Ricky Gervais needs to make up his bleeding mind. Is he the 'aw shucks' regular guy that declares "I’m more famous than I should be", or is he the hideously arrogant knob-end who states that he's too good for British television? No, really. The exact words being “You know when you play tennis with someone who’s nowhere near as good as you, and you have to say, ‘Okay, you can play in the doubles area and I’ll only use one arm’? That’s what me and Steve feel like when we’re doing comedy in England".
I suspect that the former is closer to Gervais' real attitude, and that the latter is merely the sort of thing said by a man who's been watching too many Muhammad Ali interviews. Maybe he knows precisely how limited he is and how incredibly lucky he has been. Lucky not only to parlay up a successful career out of such a meagre act, but also to convince apparently intentional, rational people that the meagre act is a performance of depth, range and integrity. Keep saying you're the best and some people will begin to believe it, however overwhelming the evidence to the contrary.
Gervais is right to say that the British comedy scene isn't in the rudest of health, but throughout his career, he has relied on the deficiencies of others to make his own mediocrity look like spun gold. Channel 4’s Eleven O’Clock Show was one of the worst comedy programmes ever made and Gervais was the best thing on it. Amid such rubbish, a mediocre comic could only shine. He must also share some of the blame for the current malaise. There were some nice moments in The Office, but it wasn't the greatest sitcom ever made, as many seem to claim. It wasn't even as good, funny, clever or innovative as the now-largely-forgotten People Like Us, which beat it to the mock-docusoap format by a good few years. However, it has come to be regarded as the gold standard for modern TV comedy, and with the bar set so low, the state of the rest of the industry is a natural consequence.
Festive lethargy led me to watch the Extras Christmas special from beginning to end, where I've only managed to stomach one episode from each series of the normal run. It reinforced my conviction that Andy Millman = David Brent = a slightly amplified version of Gervais himself. It also reinforced my view that Stephen Merchant is the brains of the outfit, both as a writer and performer. The joyous sight of him, Shaun Williamson and Dean Gaffney dancing to ringtones like a Care in the Community version of Wilson, Keppel and Betty bought the whole show a hell of a lot of goodwill on my sofa. Goodwill that was, sadly, pissed away when Gervais/Millman went into his rant on the nature of modern celebrity while in the Big Brother house. When Merchant and Gervais gave Brent his moment of redemption at the end of The Office - standing up to the odious Finchy, and possibly on the verge of real love - it was worthy of respect. It was an about-turn in the character's development, but it didn't jar. In contrast, Millman's apparent redemption was over-blown, cloying and seemingly calculated to show what a serious artist Gervais is.
Or believes himself to be. While obviously not a stupid man or completely without humour, I don't believe that Ricky Gervais is either as clever or as funny as he thinks he is. Witness his tendency to bring race and disability into his comedy at the drop of a hat, while hiding behind the slenderest 'comedy of embarrassment/confronting attitudes' defence. A spaz joke's a spaz joke, and there are some good ones in existence - just be honest about your motivations.The hype machine has meant that expressing this view in public has been the modern equivalent of an HM Bateman cartoon. However, it seems that the backlash is getting underway. If his next big project is about a slightly different tubby man with a Reading accent, maybe the scales will fall from the eyes of even his doughtiest defenders. The conclusion of the interview in which he claimed to be bigger than British TV comedy is very very interesting.
“When I first came into this, I was scared of the press. Now, I’m not scared of them. How can they hurt me? Them saying I’m rubbish can’t hurt me. Them not liking me can’t hurt me. Them saying I’m fat and stupid and not funny can’t hurt me....Only I can ruin my career. Only I’ve got that power. Only I can ruin this. Only I can ruin it.”
He's wrong, of course. Many comedians have seen their finest work decisively ignored by the public. He seems rattled. Maybe it will spur him on to create something that finally convinces people like me that there's more to him than has been previously displayed. Maybe he'll realise the game's up, and he'll just sit back and count the money. We shall see.