Books, Arts & Manners

‘Don’t Apologize’: Ricky Gervais Takes On Verbal Terrorism

Ricky Gervais arrives at the Weinstein Netflix after party following the Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2015. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)
The Left should listen to comedians more.

Ricky Gervais calls himself “a lefty liberal champagne socialist,” but when he says, “I don’t agree that feelings are more important than facts,” he echoes Ben Shapiro. The point of intersection: Both men support speaking freely. This quality makes them somewhat courageous, though it shouldn’t.

Another commonality is that both tend to elicit a lot of shock and dismay, or at least feigned shock and dismay. Gervais dismisses adverse comments on social media as the scribbles on “every public toilet wall in the world” in an important two-hour conversation that recently appeared on the podcast Making Sense with Sam Harris. Harris is a vigorous defender of the culture of free speech, and his interviews are always penetrating. This is one of his best.

Gervais giggles with disbelief when he says, “John Wayne was canceled recently, 40 years after he died, for not being woke enough.” He stresses that “political correctness, I’m all for it” — because he doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings — but standards do change, so applying them backwards in time is a strange fixation. When Kevin Hart was chosen to host this year’s Oscars, his detractors resurfaced some nasty cracks about gays he’d made years ago on Twitter. He apologized and deleted the tweets but lost the gig anyway, because “it’s not enough to apologize anymore and move on. People want blood, people want you ruined, because it’s a point-scoring competition now.” Even if you’re finely attuned to evolving standards, as Gervais says he is, “You can make your jokes bulletproof at the time, but now you have to make them bulletproof for ten years.”

That seems like a lowball estimate. As time passes, people don’t just let their irony detectors rust and fall into disrepair; they seem actively to sabotage them. Willfully ignoring comic intent is a growth industry. In his comedy, Gervais says a lot of things he doesn’t actually mean in order to get a laugh, but that may become an increasingly untenable practice in an age when satire is subjected to stern and humorless fact-checks. “If you water the irony down so much, it’s not irony anymore,” he tells Harris. “I might as well go out and say ‘racism’s wrong, isn’t it,’ and get a round of applause. That’s lovely, but it’s not funny.” He could have added that no comedian would stay in business for very long by being boringly earnest. (That task falls to politicians.)

When he’s doing his standup and “ten thousand people are laughing, you don’t care about one heckler. Sometimes I explain the joke to people, and the people who got it are angry. . . . And I have to say, when a comedian apologizes, I go oh, ‘F***ing don’t apologize!’ You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t. You can’t legislate against stupidity, and you shouldn’t.”

The environment around us seems to be one in which actual racists and actual Nazis feel increasingly comfortable. Why might that be? “Everyone knows that you can make a joke about race without being racist,” Gervais says. Yet everyone who says anything that gets labeled offensive gets thrown into the same box. Disagree with progressive dogma on anything? You must be a white supremacist. Gervais smartly explains this willful failure to distinguish actual malevolence:

Everyone that’s being fired and publicly embarrassed about a misdemeanor and being called a Nazi — there are real Nazis who are getting away with it. This must be amazing for real racists to be out there, and going, “It’s all right, everyone’s a racist now, this is a great smokescreen, we’ve got people out there calling people who aren’t Nazis, Nazis. . . . They don’t know the real Nazis from people who said the  wrong thing once!” . . . It plays into the hands of the genuinely bad people.

A favorite tactic of Gervais’s detractors on Twitter is to point out that someone on the right agreed with something he said. Does that bother him? No, actually, he likes finding common ground with people on the other side. Yet “it’s not about the argument anymore. It’s not about the joke. It’s about who’s saying it because there’s a point-scoring system going on now. It’s like everyone’s trying to get into heaven by having more points scored for them and more points scored against the opposition.”

Unless you stick to the softest possible level of comedy, every joke is going to have a target, yet “everyone wants to be exempt. . . . They don’t want their beliefs being made fun of so they try and give beliefs human rights. . . . That’s what blasphemy is, giving their beliefs human rights. It’s like saying, ‘you hurt my god, you hurt me.’”

Gervais is an atheist, but even he takes note of how efforts to enforce dogma now come primarily from the woke and secular Left. “If you say the wrong pronoun it’s a blasphemy. . . . They stick ‘phobia’ on the end of a word and then you’re racist if you don’t agree with an idea. It’s like me getting offended by someone making fun of maths. Doesn’t change it. Science doesn’t care about your feelings.” He sounds a more optimistic note than I would about where all this is heading when he avers that we’re coming out of the Dark Ages of wokeness: “There are blips, but I think truth is too strong in the end.”

I’m not convinced there’s much of a market for blunt truths anymore, but I’m grateful that there are comedians such as Gervais who are willing to tell it.  Intermediaries are making it difficult, though. He made The Office for the BBC, but he detects a chill in the air at the Beeb and elsewhere. He says broadcasters are “scared of saying something that offends anyone. So they don’t defend it, they just go, ‘Don’t do that.’” When Gervais explains the joke to them, “they go, ‘Yeah, but we’ll have to write letters and people will think we’re bad.’ So it’s not what’s right and wrong anymore, it’s, ‘Ooh, I don’t want to write any letters.’” So maybe the Dark Ages aren’t exactly ending. “They’re winning,” Gervais says. “The people who bully people, saying ‘you can’t say that,’ they’re sort of winning. Because a lot of people go, ‘Oh, I’m not going to say it anymore; my wife’s scared to go out.’ And that’s like terrorism, it’s verbal terrorism.”

Do not mistake Gervais for a supporter of Donald Trump, whom he calls “this crazy narcissistic baby, this overprivileged dog-whistling moron,” but he sees the connection between the BBC’s attitude and the attraction of Trumpism. “You have conspiracy theories start, like his whole base is racist, which clearly can’t be true,” Gervais says. “Some people just voted Republican. Some people hated Hillary. . . . The swing vote was a certain percentage of people who’ve been tired for the last ten years of being told what they can say and do.”

Everyone knows this, and yet what does the Left do? It turns up the volume. “Won’t you listen to the children?” the Left always pleads. My response is: Won’t they listen to the comedians?

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