Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Comedy is an art form – it may be true that a comedian’s primary goal is to make people laugh, but nowadays, that takes much more than knock-knock jokes and slipping on banana peels. Comedy pushes boundaries, challenges our understanding of the world, and serves as a way to voice new ideas. And if you’re wondering what new ideas straight, cisgender, rich, white men can voice to stay relevant in this ever-evolving landscape, I don’t recommend looking to Ricky Gervais for your answer.
In his new show Super Nature, already in Netflix’s Top 10 TV Programmes across 13 countries, Gervais devotes 64 minutes to cracking ill-informed, clichéd, and often rambling jokes about everyone from disabled toddlers to transgender women. You know, all those members of society who really need to be taken down a peg or two. By the time the show had reached its end, it was difficult to come up with a single marginalised group left unscathed by Gervais’ relentless onslaught of quips and punchlines. Maybe it’s not always nice to feel included after all.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh; at the beginning of Super Nature, Ricky Gervais asserts that all the offensive jokes he tells are purely ironic. Of course he believes in trans rights (just not “trans activist ideology”, which he somehow considers totally different), respects AIDS victims, and is disgusted by the notion that people with dwarfism should be used to rehabilitate paedophiles. The only reason you wouldn’t realise that from watching his comedy is because he simply adopts whatever opinion - no matter how ironic – needed to land a joke. Besides the obvious problem with Gervais being so willing to suspend his moral compass for a cheap laugh and a not-so-cheap pay cheque, this defence is, sadly, an unconvincing one. There just doesn’t seem to be much irony in a hyper-privileged man gaining yet more privilege by mocking and worsening the plight of minority groups.
It could be that this irony lies in the fact that Gervais once said “the greatest privilege that comes with freedom of speech is using your voice for those who don’t have one” in relation to his animal rights activism, but won’t grant people the same compassion that he does rabbits. Or it could be that Gervais is right after all, and that his critics are too stupid to fully appreciate his comedic vision. After all, Super Nature is claimed to be a love letter to freedom of speech and a condemnation of cancel culture, and leans heavily into the controversial (but widely pervasive) style of comedy upon which Ricky Gervais has built his career. Unfortunately for him, however, lamentations like “you just can’t say anything anymore” don’t hold quite so much water when they are proclaimed onstage to an audience of thousands, where they are filmed by the world’s biggest streaming platform and broadcast to its audience of millions, in exchange for rave reviews and copious amounts of money.
It is evident that Gervais, in his determination to keep offensive comedy alive, has come to mistake being criticised for being silenced. Nobody wants to curtail his right to freedom of speech. Rather, he has just made it necessary to question whether he should want to use that right to graphically hypothesise about how God created AIDS; muse on the appearance of Inuit people in comparison to Chinese people; or perform a minutes-but-feels-like-hours-long monologue about what his love life might look like if he were the imaginatively-named trans lesbian Vicky Gervais.
Ultimately, the main problem with Super Nature is that Gervais revels in punching down. Almost every one of his jokes are reliant on tired stereotypes, outdated language, and the hope that the audience will fall for his defence of irony to carry them through. Not once does Gervais challenge himself to take on a tricky target, complex issue, or group actually deserving of ridicule with true effort and nuance. Instead, he wastes an hour tactlessly spewing hateful punchlines and asserting they’re not actually harmful if he doesn’t really mean it. It has to be recognised that needlessly offensive comedy, dependent on archaic ideologies and the audience’s ambivalence to them, has had its time. And if Ricky Gervais continues to attempt to package bigotry and intolerance as comedic genius, he will soon have had his time too.