One of these things is not like the others...
Linus Lee on why Ricky Gervais stood out on the Talking Funny line-up
When HBO announced it would be airing a comedy talk-show special featuring Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis CK, I’m not ashamed to admit, I felt the kind of pseudo-orgasm depicted in certain shampoo commercials. My admiration for Louis CK borders on the religious; the immaculate joke-craftsmanship of Seinfeld is undeniable, and Chris Rock is perhaps one of the greatest social commentators of this century. However, one ingredient in this recipe left me with some trepidation: Mr Gervais, the show’s executive producer. And having watched the special several times, I feel that my initial hesitancy had some justification.
Now, I will never make the argument that Ricky Gervais is not funny. The man clearly has a brilliant comedic mind and has been able to exhibit his talent in many arenas from television to podcasting. His stand-up shows have been massively successful and critically acclaimed.
However, after watching Talking Funny, I feel he doesn’t qualify for my definition of ‘stand-up comedian’. It’s a feeling that leaves me frustrated at the English language for having only one term to encompass anybody who stands on a stage making people laugh. While Gervais technically fulfils this definition, his journey to success is vastly different from the three veterans he shares the special with.
It’s easy to conflate the criticism of ‘not having paid one’s dues’ with ‘not having worked hard’ The former is true of Gervais, while the latter is false. There is a reason that there are so few comedians as well respected as Seinfeld, Rock and CK. To become an internationally regarded stand-up is an almost Sisyphean task. It’s not simply a matter of developing material and stagecraft, but also developing a thick skin and unshakable determination in the face of external forces such as audiences, promoters and critics.
Whatever their stylistic differences in writing or performance, each of these three men have all stood on stages in front of audiences full of indifference, confusion and/or aggression. They have played rooms with fewer people than would qualify as an ‘audience’. They’ve sat and waited to go on stage following a parade of deluded individuals performing such mind-numbingly bad ideas as singing Sitting On A Cock ’Cause I’m Gay to the music of Otis Redding.
Gervais has never had to run this gauntlet. There is a clip on YouTube of Gervais being heckled on stage. His rebuff: ‘Talk to him,’ gesturing at a giant stage prop of an Emmy award.
His attitude comes through in the discussion, too. ‘I don’t want to be judged,’ he says. ‘Well, then you’re in the wrong business,’ says Seinfeld. ‘No one is more judged in civilised society than the stand-up comedian. Every 12 seconds you’re rated.’ This is a truth every stand-up comedian can understand, from the first-time open-micer to Jerry *fucking* Seinfeld. Yet Gervais doesn’t seem to relate.
Gervais has never understood the context of proving himself to an audience from scratch. Chris Rock’s first audiences didn’t realise they were watching ‘Chris Rock’. They were watching a stand-up comedian. To them he was no different than the kid with three minutes of hack material he had stolen from the television, and at some point, that audience probably gave that hack comedian a better response than they did Chris Rock. This is something Gervais has never experienced, but also never *could* experience, by virtue of who he now is.
Not that Gervais is entirely oblivious to these points. ‘I think the reason I did stand-up was because I felt that I hadn’t earned my spurs in a way,’ he says. ‘Most comedians slog away for 15 years and then try to get a sitcom. I walked into the BBC with a thing I made and it was The Office. Then after The Office I thought, “I should show that I can do this other thing, this stand-up thing”.’
That’s probably the crux of my unease with Gervais, particularly in this context. It seems jarring that someone with such a lackadaisical attitude to stand-up as its own artform would sit in a room with three living legends and treat them as his own peers. In many ways these men are his peers, but as a viewer I would have much preferred if it Gervais had taken some distance. Perhaps acted more in the role of moderator, chiming in with his opinions while more aware of the disparity between his own experiences and that of his guests.
There are always favourite punching bags within the comedy scene, and Ricky doesn’t shy away from laying in a few jabs himself. ‘There are comedians who are anodyne and safe and they say things we could all think... that sell out arenas around the country, particularly in Britain, and they say things like, “Oh, isn’t it funny how you take out an umbrella and it never rains,”... and people couldn’t be laughing any harder.’
While I agree with the sentiment of the statement, it seems a little pompous coming from Gervais.
Of course, this programme was filmed over five hours and edited down to around 50 minutes. Hopefully Gervais will find a way to make an unedited cut available to comedy fans. He also has my gratitude as a viewer for assembling this group of amazing talents in one room, a treat which happens far too rarely.
Let’s hope the network view this as a success and give the green light to more of these discussions. My hope is that the next talk-show special will inform, entertain and delight to equal measure, but without the harsh aftertaste of this first offering.
Posted: 3 May 2011