I have to thank Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal for inspiring me to watch the HBO comedy special Ricky Gervais: Out of England. Oh, she didn't recommend it. Far from it. I have never read so contemptuous and humorless a television review in all my born days. "Mr. Gervais's new comedy special has nothing whatever to recommend it," she sniffs. "The real curiosity here, of course, is how such braying emptiness -- packaged as edgy comedy -- comes to be produced, filmed and put on air in the first place."
I read that review last weekend and thought, Whoa, wait a minute -- how could it possibly be that bad? I wasn't planning to watch it myself, but I have a lot of faith in Ricky Gervais, and it just didn't seem possible that he would put himself out there with completely awful material. I mean, I have seen terrible stand-up. It isn't hard to find. Comedy Central routinely grants half-hour specials to comics so painfully unfunny you'd be better off spending thirty minutes punching yourself in the face. So how could Gervais's HBO special possibly deserve this kind of rancor? It sounds as though Rabinowitz just doesn't like Gervais (or...anything funny), but she claims to be a fan of The Office and expresses admiration for Extras, so that can't be it, can it? On the other hand, in so doing she manages to put down the U.S. version of The Office and downplay the brilliance of Extras, so that's a couple of red flags right there. (She says Extras is "far from peerless." Oh really? Then what are its peers? I would really love to know, because I can only watch the complete series so many times.) Another red flag: she uses "of course" twice in two consecutive sentences, and both times it's superfluous (of course).
The real problem, it seems, is that Rabinowitz doesn't get the character Gervais plays in his routines; she seems to take all that self-regard and buffoonery at face value. He's not quite playing David Brent or Andy Millman in this stand-up special, but there's a recognizable dose of both. What might have confused Ms. Rabinowitz is the looseness of the conceit in this routine, as opposed to Gervais's tightly constructed sitcoms. Sometimes, as on The Office, the joke is that he's obnoxiously unaware of his own ignorance; sometimes, as on Extras, he's half truthteller, half jerk. And sometimes it's unclear which framework is operative -- maybe neither? That lack of clarity is responsible for the weakest moments in the show, like the extended riff on obesity. It's all in poor taste, but it isn't clear that the character knows that. It's not outrageous enough for the joke to be on Gervais, but it's also not "true" enough for it to be funny in spite of the tastelessness. And while you're not laughing, you find yourself thinking that maybe the real Ricky Gervais is not a very nice guy. Other riffs on "taboo" subjects work better. But the best moments come from Gervais's deceptively disciplined performance -- the more natural he seems, the more thoroughly calibrated his delivery. And the mildest subject matter produces the biggest laughs. I'm still giggling whenever I think about his elephants-swimming encore. And a section on nursery rhymes starts off bland, but I was laughing so hard I had to pause the TV to catch my breath by the time he finished unpacking "Humpty Dumpty." There's only one Eddie Izzard, but there are moments in this special where Gervais comes close to Izzard's brand of transformative stand-up.
Ricky Gervais: Out of England isn't gold from start to finish. But it is worth checking out. And as for you, Wall Street Journal: I've come to expect this sort of bizarro-world commentary from your op-ed page. But does this mean I should disregard your arts coverage too? Or does it just mean you need to find a comedy critic with a sense of humor?