What is Ricky Gervais’s problem?

Comedian Ricky Gervais seems to have gone off the rails in a big way. After his breakthrough series The Office and the enjoyable film The Invention Of Lying, he seems to have run out of ideas and resorted to what other comedians have done in that same situation and that is resort too cheap jokes targeting marginalized groups.

I wrote before about his Netflix stand up special that I stopped watching when he began with an extended riff where he repeatedly dead-named Caitlyn Jenner, presumably as a response to him being criticized for doing so when he hosted the Golden Globes. Rather than. take the occasion to redeem himself, he doubled down, and seemed smugly proud for doing so.

But that is not all. He has written, directed, and stars in a comedy-drama series on Netflix called After Life where he plays a reporter for a small town weekly community free newspaper. He is deeply grieving over the death of his wife from cancer, so much so that he was suicidal at one point and often acts like a jerk towards other people. The series was getting very good reviews and I decided to watch it, thinking that perhaps he had learned something from the criticisms of his Netflix show.

No such luck. It started out well in his role as a reporter is to interview local people who have interesting stories to tell and this is where things got ugly because to him ‘interesting’ usually seems to mean people who can most kindly be described as misfits. Small town eccentrics can be portrayed humorously and sympathetically at the same time, if one is a good writer. But Gervais clearly lacks that skill because he sets up certain people to be figures of fun by caricaturing them to the extreme. The one transgender person is like that. The one gay character is like that. He goes after overweight people. And all this is mixed in with a constant steam of extremely crude and misogynistic language and graphic verbal descriptions of sexual acts, reliable indicators that a writer’s well of imagination is running dry and is resorting to try and shock to hide the fact. He did not ridicule people with disabilities. Maybe that comes in later episodes. I will never know because it was too much for me and I gave up on the series and on him.

Gervais’s defense against criticisms is the same as that of a lot of comedians who are called out for this kind of shtick, that he makes fun of everybody equally and that nobody should be immune from humorous lampooning and that he is the real victim here for being censured by people who have no sense of humor. But the point is that he was not being funny, not in the least. He was just being mean, very mean, especially towards particular targets. He may think that because he has written his own character in After Life as often behaving in unsympathetic ways, that makes it ok. But it does not. While his character often behaves like a jerk, he is never a ridiculous figure. We are invited to see his obnoxious behavior as an outlet for his grief. No such grace or insight is given to his other targets who are just figures of fun with no redeeming qualities. It was disgusting.

Comedian Nish Kumar has had enough of Gervais and delivers a stinging rebuke.

“What [Gervais] is doing is not edgy or interesting,” Kumar goes on to say. “All [he is] is just the same as every other rich white dude comedian who gets too successful, runs out of ideas, and so just shits on the latest minority group. In the 1970s that was my fucking family, it’s Black and minority ethnic people, in the 80s it was gay people. Trans people are just the latest to get it in the neck from comedians who can’t be bothered to try at their jobs anymore. I cannot stand there and watch another dogs**t comedian go, ‘Oooh if a woman can identify as a man, maybe I’ll identify as a chair’ – why don’t you identify as a good comedian you hack motherf**kers!”

Gervais is clearly incorrigible. I looked online for reviews of his show and they seem to be generally positive, sometimes gushingly so, and they don’t mention any of the things that I found so repulsive, which makes me wonder if we even watched the same show.


  1. steve oberski says

    He goes after overweight people.

    Noticed that a few years ago, seems to be a reoccurring theme of his. Stopped watching him

  2. says

    why don’t you identify as a good comedian you hack motherf**kers!”

    Frankie Boyle (another comedian) used the same line regarding Chappelle. I’m not going to try to sort out whose line it is, anyhow. It’s a good line and it’s funnier than anything Chappelle or Gervais has said in a long time.

    Gervais doesn’t seem to understand that his stint as an MC for the golden globs (was it?) was where a comedy career goes to die. He’s a zombie and he’s starting to smell.

  3. flex says

    Heh, you reminded me of another television show (comedy/drama) which was mainly about a reporter in a small town interviewing people. 1993’s Key West. I had to look it up, and I only caught a couple episodes, but the reviews on IMDB are still good and apparently all 13 episodes of this one-season show are available on youtube.

    The plot follows a man who won the lottery in New Jersey and decided to quit his factory job to move to Key West to follow his dream of being a writer. When his lottery money is garnished to pay back alimony and overdue loans, he ends up working at a local newspaper. The writing was good and the plots were above average for a weekly show. Of course, it only lasted one season.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    What is Ricky Gervais’s problem?

    I imagine he has several.

    Where to invest the millions of pounds he has legitimately earned as a writer and performer of massively successful comedy products across broadcast television, streaming, film, radio, podcasts, books, live standup and specials.

    How to fill his time given that he very much doesn’t have to work.

    Whether to fill any of that time by consuming media that he knows in advance is produced by people that he’s already decided he doesn’t like based on previous exposure to their material.

    The latter is a problem we all face. We live in an unprecedented time of plenty when it comes to media. When I was a kid, there were three TV channels, and you pretty much watched what was on or went and did something less boring instead. There was a very, very limited supply of comedy or science fiction available. Nowadays, by contrast, there’s so much stuff, and more specifically so much stuff I’d regard as actually GOOD, that it’s not possible, even in principle, to watch it all. For that reason, for anything to warrant my attention it has to be ticking a LOT of boxes before I’ll even bother starting to watch it. It baffles me why anyone (lefties in particular seem guilty of this) would bother watching something they basically know in advance that they’re not going to like, then spend even more time complaining on social media about the fact they didn’t like it.

    The idea of spending my limited available time consuming something by someone whose stuff I’ve already decided I don’t like is baffling to me. Example: nothing on earth is going to get me to read “Angels and Demons”. Would you? Would you admit it? I read the Da Vinci Code to see what all the fuss was about. I saw what all the fuss was about and moved on.

    Re: comedy -- you don’t get to say “it’s not funny”. Comedy, particularly live comedy, is a rare artform inasmuch as you have a direct and unarguable meter of its quality -- are people laughing? Note; that’s not “are YOU laughing?”. I’ve seen plenty of “comedy” I don’t find funny, even in a comedy club, but whining that “it’s not funny” just makes you look like you don’t get it. If people are laughing (and in the case of Gervais the number of people laughing is undisputably in the MILLIONS) then it’s funny.

    Whether it’s edgy, or interesting -- per Kumar -- is a different question. I’d retort with the question -- is it trying to be edgy, or interesting? MUST it be? Or is it just trying to be funny? Because if the latter, it has succeeded, and as noted, you can’t argue that it hasn’t. Accuse him of laziness, sure, you’re probably right. It’s a rare comedian that doesn’t succumb to that sooner or later.

    A recommendation: never, ever watch anything else by Ricky Gervais ever again. Take the time you would have spent watching him then complaining it about it afterwards, and spend it instead getting to know the back catalog of Stewart Lee. I can promise that even if you don’t find him funny (and I find him VERY funny), you will never be disappointed by his laziness or unacceptable politics.

    (I like Kumar -- he’s the UK’s second best political comedian, now that John Oliver has left leaving Andy Zaltzmann in the number 1 spot. On an unrelated note, my mother in law thinks he looks almost exactly like me. I am 52 and as white as the ace of Tippex, and despite this, and accepting that the word “almost” is doing a LOT of work, I know what she means).

  5. moarscienceplz says

    Comedy must always be, “I am the Fool, goading the King”. The very millisecond it becomes, “I am the King, goading the fools” it runs off the rails.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    I could walk by every single contemporary comedian in the street and I’m sure I wouldn’t recognize a single one. Just no interest any more.

  7. Deepak Shetty says

    What is Ricky Gervais’s problem?

    I suspect its the same as what afflicts Dawkins, Harris et al. that they may be smart/rational in some respects effectively means they don’t think they can ever be wrong or that they need to learn anything that opposes their current view point.
    They are flag bearers for unrestricted speech except where it counts ofcourse.
    If I remember correctly Gervais’s response to the dont use c*nt as a abusive term because it has a misogynist origin was to use the “but the British mean it differently” without ever stopping to think why that word is used in the first place -- and to use it as often as he can. I dont think I have followed him after that.

  8. Deepak Shetty says


    Comedy must always be, “I am the Fool, goading the King”

    Im going to bet the Gervais et al. still think they are the Fool goading the King. Somehow they believe that Lefty Liberals are running around with a lot of power -- that for e.g. because Trans people are now a teensy weensy more visible and have some increase in support that they now have all the power.

    Personally “I am the fool goading other similar fools” works just as well.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    sonofrojblake @#4
    “When I was a kid”
    When will you STOP being a kid? Just so I can pen it in my calander.

  10. John Morales says

    I watched it, and I liked it.

    Mano, you sure you’re not confusing the character with the actor?

    The character arc is that he starts off as a bit of a shit, but by the end becomes a better person.

    (FWIW, I found The Office to be boring and cringy, and didn’t watch it)

  11. Mano Singham says

    John @#14,

    I thought I made it clear that I was distinguishing between the way he portrays his own character and the way he portrays characters towards whom he seems to harbor a great deal of venom. The fact that he apparently wrote his own redemption story at the end bolsters my point, doesn’t it? There was no redemption for those whom he ridiculed, unless he packed it all in the end after I stopped watching. But even if he did, by then the damage had been done.

    From what you say about the finale, he seems like he was making his show into a self-serving metaphor of himself that, yes, he may come across as obnoxious but he really has a heart of gold.

  12. Mano Singham says

    sonofrojblake @#4,

    Re: comedy — you don’t get to say “it’s not funny”.

    Who made that rule? And why should I or any others follow it? If I don’t find something funny, I can and will say that it is not funny. Why should I have to qualify it by saying that perhaps others find it funny? Or because many people find it funny, that hence it must be funny?

    You say that others will think that “I don’t get it”. So what? Why would I care? Why does that invalidate my statement that it is not funny, unless I care so much about what other people think about my taste in humor that I modify my statements according to popular opinion?

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Gervais clearly lacks that skill because he sets up certain people to be figures of fun by caricaturing them to the extreme.

    I reached the same conclusion about David Sedaris about halfway through Barrel Fever a quarter-century ago, and have not even felt a twitch of an urge to follow up on other peoples’ inexplicable praise of him to see if I might change my mind.

  14. mnb0 says

    “He was just being mean, very mean”
    Unfortunately too many people think that being mean is the same as being funny. It actually requires great skill to be both at the same time. A classic example of course is Eddie Murphy’s Raw. Many episodes of the brilliant English series Absolutely Fabulous pulled it off too.

  15. mnb0 says

    @4 SonofRB: “whining that “it’s not funny” just makes you look like you don’t get it”
    That’s silly, hence not my problem. I think about all the pun jokes MS is so fond of totally not funny; the same for about all the jokes from Friends, Cheers and Seinfeld. I especially think that when I do get the jokes.

  16. mnb0 says

    Mean jokes also depend on context and who tells them One great oneliner was delivered by the jewish chess grandmaster Rudolf Spielmann (from Michael Ehn’s Portrait of a Chess Master), when asked about antisemitism and persecution in the second half of the 1930’s (he was living in Vienna at the time):

    “When I don’t see a way out anymore at alll, I’ll go to Germany and let me persecute.”

  17. sonofrojblake says

    @11: when will you STOP correcting yourself? Just so I can pen it into my pirsinol awgineyezar?

    @17: who made the rule that you don’t get to define what other people might find funny? You tell me. It seems obvious to me that “funny” is a specifically subjective quality, rather than an objective feature of something like, e.g. mass. You do get to tell me that object A is heavier than object B, if you’ve measured the mass of both. But telling me that something isn’t funny? I’ll be the judge of that, thanks. As it happens, I pretty much agree with you re: Gervais, but “that’s not funny”, as a criticism aimed at a successful comedian, is just bound to fail, and fail pathetically.

  18. Holms says

    Comedian Ricky Gervais seems to have gone off the rails in a big way. After his breakthrough series The Office [twenty years ago] and the enjoyable film The Invention Of Lying, [thirteen years ago] he seems to have run out of ideas [!]

    Yes, aside from those two things he has had zero comedic success in the last two decades.

    Anyway while I have not seen After Life, this reminds me of a storyline in Seinfeld, which has Jerry and George mistakenly believed to be a gay couple by a journalist writing a story of Jerry. Many relatively young people have interpreted the sequence to be a slight against gay people, when the real joke is that George and Jerry are insecure and shallow babies.

    #17 Mano
    I think sonof’s point was that what is and is not funny is always subjective, that there is no such thing as objectively funny or not funny. It comes down to the wording you use to describe something you think or don’t think is funny: “This is not funny” vs. “I don’t find this funny.” The former is phrased as a fact claim, the latter as an opinion.

  19. Mano Singham says


    In #22, you act as if I was responding to you saying that “you don’t get to define what other people might find funny”. But I was not trying in the least to define what other people might find funny. It should be obvious that I do not know what every other person finds funny.

    I was responding to you saying in #4 “Re: comedy — you don’t get to say “it’s not funny”.” which is very different. Why shouldn’t I get to say that something is not funny? If you disagree, that’s fine by me. People say “it’s not funny” (and “it’s funny” and “it’s silly” and so on) all the time and there is no doubt about what is meant. To suggest that to say “it’s not funny” or any of the other things without a qualifier (along the lines of “in my opinion” or “I think”) is to make an objective and universal fact claim (as Holms tries to explain in #23) is a real over-reach.

  20. file thirteen says

    Mano @16:

    I’ve been waiting for John to reply to your comment, because he’s the only commenter so far to admit watching After Life through to the end, and he said he liked it. I’m curious to know whether he thinks the character’s redemption in the end was convincing. I haven’t watched it, and won’t; it doesn’t sound like my sort of thing, but I do wonder whether you are falling into the trap John alluded to, that you are conflating the character, actor, writer, director, and unfunny comedian to boot.

    You seem to have cast judgement that it is all merely an opportunity for Gervais to indulge in self-aggrandisement. However it’s not uncommon for stories to be made about dickheads (apologies for the sexist term; I don’t know what a gender-neutral equivalent would be; it doesn’t help that most dickheads are men) who discover that they are dickheads and change before the story is over. “Green Book” off the top of my head, where an initially racist man learns better, but I’m sure there are many more examples. Movies where the lead characters are vile, but are forced to wise up during the film through clever writing and direction. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I do think Gervais has acted those sorts of roles in the past.

    The Office is probably the most extreme example of that, where the humour is in the depiction of a character with no redeeming features whatsoever. It’s not my sort of humour though. Anyway, I haven’t seen any of After Life, and won’t, so maybe I’m just blowing smoke out of my arse. My 2c.

  21. John Morales says

    file thirteen, I got my answer from Mano.

    I actually have only watched seasons 1 and 2; I thought S2 was comparatively mediocre and probably won’t bother with S3, which only recently came out. There’s only so much juice to extract from the premise, and I think it should have wrapped up at S1.

    Some might find this skit he did with David Bowie informative; not exactly self-aggrandising:
    Ricky Gervais / Extras -- David Bowie -- Chubby Little Fat Man

    (Wow, 240p looks bad these days!)

  22. John Morales says

    Oh, right. Was it convincing? IMO, yes, in-universe.

    He remains a bit of a git, but stops being so nihilistic and self-centred, and he helps others.

    Redemption is too strong a word, but yes, a better person.

    (A bit like me, actually 😉 )

  23. K says

    There was a tv series a few years back about an accomplished choir director who lost his wife to cancer. Since her only wish was to be buried in her hometown, he goes there, grieving and angry, tries to kill himself, and generally acts like a jerk. He falls in with a group of people who call him on it every time he acts out, and over the course of the too-short series, he slowly becomes a better person.

    The storyline isn’t new or special. And IMO, that series was much better than Gervais’s series because the main character actually had abilities and strengths to be proud of.

  24. seachange says

    I have seen series one and two. Gervais’ character remains an awful shit, but becomes slightly less of one over time. This tracks to me: people can’t change who they are but they can change how they feel about it and modify their own behavior. He is the foil for which the actual interesting people in the story are slowly revealed, he is the person recording the pilgrims canterbury-tales-like. To me, he was and remained unimportant.

    Now it isn’t necessary for you or anyone else to like to watch a story in which the point of view character is awful. So y’know don’t if that does bug you. It’s a hard show.

    In fact, his character does this ‘change from within’ on his own, by poking his head very very slowly out of his shell, led by others, some of which are prostitutes/trans/black. The psychologist is utterly worthless and actively harmful and is shown to be so throughout the series. It is also shown in season two the limits to applied biochemistry and what it is like to be on those kinds of medications.

    The story is written so that it is never really certain if it is a tragedy or a comedy. It is very very hard to watch, and I had no experience with the idea that Gervais was anyone important or that he would be funny, because The Office is unwatchable to me. So from the point of view that yep, this guy might at any time kill himself and it wouldn’t even be much of a loss even keeping in mind that life is very valuable and entropy always wins: it is a tragedy, this was a fascinating story of grief. I found it masterful in that suicide is often done with incomplete knowledge on the side of the ‘committer’ and it is a slow onion reveal for us the voyeuristic watchers to come to agree with maximum personal revulsion to his point of view and yet retain interest. … …. …..To me it was a very real story of how profound grief at the loss of life and love at the same time is the same for all humans of all flavors, even really shitty humans.

    Only after folks told me oh that’s Gervais he is famous and funny did it even occur to me that the laughter was anything but exceedingly desperate wry laughs because what else could you do at the problems of sapient existence filtered through the very real effects of cascading neurotransmitters. It is a one step at a time slow burn. Maybe it is better watched in that way?

    In any case, I doubt season three will have any interest to me. Surprisingly I am agreeing with Mr. Morales on something. Who knew?

  25. says

    When music groups have their most commercially and artistically successful peak album, most go into a quick decline or a breakup and you don’t hear from them anymore unless there’s a reunion. Others who try and stagger on after their peak find out it’s not as profitable and maybe no audience, so they quit. (That’s not universally true, but it is for many.)

    When comedians and actors hit their peak, on the other hand, many stagger on long after and try to stay relevant by becoming “edgy” and desperately try to stay relevant, unable to admit they no longer are. They like the money, attention, and paycheque too much, and don’t want to give it up.

    Too many fail to grasp that it’s time to retire gracefully and not embarrass themselves anymore (e.g. Gervais, Chappelle, John Cleese, Jerry Seinfeld, Rosanne Barr, Louis CK, etc.). A few have the decency to step back and make guest appearances that fans appreciate (e.g. Steve Martin, Martin Short, Cheech Marin, Rick Moranis, etc.), but they’re in the minority.

  26. birgerjohansson says

    If you are overweight you might safely make a weight joke, but I would not advise others to do it.
    One of the late night TV hosts -- I thknk it was Seth Meyers -- solved the problem by delegation. He had two women comedians- one black and one lesbian -- that agreed to say the jokes that related to their subgroups.
    Anyway, punch upwards not downwards. The idiot government ministers and officers make Monthy Python safe watching even today.

  27. John Morales says

    birgerjohansson, sloganeering is fraught.

    Anyway, punch upwards not downwards.

    So, the higher up the social strata, the fewer the jokes one can make about people.

    (And those at the top can’t joke about people at all)

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