Ricky Gervais vs. Woke Comedy ‘Dogma’

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 lefty comedian says social equality means it’s okay to make fun of Caitlyn Jenner.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE R icky Gervais finds it baffling that mentioning freedom of speech increasingly gets you branded as right-wing. Gervais isn’t on the right. He’s a good old social-democratic progressive Trump hater. But he thinks comedians should be able to joke about anything. Ten minutes ago, this wasn’t controversial. “Freedom of speech shouldn’t even be a political issue,” he says. “Everyone on every side should agree with that. . . . It’s odd that it became politicized.”

On a recent edition of the Daily Beast’s podcast The Last Laugh, Gervais made an appearance to promote his seriocomic Netflix series After Life (the first two seasons are streaming; a third has just been greenlit). The premise of the show is that the Gervais character is liberated to say anything he thinks at all times because he feels he’s lost everything after his wife dies. Freed from convention, the character gets to be extremely rude and resoundingly funny.

You can see where real-life Gervais got the idea. On the podcast, he declined to back away from any of his anti-woke jokes, his discussion of the n-word at a comics’ roundtable, or his insistence that everybody is fair game for mockery. To hold otherwise would be to grant classes of people special protections — comedy “privilege.” He won’t do it.

“If I do a tweet about freedom of speech, people go, ‘oh, he’s alt-right now.’ And I think, ‘When did that happen?” Gervais says. Naturally the vast majority of the criticism comes from fellow lefties, because those of us on the right usually can accept that the artists we most admire probably don’t agree with us on everything. It’s liberals who have turned illiberal; those who fly the flag of tolerance prove themselves viciously intolerant. “Basically, people love the idea of free speech until they hear something they don’t like,” Gervais observes. “They say, ‘Well, I’m all for freedom of speech but that’s the one thing you shouldn’t joke about.’ Oh, the one thing that you care about?”

The 59-year-old comic — Happy Birthday, R.G.! — takes criticism unusually personally and often engages with random detractors on social media with surprising intensity, but that makes this Everyman comic even more relatable. He who is never annoyed by what people say on Twitter has never been on Twitter. It’s refreshing that Gervais is doubling down on the hilariously mean jokes he made in five appearances as host of the Golden Globes — coincidentally, just about the only five broadcasts of the show that were worth watching.

In his Globes routines, he went after beloved celebs such as the plush and fluffy host of The Late Late Show (“The world saw James Corden as a fat pussy. He was also in the movie Cats.”) What, asks Gervais, “can be less right-wing than going after the biggest, richest corporations in the world? . . . It’s not a roomful of wounded soldiers. It’s the most privileged people on the planet. I can tease them a bit about their public behavior.”

You can hardly imagine a person with more cultural power than Caitlyn Jenner, which is why Gervais went after her, to widespread cries of foul. “It’s like they’ve created a dogma around it. ‘That should never be joked about.’ Why shouldn’t it be joked about? It depends on the joke,” he says. “I’ve seen it with so many issues. People saying, ‘We want to be treated the same as everyone else. But not in jokes!’ That’s asking for privilege, that’s not asking for equality.”

Wokeness, which Gervais identifies as the successor to political correctness, comes with “a dogma in everything. They want to shut you down. They put ‘-phobic’ on the end of a word and what that means is ‘Shut up.’”

A culture that celebrates whiners combines with the ancient sensationalist urge of news media to create narratives built around a single tweet written by a non-public figure. When Gervais got started, taking exception to something that appeared on television meant taking pen to paper and writing to the BBC. Having that exceedingly small barrier to entry meant a natural limit on manufactured dudgeon. Today, though, “you fire off a tweet and that tweet gets on the f***ing news!” he says. And even the prestige papers play along: “They say, ‘So and so said a thing said a thing, and people are furious.’ No! No one’s furious! Naught point naught naught naught one percent of people are furious . . . it’s fake outrage.”

Asked to comment on Louis C. K., whose best standup sets Gervais calls the most impressive he’s ever seen, Gervais refuses to wield the cancellation stamp. He mentally separates flawed people from the art they produce. “People are not playing Smiths records anymore because [Morrissey]’s gone a bit alt-right,” Gervais says sadly. “I go, ‘Not in the song, he hasn’t.’ That song is not touched.” Also, maybe Morrissey saw all of this coming. After all, he is the guy who put out records titled Viva Hate and You Are the Quarry.

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