Nothing dwarfs Gervais's talent

Lorcan McGrath's still a fan, despite the flaws of Life's Too Short

It’s often said that if you dish it out you’ve got to take it too. When Ricky Gervais made Extras he took great pleasure in poking fun at perceived failings in the populist studio-audience sitcom. They were derivative, repetitive and reliant too much on tired catchphrases and cheap innuendo. Now criticisms of Gervais’s new BBC Two sitcom Life’s Too Short are that it is derivative, repetitive and reliant too much on celebrity cameo and attempts at shock humour.

When I first saw Mike Myers’ third Austin Powers film Goldmember I noticed that every joke was essentially one used in a previous Myers films. Dr. Evil rapped, Powers fought Mini-Me, Fat Bastard continued being a fat bastard. Even other running gags such as Number 3’s large mole was exactly the same as the scene in Wayne’s World 2 where Wayne and Garth kept drawing attention to a man’s unusual eye pigmentation whilst attempting to ignore it. It was frustrating. With his two huge hits Mike Myers had essentially provided two films for the price of five.

The number of times in Life’s Too Short where scenes and gags that seemed to be taken wholesale from The Office and Extras were so frequent as to become just as frustrating. When Helena Bonham Carter and her director talk about Warwick without acknowledging him, it is the Clive Owen scene from the Extras Christmas special all over again.

Warwick’s annoyance at a misleading photo from an online dating website is even more obviously replicating the scene between Brent and the discovery of his once-slender dining partner. Les Dennis, Keith Chegwin and Shaun Williamson’s characters are essentially their Extras personas. Even the title Life’s Too Short essentially sums up the entire philosophy behind its predecessors.

When taking the lead role in Woody Allen film, actors such as John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh and Jason Biggs have wound up essentially performing an impersonation of Allen rather than a unique performance of their own interpretation. The same fate has befallen Warwick Davies. While I wouldn’t fault his performance on a technical level the shadow of Gervais/Brent/Millman looms over every mannerism, tic or extended riff to an off-screen interviewer, including imaginary allies backing up Davies’ spurious arguments.

When Warwick is attempting to use his accountant (their relationship again far too close to Andy Millman and his agent Darren Lamb) to chat up some ladies at a bar and told him to imply he was ‘dangerous’ I knew with grim inevitability that the word ‘rape’ would soon be used. What once caused gasps now induced yawns.

Since one of the actresses was black I also knew that race would become an issue too. One of the problems I’ve had with Gervais for the longest time, even when his work was almost universally praised, is that he had never once written a funny line specifically for an ethnic minority. They were always bland straight men for Gervais or another white actor to get all the laughs with their racial faux-pas.

To be fair, Gervais had rectified this with the first episode of Life’s Too Short where Warwick is mocked for his lack of fame by a young black actor, but I’ll never forget that the only star that Gervais had on Extras that wasn’t given any funny lines or allowed to riff on their persona was Samuel L. Jackson. For a man quick to revel in his own bravery – especially with his Golden Globes performances – Gervais clearly still has a few political correctness blind spots.

But I’m tired of this. I’m tired of Gervais’ brand of humour but more than anything I’m tired of those who slam Gervais for all the reasons I have and more. My biggest problem is one I’ve made – that all failures of Life’s Too Short rest on the shoulders of Gervais. The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short were all co-written and co-directed with Stephen Merchant.

All articles about their method of work indicate each has a veto if they disagree with any line or direction. In that case every criticism we have about Life’s Too Short should be equally laid upon Merchant. They haven’t been because Merchant is still popular. He’s kept a relatively low-profile and his first stand-up DVD Hello Ladies has been more critically lauded than any Gervais effort – which is because it is better than all of them and it’s probably due to Merchant spending at least some sort of an apprenticeship before The Office on the stand-up circuit giving him a craftsmanship that Gervais never acquired.

Then again, Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate suggested Gervais had tried unsuccessfully tried his hand at stand-up before The Office but like most of Gervais’ pre-Office work it’s swept under the carpet of comedy history.

The common criticism of Life’s Too Short is another case of them not branching out and following the same path they’ve always travelled. Again this is selective memory as it ignores Cemetery Junction – a drama with comic elements, instead of the other way around, period-set and with no celebrity cameos outside of Ralph Fiennes in a well-cast supporting role and Gervais’ fantastical comedy The Invention of Lying. For all their failings I believe that The Invention of Lying and the underrated Cemetery Junction are at the very least noble failures. I even see the merits in the script that Gervais saw which led to him taking the lead in Ghost Town. Maybe he doesn’t have the cinematic eye and should stick to TV, but if it means he’s been scared into going back to what he believed worked best I worry that it means he’ll never even again reach the heights that The Office and the final speech in Extras achieved.

Gervais would probably be best advised to assume a lower profile. Don’t do the promotional duties – allow the actors to take the job. Maybe he should try to tackle a new subject matter he may know less about outside of his usual themes of celebrity, atheism, science and his own life pre-fame. Perhaps let Stephen Merchant be the lead in their next project to take it down a completely different, dare I say broader, avenue of comedy. Why not give a studio-audience sitcom a bash? Gervais listed Dad’s Army, Cheers and Ever Decreasing Circles among his favourite sitcoms so he obviously doesn’t think the genre is without merit. Above all, if I were him, I’d take my face out of the public eye. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Or he could continue to follow his own instinct that has made him one of the most successful entertainers of the 21st Century and allowed him complete artistic freedom.

I believe Gervais is more than aware of the public perception and it’s either admirable or worrying (or both) that he doesn’t seem to care in the slightest – or at least not enough to change. I wonder if it was no coincidence that the production partner to HBO and BBC in Life’s Too Short is called Backlash.

Despite my criticisms I remain a big fan of Gervais’s work both with Merchant and elsewhere. I have to re-watch The Office every few years just to remind myself how brilliant it truly was. My frustrations with his public persona and recent output won’t remove the excitement I have when a new project comes out and I await the announced second series of Life’s Too Short, hopeful that he and Merchant take the valid criticisms to heart and improve upon a show that’s already has hilarious moments, a talented cast and a unique central premise.

In writing this I was reminded of a story, probably apocryphal, of an interview conducted with Joseph Heller. It had been an increasingly fiery argument that ended with the interviewer making the accusation to Heller ‘You’ve never written anything as good since Catch-22.’ Heller’s rebuttal? ‘Neither has anyone else’.

Published: 23 Dec 2011

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