So Ricky Gervais is back, in not one but three guises. There’s the Hollywood film-maker releasing his new movie, Special Correspondents, co-starring Eric Bana, on Netflix. There’s David Brent, his most indelible alter ego, being reprised in a new mockumentary, Life on the Road, about the ex-Wernham Hogg man’s other life as a wannabe rock star. And then there’s the standup comedian: Gervais told an interviewer last week that he was dabbling in live comedy for the first time in six years.
Oddly, for the man behind one of the UK’s best and best-loved TV comedies, this three-pronged return hasn’t exactly been greeted by comedy fans with wide-open arms. That’s partly because Gervais has always made himself a difficult man to love. On social media and beyond, he is outspoken, or loud-mouthed, to a fault. In his gigs hosting the Golden Globes, he has peddled a brand of smirking comedy that many see as plain rude – all the while palpably enjoying his schmoozing-with-the-stars status.
But that’s not the only reason there is yet to be a run on bunting for Gervais’s comeback. Take his standup. Unusually (and give or take a few inauspicious stabs in the 1990s), Gervais came to standup via telly rather than the other way round. And frankly, it showed. His first major standup work was after the success of The Office, which propelled him into the big-league of British comedy performers, without having developed a terribly persuasive live persona.
There was plenty to enjoy in his first run of shows – Animals, Politics, Fame – but little sense that he’d yet decided what kind of comic he wanted to be: Eddie Izzard-ish lite-surrealist or PC-baiting Jimmy Carr-alike? By 2009’s Science show, the latter was winning the upper hand, and it wasn’t pretty. There was no character or context to complicate all his ugly talk about “fat mental birds” and “smelly travellers”: it just seemed like a wealthy and successful man being unpleasant about those different to or less privileged than himself.
The most successful context or character he has found for that kind of joke is still David Brent, who could make racist remarks or foot-in-mouth comments about disabled people and get away with it, because the joke was clearly on him. The more that Gervais subsequently revealed of himself, the more the actor and character seemed uneasily similar. In such a scenario – one with which Steve Coogan is painfully (or cheerfully?) familiar – is it artistic bankruptcy and an admission of defeat for Gervais to revive Brent? Or is it a celebration of an intimately realised and understood character who still has plenty more to give?
I bet Gervais wishes he’d never made such a meal of the fact that – emulating John Cleese with Fawlty Towers – he resisted all blandishments and discontinued The Office after only two series (and the Christmas specials). By claiming the artistic high ground back then, he has made himself look desperate now. If it weren’t for that, or for his sometimes antagonistic public manner, surely there’d be a louder fanfare for Brent’s return. I was lucky enough to see the character in a rare live outing, with his band Foregone Conclusion in 2013, and in that format, plying musical comedy rather than tele-mockumentary, Gervais’s alter ego was still gruesomely funny. The joke hadn’t been exhausted; the hallowed legacy of The Office hasn’t been besmirched.
Brent is, like Alan Partridge, a quality persona, and like Partridge he can get richer with age – if Gervais handles him with care. And I suspect he will, because he is Brent, in more ways than one. With or without Stephen Merchant on the creative team (and many are lamenting his absence), I look forward to Life on the Road. I’m even looking forward to the new standup – hope springing eternal that Gervais’s schoolboy-obnoxious shtick has been kicked into the long grass.
I don’t think the criticism that Gervais has run out of ideas is fair – and not only because Special Correspondent doesn’t relate to anything he has done before. It is more accurate to say that Gervais hasn’t yet run out of the David Brent idea, and I for one will be delighted to see what else it’s got to give.
Three to see
Celebrating 30 years as a comedian, the erstwhile Joan Collins Fan Club is “at his filthy best” (it says here) on this new UK tour, The Joy of Mincing.
•14 April, Octagon theatre, Yeovil. 15 April, Corn Exchange, Exeter. Then touring.
The Mock the Week and News Quiz panellist returns to Soho with her second solo show, which explores her efforts to come to terms with herself, her appearance, and “what I mean to the world”.
•Soho theatre, London, until 16 April.
Celebrating the release of his second album, Nick Helm Is Fucking Amazing, the star of Uncle and Heavy Entertainment comes to the Forum for one (very loud) night only.
•Kentish Town Forum, London, 14 April.