When Schtick Comes Unstuck: The Rise And Fall Of Ricky Gervais

He's been known to hail himself as "Britains Best Comedian" and at one time he might have been right, but the years have not been kind to Ricky Gervais and now his jokes have become predictable and flat.
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He's been known to hail himself as "Britains Best Comedian" and at one time he might have been right, but the years have not been kind to Ricky Gervais and now his jokes have become predictable and flat.


You all know the man; omnipresent purveyor of cringe-com and master of supreme arrogance under the nouveaux-douche veil of “Irony”. “Britain's best comedian” (his words) responsible for “Britain's best sitcom” (my words).

But from Slough every-boss to Hollywood's preeminent Limey snark, Gervais seems to have lost his edge and with it the favour of the industry itself. But let's start from the beginning...

From humble beginnings growing up in grey old Reading (fodder for his underrated 2010 film Cemetery Junction) to London's XFM by way of the curiously titled job “Head of Speech” (thanks Wikipedia), he met Stephen Merchant.

So the legend goes, Gervais picked up the first CV he saw and it so happened to be “goggle-eyed freak” (Merchant’s words) Stephen Merchant. And their collective resumés grew, so did the star of Gervais – a constellation which seemed to garner little respect for Merchant's input - whether RG's intention or not, the media and, by extension, the public lent little adherence to the notion that perhaps Merchant did some of the writing/directing, too. Not until Merchant's stand-out turn as inept agent Darren Lamb did his star diverge independently (I'm unaware as to if stars can even “diverge” and don't much care for this analogy. So eat it, Astronomy students).

With the creation of The Office, Gervais rocketed to national fame, the face of the kind of comedy we as a nation pride ourselves on: quiet, subtle, observed, hilarious, short. David Brent was the kind of lovable arsehole whose desire to be loved is only outweighed by his desire to be the hilarious life and soul of any event. Endlessly quotable, brilliantly observed, naturalistically acted; it proved a welcome counterpoint to the brash, broad, of-it's-time Phoenix Nights on Channel 4. Extras too, a few years after, further cemented Gervais' stature as king of British comedy; with celebrities spoofing themselves in a way not done so well since The Larry Sanders Show and Gervais' idol Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm.

David Brent was the kind of lovable arsehole whose desire to be loved is only outweighed by his desire to be the hilarious life and soul of any event.

As America took The Office to it's ample bosom (and, of course, adapted it to suit it's own, broader comedy agenda) so Gervais rose from “Oh yeah, it's that guy!” to co-starring in The Simpsons, in what was one of the show's least offensively unfunny cameo vehicle episodes. Gervais even went on to star in “comedies” about a spectral dentist with Greg Kinnear and even that couldn't halt his stride. The zenith of Gervais' meteoric rise would have to be the stand-up set he performed in-game in GTAIV in what was perhaps the most pointless sojourn in the most critically divisive of the entire series. But when he took on the role as the fat Brit Joan Rivers to host the 68th Golden Globe awards, things started to change.

Now, from NBC's point of view it was a smart move. The Golden Globes are a notoriously near-meritless industry piss-up where stars of pretend films like Twilight and The Iron Lady go to pretend that their films are awards worthy and here is a notoriously frank comedian who wants the publicity and will gun-down any easy marks to get there.

With jokes ranging from cutting-edge topics such as Charlie Sheens' drug addiction to Robert Downey Jr's former drug addition, his performance was met by mixed reviews. The ratings were up but feelings were caught as none other than modern comedy demi-God Judd Apatow weighed in on Gervais' pillowy punches, who said “I didn't like him. I thought he was mean” in a jab which manages to be even tamer than Gervais' own celeb jibes.

In 2011, news broke of Gervais-Merchant's newest sitcom “Life's Too Short”, marking their triumphant return to BBC comedy - In theory. What it became was a one-note wank-a-thon; short on originality, high on repackaged jokes from his first two sitcoms. Disappointment rang out and the writing was on the wall...

As Gervais was invited back the following year (for the ratings), people were abuzz talking about the Golden Globes in the build up, something which would have never happened pre-2011. Everyone weighed in with their predictions for Gervais' gags (“I'm glad Sarah Jessica Parker has been nominated for … What do you mean she's not in War Horse?”) and so lies the problem. Comedy, in essence, relies on surprise for humour: set-up leads you one way, punchline sends you reeling with a counterpunch. So what chance does the comic have if everyone has clocked his penchant for the easy kill and are already ready for jokes they know are coming – that shit might fly with the Mrs. Brown's Boys brigade, but not on my watch.

“Mong” became the word which typified Gervais' comedy: out-dated.

And so it came to pass that while in 2011 he was too ballsy, in 2012 he lacked; the go-to guy in answering the questions that no-one asked him had answered with completely the wrong answer. The backlash was inevitable, yes, but telling in its apathy. Perhaps the “Mong” furore of late-2011 had finally been the politically correct straw which broke the public's collective camel-back (extended metaphors are in this season). With comedians trading in sick jokes like Cristiano Ronaldo trades in slick-haired, non-performances against big teams (ooh, burn), burn-out was always likely. “Mong” became the word which typified Gervais' comedy: out-dated.

Once the jig is up for a comedian, it can be hard to find your way out of the mire.

Gervais trudged through one-liners about Z-listers that even the tabloid gossip columns would think too trite to pass. Perhaps “hacky” is too harsh, but a hack deals in unoriginality and that's what Gervais was guilty of (his opening monologue was spectacularly soft: line-stepping had given way to jokes about Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber).

So what next for Ricky Gervais? With a flat sitcom that has just finished it's run (and a second series of it on the way) and fingers at a defensive position on his Twitter account, his career is at a cross-roads.

He either follows his current path to impotence, his shtick worn out completely on a jaded audience who just want to see if he can do something different, or he fully utilises the considerable comic nous at his disposal. The aforementioned Cemetery Junction, despite its modest box-office figures, proved that Gervais-Merchant can do dramedy well enough to have a few great movies in them, so why isn't he doing that? Surely a man with such “ironic egotism” as Gervais must have some kind of un-ironic pride in himself enough to quit coasting on his laurels (mixed metaphors are also in this season) and freshen it up by doing something unexpected, before we all get too bored. That, after all, is what comedy is all about.

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