It was when I was studying Twelfth Night for GCSE English that I first heard the useful definition of a certain kind of comic character: someone who perceives himself in a vastly different way to how everyone else perceives him. Gervais, both a fan and a student of comedy, knows (or used to know) that this chasm is where the biggest laughs can usually be found. The problem is that this is also a useful definition of a certain kind of celebrity.
Before we get to last night’s Derek, it’s worth remembering just how astute Gervais can be. David Brent may have been an office manager but the documentary-maker’s camera encouraged him to act like a minor celebrity. Every look to camera, whether conspiratorial or beseeching, was an attempt to cement in the viewer’s mind his image of himself as a “chilled out entertainer”, and every eye-rolling look from his staff confirmed that it wasn’t working. Unlike the US remake, with its richer cast of characters and more sympathetic lead, Gervais’s The Office was a comedy about performance and delusion — one of the very best. The concluding Christmas special delivered the perfect punchline, with the post-documentary Brent achieving his destiny as a fifteen-minute celebrity.
Just as Martin Scorsese, who was struggling to acclimatise to fame when he made The King of Comedy, said he saw his younger self in the desperate hustling of Rupert Pupkin, Gervais was close enough to obscurity himself in 2000 to feel Brent’s pain. Suddenly given the keys to the castle, he shrewdly chose to play a needy outsider in Extras: a moth flapping around the flame of real stardom.
The reason he’s never quite hit the mark since then is that he’s lost touch with failure and appears incapable of mocking his own success. The highlight of the bad-but-not-as-bad-as-people-say Life’s Too Short was a murderously humourless Liam Neeson’s attempt to restyle himself as a stand-up comic, believing that willpower and starpower alone could usher blood from a stone.
The nadir for me was the scene in which Gervais, imperious behind his desk and surrounded like some vainglorious monarch by emblems of his previous triumphs, botches a Skype call with Steve Carell about making lucrative guest appearances to The Office. Gervais complains that his snafu has just cost him millions of dollars, the implication being that The Office has already earned him many millions more. We are invited to laugh at a very rich man’s failure to become a bit richer, while it’s left to Warwick Davies to be the desperate loser, clinging with his fingernails to his small sliver of fame.
Is this just what success does to you? It’s safe to say that I will never have to cope with the mind-warping effects of vast fame and money, so who knows? Maybe if Steve Coogan’s Hollywood career had led to Oscar glory, he wouldn’t be the smart self-satiriser he is in The Trip or Coffee and Cigarettes. And maybe if Ben Stiller hadn’t grown up in the industry he couldn’t have maintained his genuine, caustically funny cynicism about showbusiness throughout his career from The Cable Guy to Zoolander to Tropic Thunder to his cameos in Extras and The Trip.
At any rate success seems to have made Ricky Gervais the kind of character he used to mine for laughs, incapable of taking criticism or realising how he comes across. Despite the ongoing backlash which reached its tipping point with the “mong” incident, the issue for me is not whether Ricky Gervais a good person (who am I to judge that?) but whether he still a good writer and performer.
I would love that to be the case but Derek, unfortunately, suggests not. Some critics’ anger at the portrayal of a man who, without getting into the kind of armchair diagnosis that Gervais finds it easy to deny, is what used to be called a simpleton led me to expect a streak of mocking cruelty. On the contrary, notwithstanding a couple of moments of misjudged slapstick, it’s as sappy and right-minded as the omnipresent sad piano music. A better actor wouldn’t have reduced the character to a basket of tics and soulful looks. A better script wouldn’t have had him say, “It’s more important to be kind than to be clever or good-looking.”
Leaving aside whether one wants to be lectured on kindness by Ricky Gervais, the problem here isn’t that Derek is a target for ridicule but that he’s a holy fool seeing the world through miraculously innocent eyes. Spike Lee once complained about the “Magical Negro”: the wise, folksy, disadvantaged black man who crops up in movies like The Hudsucker Proxy and The Green Mile in order to point the white lead towards enlightenment. Well, Derek is the Magical Simpleton, heir to the likes of Forrest Gump, Sean Penn in I Am Sam, and Ben Stiller’s Simple Jack.
The harder it yanks the heartstrings the more Derek comes to resemble Being There minus its central joke. In the Peter Sellers movie Chance the Gardener is assigned gnomic wisdom he doesn’t possess by people who sentimentalise childlike simplicity. Here there’s no such satirical energy. Derek, though annoying, is right and true while the world around him is blinkered and corrupt and he ultimately bathes everyone in his warm, Gumpish glow, leaving no space for either comedy or drama. Both the most poignant and most comic thing about it is how far out of his depth Gervais is an actor. If he were less powerful then somebody close to him might have felt able to gently suggest that the whole thing was self-regarding folly: the kind of sanctimonious guff which the younger, sharper Gervais might have poked fun at as a show-within-a-show on Extras.
But I can understand why Gervais and his ferociously loyal fans ( “fuck off you over analysing twat”, one told me on Twitter last night) think the advance criticism of Derek was overstated or misdirected. It’s condescending rather than nasty and the only really offensive thing is how its credits casually list the bullying women as “chavs in pub”. In fact mentally or physically disabled characters in Gervais shows have always been smart, resilient, likeable types morally simplified in order to make the person treating them badly look worse (this moral clarity being the alibi for all the jokes about the disability, of course). It’s braver and rarer to have a disabled character being as obnoxious as anyone else, like the wheelchair user in one episode of The Inbetweeners. That’s closer to equality than Gervais’s put-upon saints, just as a strong black villain in Hollywood is more progressive than another faultless Magical Negro.
Anyway, I suspect the critics who fret about Derek becoming a shorthand insult for a whole group of people, just as Vicky Pollard did, are worrying unduly. On the evidence so far, it’s simply not good enough to catch on.
Note: I strongly recommend Tom Sutcliffe’s smart, balanced review in The Independent.