Ricky Gervais’s latest sitcom, Life’s Too Short (BBC2, Thursday), is really a series of sketches on his favourite themes — failure, rejection, self-delusion and humiliation. I gather from friends of friends that at UCL he was often teased, not always pleasantly, for not fitting in with the right gang. Exclusion of one kind or another and the desperate need to fit in is another constant topic. You may remember the scene in Extras in which he and his friends are turfed out of the VIP area in a club to make way for David Bowie, who then makes things more horrible by improvising a song about what a pathetic and useless person Gervais’s character is.
There is usually a happy ending, but only for the people at the bottom of the heap, such as Tim and Dawn in The Office, whose coming together matches the destruction of the most odious characters, Dawn’s arrogant boyfriend Lee — and the loathsome Finchy, David Brent’s best friend, whose frequent arrival in the office of The Office is a measure of Brent’s own delusional failure. Tim and Dawn are the only characters we don’t despise for one reason or another, and we even have our doubts about them; aren’t they both just a bit too soppy, too pliant?
The new series is, sort of, built around Warwick Davis, a real dwarf actor who appeared, as he constantly reminds us, in Star Wars. And he had a role in Willow, ‘which cost 40 million to make, and has made a lot of that back’. Davis delivers the line without irony, but we know what it means — even George Lucas can fail, and we’re allowed to relish that.
Davis runs a casting agency for dwarves — ‘I’m the UK’s go-to dwarf’ — but his clients are 15th rate, including one who blacks up. Is there a phrase along the lines of ‘that unticks so many boxes’? Davis, like so many Gervais characters, hovers wildly between ludicrous overconfidence and bathetic terror. ‘I want people to see a sophisticated dwarf about town,’ he muses. ‘I’m a bit like Martin Luther King: one day, dwarves will walk proud. Or maybe not, but have you ever seen a black man fired out of a cannon?’
His marriage to a normal-sized woman (everything is fiction, except his name, so you’re never entirely sure what is true and what isn’t) is in deep trouble, but he doesn’t realise, right up to when she changes the locks. Meanwhile Gervais and Stephen Merchant — who played Gervais’s own useless agent in Extras, once putting Gervais up for the part of Billy Elliot — are agents themselves, nominally representing Davis, who again doesn’t take the hint when they put their doorbell up too high for him to reach.
Davis boasts to the camera (like The Office, LTS is a mockumentary) that he often drops by for a chat with Gervais and Merchant, and to see if they have work for him, which they never do. He is incapable of realising, or at least unwilling to see, that they want him to push off. In Gervais’s world, the only way to avoid utter humiliation is to pretend it isn’t happening. So he is still there when another client, Liam Neeson, arrives. And if you thought everyone so far was fooling themselves, you haven’t seen Neeson, who is convinced that he should be a stand-up comedian. They suggest some roleplay, and Neeson says he is suffering from Aids, which he got from an African prostitute. They think that, as a comedy topic, this might be a bit heavy. He sighs. ‘Selling her body was the only financial resource she had left...’ (A poke at celebrity charity-chasing.) They look for something lighter, and Neeson settles on going to a greengrocer’s, as a customer with Aids.
In-between we meet Davis’s appalling accountant. The Inland Revenue have decided he owes them £250,000. The accountant says that he offered them £50,000.
As Davis protests, the accountant has the deathless line, ‘They’re the Inland Revenue, they know what they’re doing.’ Davis asks about the new 50 per cent top rate, and a look of helpless despair comes over the accountant’s face. ‘Tax rates, percentages, I’m always getting stuff wrong.’ All is not lost, though. The accountant is Davis’s mate, and having a mate — being included, even among the dregs of the world’s professions — is the only thing that matters, even when they drag you down to their own hopeless level.
This is watch-between-your-fingers comedy. We laugh at the jokes, then wonder if we should find such pain and delusion funny, and then have the terrible suspicion that Gervais and Merchant might be writing not just about life’s hopeless losers, but about all of us.