I like most of the work of Ricky Gervais. The Office was a brilliant comedy in many ways – subtle, inventive, intelligent and above all it had an underlying tragic sensitivity that elevated it above your average comedy. The Office was an examination of how TV searches for people that will provide perfect rubber-necking TV. David Brent was the archetypal reality TV star – someone so ignorant of his own limitations that they could be easily edited into a bumbling, embarrassing incompetent by amoral TV executives. The point of The Office was that the documentary makers were inviting audiences not to laugh with David Brent, but to laugh at him and the show is frequently infamously cringe-worthy because of this. Essentially, the Office was actually a dark series about how TV executives could happily film a man teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown who gradually loses his job and dignity as the ‘documentary’ goes on because it makes ‘good’ TV. The series played on the fact that most people would still tune in and not even realise this – instead they happily mocked Brent just as the fake producers of the documentary show inside The Office knew they would.
One consequence of this is that now Gervais faces a lifetime of being asked to ‘do the dance’ by people who completely missed the point.
Most people don’t really think too much about TV, it seems. Most people might miss the subtle editing that reminds the audience that you’re not seeing David Brent the human being, you’re seeing David Brent the edited-for-good-TV version. One scene – for example – in the second series starts – very briefly – with the employees laughing along with Brent with real warmth and it is obvious that we have missed a moment when Brent was connecting with his staff. Brent’s new boss (or equal in the eyes of Brent) then makes a humorous introduction to the staff and Brent follows up with a floundering mess culminating in him doing a John Cleese goosestep whilst imitating Hitler. The Office is a comedy that requires the viewer to be aware that we are not viewing the whole scene, but rather the snapshots that are designed to set up Brent for a TV audience to poke fun at.
It is a theme that Gervais memorably returns to in Extras when during a powerful penultimate scene his character (Andy Millman) comments on the nature of celebrity and pseudo-celebrity TV shows when he has entered Big Brother and suddenly realises what he – and a significant part of TV has become:
fuck you, the makers of this show as well. You can’t wash your hands of this. You can’t keep going, “Oh, it’s exploitation, but it’s what the public want.” No, the Victorian freak show never went away. Now it’s called “Big Brother” or “American Idol,” where in the preliminary rounds we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multimillionaires. And fuck you for watching this at home. Shame on you.
The Office was the Victorian freakshow, where documentary makers wheeled out the bewildered David Brent so the audience could laugh at him as his life fell apart. The point of the Office was that David Brent wasn’t an evil man, he was simply a man unaware of his own limitations who desperately wanted to be significant (hence his belief that he was some kind of amazing comedian / philosopher who was having a positive impact on the world). He wanted to be liked and respected but his weakness (his lack of self-awareness) instead meant that he was vulnerable to be filmed, edited and put on display for the entertainment of millions who could mock him from the comfort of their own sofas.
The Victorian freakshow never went away.
And then we get to Science – screened recently on Channel 4 – which was weak, really weak. Gervais’ projects that have had a real heart and an intelligent subtlety have almost always – it seems to me – involved a significant role for Stephen Merchant, when Gervais is alone on a stage he just seems to revert to lowest-common-denominator comedy. It’s unfunnily ironic, considering that in Extras Gervais warns us about what good comedy can become when it is butchered for the mass-market – When the Whistle Blows (Millman’s sit-com in Extras) is an imagination of what The Office might have become had the BBC insisted on dramatic changes in order to make it appeal to a mainstream audience – people who Gervais and Merchant mock as knowing nothing about good comedy.
Science was tired stuff – I mean the amount of time spent basically mocking the fact that Noah couldn’t possibly fit two of every animal on the Ark through the use of a child’s book was amazingly lazy and weak – it has been done a million times before. It’s the kind of comedy sketch that has been done not by just comedians but pretty much anyone who has ever discussed the story of Noah with even the faintest whiff of worldy cynicism.
Anyway, that is of course not what the Daily Mail is complaining about and not, ultimately, the point of this blog post. Ricky Gervais pursued the ‘outraged response’ crowd by using the word ‘mong’ and then inviting people to not complain because that would be stupid because the word isn’t offensive anymore. Language evolves, seemed to be his point, and in isolation it is a fair one.
Language clearly evolves. There are tens, hundreds, thousands and possibly tens of thousands of examples of this that he could have picked to demonstrate his point. But he picked ‘mong’ simply because he knew this would get him the most attention. And it did. He has a standard faux-outrage (their outrage is false because they happily and frequently publish far more offensive things) article from the Daily Mail to hang on his wall of achievements – after all, anyone on the end of a Daily Mail attack can normally smugly know that they are not only right, but moral as well.
But I don’t think that is the case here. I don’t want to get into the whole argument about the word ‘mong’ because I think it is fairly clear to see that it is still used in a broad context to mock people with disabilities and others have already made this argument. What I want to point out is that Gervais’ Science show was obviously trying to portray itself as being intelligent comedy and Gervais’ response to the ‘mong’ debate on Twitter has been mocking – i.e. only stupid people are upset because they are not clever enough to understand what Gervais is doing.
But it wasn’t clever, it was just shit. We live in a period where language is being distorted and abused all of the time by our corporate and political overlords (see Unspeak by Steven Poole for example) and we’re currently staring into the abyss of the complete collapse of the capitalist system. If Gervais wanted to do intelligent comedy he doesn’t have a shortage of material. Instead he decided to treat us to his view of the recession – is it real? I’m rich so I don’t know – a bit where he uses mong to try to claim that it isn’t offensive at all, and that anyone who is offended by his use of it is just a stupid person because language evolves – as if he was making some deeply philisophical observation- and finishes with a lazy skit about how the story of Noah’s ark is a bit silly (as if we didn’t already realise that).
Basically, my point is this: Ricky Gervais is free to make lazy, unchallenging, unintelligent and tired lowest-common-denominator-comedy which he can sell to packed-out audiences, but what I object to is his attempt to package it as something more than that.
Science was not clever, nor was his point about the word ‘mong’ accurate or philisophical or remotely clever or even challenging comedy. It was just lazy and shit – as has his defence of it been (linking to one blogger who even claimed that those criticising him were just as bad as Hitler). Ricky Gervais can do clever comedy, what he cannot do is try to package shit comedy as intelligent comedy simply by being purposefully controversial.