Ricky Gervais doesn’t lack gall, something he’d happily tell you himself at great length, continuing long after you’ve lost interest. His latest dose of chutzpah was delivered as a blog post crowing about the “heart-warming” response he’s had to his latest creation Derek, bemoaning the fact that people think he’s autistic - all delivered with a healthy dose of artificial sweetness. It’s hardly surprising that people think Derek might have some form of disability; in fact, it’s the whole point.
As Derek, Gervais shuffles his way around the set, hair greasy and cardigan awful. His jaw juts out when he speaks and his face constantly tics and twitches. When he talks it’s a mumble and his eyes and head twitch about. He’s reliving every playground impression of a “spastic”, all for laughs. Autism can be played with nuance but Gervais is so hammy he could have had Jay from the Inbetweeners as his stand in. His voiceovers are delivered in the style of a child reading haltingly from a book. Derek may be a warmhearted character, but he’s also a risible one.
All of this makes Gervais’ earnest worry that people are determined to “pigeonhole” Derek hard to stomach. He’s built a pigeon sized hole and then stood at the entrance throwing breadcrumbs and making cooing noises. Our Ricky’s always been a fan of jokes at the expense of the disabled, as evidenced by past exploits, so to design a show entirely based around one and then claim people are misunderstanding is the kind of brazen behaviour you’d expect from him.
Worse than this, Gervais then goes on to use the blog post to tell us about the flattery he’s received from carers of autistic people or autistic people themselves. It’s enough to make you stop and question if his performance was really that offensive (at least for as long as it takes to Youtube it and recoil in horror all over again). Here Gervais is going further than just scolding people for getting it wrong – he’s actually claiming credit for some sort of sensitivity.
He even steps perilously close to actually admitting he meant the character to be laughable, explaining the autism suggestions away by saying Derek was “meant to be different…meant to be marginalised by society”. A performance with any sort of intelligence would position the audience behind Derek with society in the wrong, but instead the viewer is encouraged to sit with the same society that marginalises him, pointing and laughing, Gervais’ sniggers chief among them.
Derek is a caricature, and a nasty one, and it doesn’t take too great a stretch of the imagination to picture grubby bullies shuffling and gurning around another, unfortunate teen, calling “uhhhh Derek”. Children are fairly despicable creatures anyway who’ll always find new and innovative methods of bullying, but that doesn’t make providing them with ammunition any more edifying. It’s the reason the National Spastics Society had to change its name to “Scope”.
On top of all this, it’s worth remembering that our champion of the disabled has previous form. He’s got a history of using the word “mong” and then defending it against the PC brigade determined to stamp all over his free speech with nasty internet comments. His response to Susan Boyle was to enquire with typical dry wit “is that a mong?” It’s hard to view somebody inclined to such dehumanising statements with much charity and it makes it all the greater stretch of credulity to believe that he’d created Derek out of anything but cynicism.
Gervais’ creation of Derek was nasty, his faux-ignorance about it maddening and his attempt to claim credit for a positive portrayal downright offensive. On top of all this, the crappy cherry on the bullying cake, he uses the phrase “plane sailing” at the start of the blog. Ricky Gervais is, by all accounts, the worst type of person.