Ricky Gervais: Fame

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

As he never tires of telling interviewers, Ricky Gervais is a comedy purist, who determinedly strove for authenticity on his own terms in both Extras and The Office.

It is presumably this same ethic that drives him to stand-up, the purest form of comedy, even though he barely needs the cash Britain’s fastest-selling live tour will bring him. And, following the same principle that it’s more honest to talk about what you know, he’s themed this show around Fame, rather than the more general topics which inspired his previous outings.

It is, however, a tricky furrow to plough. Can an audience really empathise with a performer who complains that the newspapers reported that his new house was worth £2.5million, when it was closer to £3.5million? Or the trials and tribulations of negotiating with your millionaire neighbours to have an underground swimming pool installed therein? People rarely want to hear the whines of the wealthy; a trap Gervais falls into a few times.

Newspaper coverage is a key thread. He moans when one journalist assumes he led a party lifestyle – when in fact he’s in his pyjamas by early evening. Perhaps that’s why this show is over by 9.30pm – including 20 solid minutes from support Robin Ince and a 20-minute interval. And I hope The Sun subeditor who came up with the headline iPodge to accompany the picture of an overweight Gervais jogging with headphones is getting royalties from a gag that still gets great laughs, amplified by the comic’s mock indignity.

But in the face of such celebrity whinging, Gervais’s saving grace is his buffoon persona – the very fact he’s gauche and so flagrantly doesn’t empathise with anyone else. This means he can have an introduction that boasts of his incredible success, all the awards and the DVD sales, can take to the stage in crown and ermine and have his name spelled out behind him in 12ft Elvis-style lights – yet still claim such bragging is all in the name of irony: he’s still the slighty chubby labourer’s son from Reading.

This ironic self-absorption reaches its apex with his now-trademark ‘politically incorrect’ jibes at the vulnerable, The joke is supposed to be on him that he’s so shallow and callow that he’s not too embarrassed to take pops at teenage cancer victims. But this isn’t so much shock comedy as laughter for its most primaeval reason: to diffuse tension in awkward situations. Even the very mention of, say, the Terence Higgins Trust is enough to trigger nervous giggles of what he might subsequently say about Aids victims.

Gervais also plays to his strengths as an actor, playing the slightly awkward everyman, cackhandedly trying to negotiate a minefield of liberal actions – and never more so than when he stumbles through a routine set in a poverty-stricken African village, racked by doubt that it may be racist.

Away from his fortes, though, the show looks a lot less assured. Gervais has spoken before about his guilt at never having earned his success from schlepping around the stand-up circuit, and at times it shows, covering the sort of topics in the sort of ways many a rookie stand-up tries before gaining the confidence to be more adventurous. How many comics have covered toilet graffiti or the Virgin Mary trying to explain her pregnancy to an incredulous Joseph? Gervais even dusts down the story of the tabloid-stoked mob who attacked the home of a paediatrician, thinking it was a paedophile – material that disappeared off the circuit soon after it hit the headlines four years ago, once every other comic realised that some acts of idiocy really are beyond satire. He also over-uses the technique of analysing anything he doesn’t understand by incredulously wondering how the first person to ever have a sex change/go cottaging/catch Aids must have explained themselves.

In these segments, Fame seems distinctly underpowered. Although as the show has strengthened considerably in the few short weeks between its London previews and its Scottish launch, these frayed edges could yet be fixed.

But even when he’s on old ground, Gervais has a lot in his favour: a nice turn of phrase, that distinctive, effective faux-arrogant delivery – and the palpable love of his audience. It’s an irony that someone who professes not to crave fame, he sells out vast theatres on the back of his name alone, rather than a hard-earned reputation as a stand-up. Fame won’t give that reputation the boost into the elite he’s said to seek – but nor will it do it any harm.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Edinburgh, January 17, 2006

Review of a work-in-progress gig

Most comics try out new material on the quiet, slipping in to club nights unbilled or hiring tiny rooms for previews, where any jokes that die do so almost in secret.

No so, Ricky Gervais. His three London warm-up gigs for next year’s Fame tour are in the 550-seater Bloomsbury Theatre near his home and the 800-seater Apollo Theatre in the West End.

He fills them, easily, too, even for 50 minutes of half-formed material, thanks to an army of vociferously enthusiastic fans. Early on, a holler of ‘do the dance’ rings out, the eager heckler seemingly oblivious to Gervais’s much-vaunted disdain for the comedy-of-repetition of gimmicks and catchphrases.

Even more odd, then, that later in the show Gervais milks this, goading the audience into again demanding that silly physical comedy routine from The Office, then entering into a protracted panto-style negotiation about whether he’ll actually do it before. finally, dancing like a monkey for his encore. Maybe it’s just because he hasn’t had time to come up with a proper ending yet.

It doesn’t quite feel fair to review a work-in-progress gig, even one where tickets are £12.50. But then when critics snuck into his Bloomsbury gig, links to their complimentary reviews were proudly posted on Gervais’s website. So it must be fair game.

My colleagues seem to have been rather kind on the show, because it is still patchy: sometimes hesitant, sometimes waffly and sometimes unexciting; and his delivery isn’t helped by a stubborn bit of phlegm that he keeps trying to dislodge. Yet the best of it does auger well for the forthcoming tour.

His stance is much as it ever was; taking various liberal sacred cows and making the most inappropriate gags, protectively cloaked in self-aware irony. Cancer sufferers and autistic kids are among those getting what’s coming for them – after all, these people have too long been protected from comedy’s vicious glare.

Mostly the gags come as he plays out arguments between the good side of his psyche and the bad, tempering potential outrage with a nod that he knows it’s wrong, so the joke’s on him for saying it. This distance allows him to target less clear-cut afflictions, such as obesity or ME, with an ambiguity that gives his harsh material more of an edge.

The ME routine ends with the idea that you don’t get the disease in poverty-stricken parts of Africa, where they have more pressing problems to worry about. Gervais wants to act out a scene that illustrates this, but is concerned it may be racist so keeps on stopping himself before he gets started. This conceit goes down well enough, but you just know he plans to do the same ad libs every night, and cynics might find it hard to suspend disbelief.

Fame is supposed to be the theme of the show, and Gervais talks a lot of his own status before eventually coming round to the idea of celebrity versus achievement. Basically, it’s just a set-up for a few by-the-numbers jibes at Abi Titmuss and Big Brother contestants.

Of his own fame, Gervais moans about his tabloid description as a ‘chubby funster’, gets a huge laugh from a Sun sub-editor’s joke which headlined a picture of him jogging with his MP3 player as iPodge, and he mentions that he does a lot of work for charity – including tonight’s gig – and, yes, he does like to mention it. But in an ironic way, of course.

His other material is very much a mixed bag – as you might expect for a try-out gig – including some particularly pedestrian bits about filthy public toilets, the good side of global warming and the iniquity of fat people having the same airline baggage allowance as the more conventionally framed. He might want to know, too, that his gag about the posters urging ‘Want to know the price of an illegal minicab? Ask a rape victim’ has already been done by Edinburgh favourites Reginald D Hunter (who has the definitive version) and Tim Minchin.

The more vicious, if tongue-in-cheek, material still works well, mind. And his best gag is about pissing in the sink when he lived in his tiny first flat. It may be coincidence, but it’s also one of the few times he talks about a life, before he became famous, we can identify with. It’s all very well making in-the-know jibes about Dawn French or Richard Curtis – but sometimes jokes that resonate with the audience work best.

Review by: Steve Bennett
November 30, 2006

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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