Ricky Gervais: Humanity review – Netflix special sees master of provocation settle old scores

In his first stand-up show since 2010, The Office co-creator sometimes hits the mark in this special as he shows off his fierce talent and divisive humour

Ah, my friends. What do we talk about when we talk about Ricky Gervais? The genius co-creator of The Office, which still stands as an unassailable comedy masterwork 17 years after it was first broadcast? The writer? The performer? The provocateur, the class clown, the multi-millionaire, the self-aggrandising pub bore, the rationalist, the animal-lover, the free-speech advocate, the liberal-baiter, the hypocrite, the coward?

All are on display at one point or another in Humanity, Gervais’s first standup show since 2010’s Science. It is a much better, less fragmented, more controlled show than Science, and it is such a pleasure to watch Gervais work. All the talents that went into making David Brent a character that lodged in the collective consciousness for ever – the pitch-perfect delivery, the immaculate timing, a darting look here, a jaw jutting in real or faux disbelief there, all nudging the audience to exactly where he wants them with a strange, fluid grace to it all – make him brilliant.

It is the content, as ever, that divides critical and personal opinion. Humanity covers a lot of ground. There are flights of pure fancy, for example, in a segment imagining God allocating dogs their jobs at the beginning of creation (labradors cheer at the news that they get to bring dead ducks back to people; Rhodesian Ridgebacks are less enamoured by the fact that they will be hunting lions) or the likely effects of his “ridiculous wealth” on the life cycle of an imaginary child. There are dullish bits about plane safety instructions, and people with nut allergies that have been done to death long ago by others.

There are many, many good lines (“My brain knows a wig has come into the room before I do … The way [wearers] smile, as if there’s nothing wrong.”) and many, many laughs (as when he finds himself being forced to defend a Texan Christian “scients”-hater’s right to fantasise about atheist Gervais being raped by Satan) and there are good points, if slightly hectoringly made, about such matters as people’s objection to him not having children (“There’s no long cabinet filled with ghost foetuses begging to be born”). There is even, in Gervaisian terms at least, some heart and soul, especially when he talks about his brother leavening the arrangements for their mother’s funeral with what is evidently the family’s trademark borderline-sociopathic humour.

But it is all infused with Ricky’s own trademark – which is … well, a patented blend of all of the elements noted in the opening paragraph. Most of Gervais’s negative aspects – his maddening contradictions, inconsistencies and incendiary aspects – are to be found in Humanity’s opening segment, during which he dissects the Caitlin Jenner joke he cracked during the 2016 Golden Globes. It caused the kind of online-and-then-general-media storm that Gervais affects to and possibly quite genuinely does despise, even as he thrives upon them. He was accused of transphobia for “deadnaming” (ie using the name she used before transitioning) and for referring to her involvement in a fatal car crash as “not doing much for women drivers”. The former was a basic gag that clearly punched down and served no greater purpose than to create a memorable opening to an awards ceremony. The second was a much better crafted thing that, as he smugly explains, played with stereotypes and drew attention to the fact that Jenner was widely thought to have benefited from her celebrity status in a case where someone had been killed.

Gervais conflates the two jokes and the reactions to them and uses his retelling of the subsequent furore to paint himself as both the hero of the piece and to deliver a lecture on the nature of offence. He dwells on the difference between the substance of a joke and its target, while doing the exact opposite himself. Similar preening occurs when he describes his various Twitter spats with ordinary punters. “I shoulda left it,” he says, shaking his head in smirking sorrow, before sharing his earth-shattering putdown with the audience.

He objects to people “taking things personally” but much of the show is clearly him having his revenge against – or at least enjoying some cathartic release in relation to – the haterz he feels have wronged him. He can anatomise other people’s hypocrisy but refuses to turn attention to his own, using the idea of his onstage persona as a get-out. He’s just playing a part. Those who don’t laugh have got lost somewhere in the labyrinth composed of ironic smoke and performative mirrors that stands between the man and his art. But Gervais is a man and a standup who knows exactly what he wants and what he’s doing, which is to have his cake and eat it. It would be less hypocritical if he just let the mask, as you suspect it longs to do, eat the face.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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