or no story, or was mainly offensive because it was advertised as a sitcom and wasn’t funny. On and on and on they went. (Turns out loads of insanely jealous people like to torment themselves by watching Channel 4 at 10pm on a Thursday night.)
But even if that were true, wouldn’t that mean that with his latest show Gervais is proving himself such a brilliant comedian that he doesn't even have to be funny to have channels falling over themselves to put on his shows? What tragedy, when somebody doesn’t even have to hit anything like his peak to have people clambering over each other for his attention. How sad. It’s almost sad as those really poignant moments of Derek which you knew were poignant because sad piano music played over the top and people looked unhappy, and Derek didn’t slip over a bowl of spaghetti that he’d placed on the ground when he had gone to the window to look at a cat outside that was meowing.
Anyway, just like the people who criticised Le Brick were obviously only envious of her good looks (because yonks ago an airline pilot gave her free champagne), those who claim that Gervais is getting worse and worse are simply resentful because he got some Golden Globes a while back and they’ve never had any Golden Globes. (Not even one for Best Mini-Series Or Motion Picture Made for Television.)
If there’s a problem for Gervais, it’s that those who can’t stand his genius are growing in number. Channel bosses are also becoming so envious that they seem unlikely to recommission Life’s Too Short, or make Derek into the fully series it rightly ought to be. The better he becomes, the more selective his appeal is. But let us (admittedly fewer and fewer in number) who don’t think Ricky Gervais a contemptible, risible excuse for a comedic director/writer/actor remember this: how many of those absurdly covetous haters have ever put a show on network TV about someone with learning disabilities who sits on a bowl of custard? That’s right: not very many of them.
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