Life's too short for integrity

Marc Blake on Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's new sitcom

If integrity is akin to a prosperous bank account, then Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s new Sitcom Life’s Too Short proves that they are heading for a bankruptcy of Greek dimensions.

What were once brilliant comic conceits – the mockumentary format, the use of sustained comic embarrassment and the exposure of self-aggrandising middle- managers in The Office – became tropes in Extras and in this latest outing, tired cliché.

All the element of surprise is gone. The box ticking is even repeated in the star cameos, which doubtless will raise the only genuine laughs in this lazy excuse for a primetime show, surely the product of a BBC Golden Handcuffs deal.

And please don’t let them raise the ‘postmodern irony’ defence - that was big in the Nineties, not now. This, as in the village-idiot baiting of their comedic punchbag Karl Pilkington, just feels like bullying. Only it’s a dwarf this time, not a ‘mong’.

Having the star guest play against type is what Morecambe & Wise did better some 30 ago. Back then, stars were less accessible and certainly less amicable towards lowering their status, and so the comedy was kinder, and less of a blatant device to bolster the star’s public image.

It seems now to be craven; we in, you win. The public will lap it up. Life’s Too Short is already replicating Extras, in it’s toadying up to the stars in an obsequious, cloying Uriah Heep manner. There is precious little story, and what there is, is oh-so predictable.

It has to be said though, that Gervais and Merchant are excellent star-spotters and employers – they ‘made’ the careers of Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and Ashley Jensen: let’s hope the same happens for Warwick Davis , Jo Enright (the talented comedienne who plays his wife) and others.

Comedians playing ‘themselves’ is a feature of this new decade. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon did it in The Trip, which was only a guilty pleasure for me when Coogan played up to his public perception (petty, vain, sexually incontinent) and Brydon showed his Sancho Panza (to Coogan’s Don Quixote) to have feet of clay when he made an unfortunate lunge at Coogan's PA.  That it has been re-commissioned is surprising, as on so many other counts it was self-regarding, quite indulgent and in essence, was throwing a pot of piss in the licence-payer’s face. Michael Winterbottom can, and often does, do better than this. Long gone it appears, are the days of Marion and Geoff and the brilliant but underrated Saxondale.

Episodes, too, was equally indulgent. There was some fine acting by Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig and Matt Le Blanc, but we have seen the cliché that Hollywood will swallow you up and spit you out time and time again, all the way back at least to Sullivan’s Travels in 1941.

The show grew some balls as a resolution presented itself, but its premise was flawed from the start. That a pair of Bafta-wining sitcom writers would not know that Hollywood was inevitably going to rip the guts out of their product is criminally naive. David Crane, a former Friends creator/writer ought to know better. But then, he did create Joey.   Will we ever tire of seeing celebrities playing at being themselves?  It doesn’t seem so. The schedules are currently awash with barrel-scraping celeb travelogues: Joanna Lumley goes to Greece, Caroline Quentin is banished to Cornwall. Katie Price shows us around her vagina (Peter Andre).

I would imagine a TV commissioner would offer a wry smile at the idea, because it is the same as it ever was. Barrymore, Edmonds, all the light entertainment stars of the Eighties would turn up for any old format no matter how ragged, and here we are again.

Celebrity culture seems to be the only thing we actually produce in this country, and if there weren’t enough of them, we now have Geordie Shore and TOWIE to make them all anew, and endless cycle as the snake swallows its tail. 

It used to be, back in the swinging Sixties, that the only way a person might escape the binds of his class was through acting (Michael Caine), boxing (Henry Cooper), photography (David Bailey) or pop (everyone). Nowadays, due to our total immersion in media, so many more want a slice of this lucrative pie, but the end result is there is less pie to go around. When Andy Warhol famously predicted 15 minutes of fame, he hadn’t seen TOWIE. Media platform proliferation has extended the natural life of celebs, with three years being the accepted norm. One year as newcomer, one at the top and a third on the slide.  I don’t begrudge it – it is easy enough money once you get there (hello all you comedians doing commercials and voiceovers), but where do you draw the ‘integrity’ line?

 I suppose this is a personal choice. Peter Kay pokes fun with the ‘Mum Wants A Bungalow’ tour, but all this gnawing on the hand that feeds cannot continue indefinitely.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant made a cracking film (Cemetery Junction) and the others that Ricky appeared in seemed pretty good too. Please stop debasing your integrity with this stuff. We aren’t going to bail you out again.


Published: 13 Nov 2011

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