Just how edgy and dangerous is Ricky Gervais? There is no one more edgy and dangerous, we learn from no less an authority than one R. Gervais. He keeps reminding you of this at intervals in his latest stand-up special, for which he was reputedly paid $20 million (to go with the other $20 million Netflix paid him for its predecessor). Every few sketches, he’ll announce to his live audience that this one was so offensive there’s just no way Netflix is going to broadcast it. But Netflix has done just that – and yet, quite incredibly, neither it nor Gervais has been cancelled. Funny that.
What this suggests to me is that by far the most useful and bankable of Gervais’s myriad talents is that he knows exactly how far he can push it. That’ll be why, despite the massive offence he supposedly caused, he kept being invited, a record six times, to present the Golden Globe Awards. And it’s why, despite the allegedly outrageous transphobia of some of his latest skits, no one is going to mind, barring professional offence-takers such as Stonewall, which no longer has the clout it once did.
His trans jokes – which, perhaps unfortunately for the subsequent material, he puts at the beginning of the set – are some of his strongest. In one, he imagines a debate between a trans activist and a concerned woman.
TA: ‘They ARE ladies, look at their pronouns. What about this person isn’t a lady?’
CW: ‘Well, his penis.’
TA: ‘HER penis, you bigot.’
CW: ‘What if he rapes me?’
TA: ‘What if SHE rapes you.’
Possibly it’s funnier, the way he tells it, with all the extra swearing added. I laughed. The Fawn laughed. The audience laughed. But I’m still not sure it was as daring as the fake, promotional media furore has made out.
The reason I suspect this is that I have an impeccably liberal-left friend called Sophie who is my touchstone on all matters woke. She believes fervently in every PC piety you could name, from the appalling gender pay gap to catastrophic man-made global warming. But the other day, over bridge, she made a shocking confession: she is absolutely sick to death of trans ex-men ruining women’s sport, trans ex-men using women’s toilets and women’s changing rooms. If someone as achingly right-on as Sophie thinks this way, then the days of the aggressive trans lobby are numbered.
So, while Gervais’s trans sketches are quite cheeky, they are most definitely not heroically brave in the way they might have been had he done them a few years ago. The same is true of quite a lot of Gervais’s material, such as the sketch in which he daringly confesses not to be a fan of Hitler, and the one where he fearlessly sends up all those tiny far-right Christian groups who believed that Aids was God’s judgment on the gay community.
Sure, the sketch itself – it’s the way he tells them – is very funny if you’re into tasteless, puerile humour (which I am). Gervais imagines a conversation between an HIV virus and God, in which the virus’s initial enthusiasm turns slowly to scepticism and then to horror as God explains what his mission entails and exactly where he must go in order to fulfil it. In the 1980s this would have been cutting-edge satire. But it’s 2022.
Still, I thought to myself optimistically, this will be the point where he segues effortlessly into Covid. But no, Gervais doesn’t touch on Covid – or lockdowns or quarantines or masks or travel bans, or any of the other assaults on freedom that have made the past two years such a strange and disturbing era in which to live. It’s the equivalent of Arthur Askey doing a set at the London Palladium in 1944 and never once sending up Herr Hitler or even acknowledging there’s a war on.
Which is one of the reasons I’m unwilling to join the chorus of commentators who’ve been praising Gervais’s set for its daring outspokenness. Really? We’re talking about a rebel outsider so contrarian that during Covid he actually published a photograph of himself being vaccinated. Yeah! Take that wicked Establishment! He’s a funny man is Ricky Gervais and his delivery is great. But from his views on God (doesn’t exist, apparently) and his uncritical veneration of ‘The Science’ to his passionate belief in animal rights, the guy is just an achingly conventional millennial posing as a naughty maverick.