Stream It or Skip It?

Ricky Gervais filmed his second Netflix comedy special in London back in 2021, but we’re only just now getting to see his musings on nature, science, religion, cats, and oh, right, the trans community. Certainly not much in the world has changed since then, right? Better question is whether anything about Gervais’ comedy has evolved since his first Netflix special four years ago…

The Gist: Gervais tells us he called this tour “SuperNature” because he doesn’t believe in the supernatural, and moreover: “because nature is super enough, you know?”

Of course, Gervais fans already know that much about him, whether or not they’ve watched his 2018 Netflix special, Humanity, the three seasons of his Netflix series, After Life, or following him on Twitter. They know he loves to traffic in jokes that offend people, whether it’s way back as David Brent in The Office, hosting the Golden Globes, or again, on Twitter. But the Netflix blurb describing SuperNature informs us Gervais also plans to lay down “the rules of comedy,” and he spends the first 12 minutes of this hour doing just that, using plenty of jokes at the expense of the trans community to make his points.

What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: In terms of British stand-ups, Gervais would love to align himself to the likes of Jimmy Carr, in that both get giddy after telling offensive jokes and will defend to their teeth the right to joke about anything and everything. In terms of wealth and stature in comedy and show business, and a seeming obsessiveness with the transgender community, Gervais gladly puts himself in the same boat as Dave Chappelle.

Memorable Jokes: We’re going to have to deconstruct a lot of this, so perhaps the most memorable joke of his right now that feels apt is his bit explaining why cats have barbed penises. This might hurt, but he’s doing it on purpose because he believes this will please us in the end.

Our Take: Watching a comedian explain the rules of comedy might seem about as enjoyable as reading a comedy critic explain why a stand-up’s act succeeds or fails. And yet, perhaps ever since Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette dissected the form and stirred the humor pot for kettle-calling comedians to debate its blackness, followed by #MeToo and the nausea-inducing invocations of “cancel culture,” talking about comedy within comedy specials has become almost unavoidable.

So, too, I’ve seen so many stand-ups tell a joke, claim it won’t be in special, only we just saw it in the special, that that, too, has become cliché.

I met and interviewed Gervais 15 years ago and found him inspiring. I’m not sure what to make of Gervais now, so perhaps if I just take what he says in his special piece by piece, I can see how much to take at face value versus with a grain of salt.

OK, so Gervais claims he’s peddling in irony. Nothing more to it than that. “That’s when I say something that I don’t really mean for comic effect, and you as an audience, you laugh at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is. It’s a way of satirizing attitudes.” At a certain point, though, once you’ve branded yourself as ironic and received enough backlash for it, if you keep leaning into the bit, it’s no longer ironic. You’re just trolling.

Naming Dame Edna and Eddie Izzard as the women he finds funny, then smirking and shrugging: He’s trolling us. When he follows that up by gloating about how Humanity toured arenas and “Netflix bought it for a record amount…it was the most-watched special of the year,” he’s rationalizing that his trolling works, so please, by all means, be offended.

It’s almost as if he saw James Acaster go viral in 2019 by mocking Gervais for going after the trans community, or somehow didn’t notice, but obviously he did because he pays attention to what people say about him, and Gervais decided to double down. 

Gervais defends himself whenever asked about this that his jokes aren’t real, that he’s pretending to take different points of view, and that what you find unfunny or offensive, might make someone else laugh, and all he’s trying to do is make us laugh. “They’ve got to know that we’re not trying to offend. That’s not our aim, you know? We’re trying to make you laugh. We’re trying to give you a good time.” Uh huh. OK. Alrighty then.

He insists if minorities want to be treated equally, then that means they should have a sense of humor about themselves just like everyone else. Except he’s not even treating trans people as equals, is he? All of his transgender jokes involve roasting men who’ve transitioned into women, specifically those who still have their male genitalia. Or he wishes he could’ve identified as trans when he was younger, but only to take advantage of his parents. As if it’s a choice. Or he imagines identifying as a lesbian, because what’s more sexy than imagining two women together? All of his jokes about AIDS center on gay men, as if millions of Magic Johnsons or millions of addicts (like my cousin) were immune. Gervais jokes about abortion, too, claiming he’s pro-choice because a man shouldn’t tell a woman what to with her body (unless the woman actually identifies as a man, in which case he’ll get to zinging?!).

Gervais claims that anyone thinking jokes are a window into a comedian’s soul are fooling themselves, but whom is Gervais trying to fool? Of all the things to sit and think up jokes about, why these particular jokes? Because he finds them funny. The idea of roasting people worse off than him made him laugh, and he has enough experience to know it’ll make enough of you laugh, that no matter how many others get offended, he can laugh all the way to the bank.

Gervais also mused that “there’s loads of types of comedy, and comedy evolves” — so when is Ricky going to evolve? And where are these places that he sincerely wants us to believe that comedians have to sign documents before taking the stage promising not to offend anyone? Is he talking about a tiny liberal arts college somewhere, or is he claiming this is an actual thing for touring comedians in 2022?

“Gervais also muses that ‘there’s loads of types of comedy, and comedy evolves’ — so when is Ricky going to evolve?”

And why does he want us to have sympathy for Louis CK and Kevin Hart, when CK just won the Grammy and “poor Kevin Hart” isn’t ever going to be poor again?

Gervais makes a funny point when he alleges: “Sometimes you’ve got to punch down, like if you’re beating up a disabled toddler.” Sure, it’s a clever one-liner, but it’s also a straw-man argument and he knows it.

And it’s his self-awareness that finally loses me when it comes to his comedy, which also includes too many stock, hackneyed, well-worn-out premises. Such as mocking ghost-hunting TV shows for never finding any ghosts. Or making fun of people who wish they could go back in time and kill baby Hitler. Or claiming irony after taking on a stereotypical Chinese accent. He only stops himself after imagining himself identifying as a pram.

“That’s a bit hack now, that joke now, isn’t it?” he asks. “Identify as a thing, then, right? It’s a bit old-fashioned, right? But I’m going to leave it in to annoy people. Because that’s the bit that’ll offend people.”

That’s all he really wants. Your outrage equals more clicks equals more fame and fortune for him. Or infamy. Either way, he wins.

Our Call: SKIP IT. Gervais warned us with his introduction to the stage as “a man who really doesn’t need to do this.” And he was right. He didn’t need to do this hour. And you don’t need to watch it, either.

Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.

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