What happened to Ricky Gervais?
His latest major television project, After Life, feels like the culmination of this divisive, oft-controversial comedian and what he has been attempting to give audiences for almost 20 years, since The Office made him a household British and American name. Gervais, as grief-stricken widower Tony, has lost touch with the purpose of life to such a degree he no longer cares about offending anyone; and is resolved to say what he wants, when he wants, to whom he wants. “It’s like a superpower” he boasts with the freedom of someone with nothing to lose.
Yet what on the face of it is billed as a dark, mordant comedy with a bad boy streak, with the wilfully offensive Gervais having the vehicle to create a comic monster filled with bitterness – David Brent spliced with One Foot in the Grave’s Victor Meldrew – never actually comes to bear. After Life is underpinned with a powerful sense of at times mawkish sentimentality to the point you wonder whether you should be laughing at the clear, telegraphed comedy built around Tony’s refusal to edit himself? It almost feels too personal to laugh at, given Gervais wants us to simultaneously wince and care about this broken, sad and nihilistic man.
What it left me wondering is: Is After Life really about Tony, or is it in some bizarre way about Ricky?
It’s worth taking a moment to think about Gervais’ trajectory over the years because, in many ways, he has spent a career playing a variant on Tony in After Life and, conversely, a variant on his own real life persona. Before The Office made him a star, late-90s alternative comedy fans knew him as a foul-mouthed, bigoted, little England reporter character (as a version of himself) on the Iain Lee fronted The 11 O’Clock Show (the same show that birthed the career of Sacha Baron Cohen and his breakout character Ali G). Off the back of this, in 2000, he had a short lived chat show called Meet Ricky Gervais (again on Channel Four) where he continued playing the same offensive version of himself, this time with real life guests as varied as Midge Ure and the late, disgraced Jimmy Savile. Gervais has since shown disdain for the whole project in hindsight.
These two points of exposure to comedy audiences came before he joined forces with Stephen Merchant to create The Office and the legendary comedy character of David Brent. This tapped more into Gervais’ ability to play the cringe-making comedy of poor self awareness in the style of Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, rather than a crude, ignorant version of himself. Truthfully, Brent still remains (outside of Derek Noakes) the character Gervais has shown the most skill in performing, not just writing. Brent has traces of Gervais’ personality – or at least the one he presents – but he is primarily a well performed character in his own right. It is not just Gervais playing himself. Arguably this was far less the case in his and Merchant’s next project Extras, playing the far less broadly drawn Andy Millman.
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There are real traces of Andy in After Life’s Tony. You can see similar strands of DNA. Many of the jokes Tony makes you could imagine Andy making in different circumstances, if they were perhaps given more of a media spin. Indeed, in After Life Gervais re-uses jokes from his stand up material too, to lesser effect. Both are characters who consider the glass half empty; they shuffle around often disconsolately, quirking an acerbic eyebrow at a cavalcade of eccentrics and plain weirdos around them, while simultaneously becoming aggravated and repulsed by the personal ticks and habits of other people. Andy’s aggravation became a by-product of his broader fame-chasing arc but After Life often feels like Gervais has built an entire show and the character of Tony around this general societal anger.
At this point, it becomes harder and harder to separate Andy from Tony; and Andy/Tony particularly from Ricky. The vomit-inducing phobias of these characters, often based around lazy, hapless, child-like men, could almost be seen as Gervais’ own personal phobias. Gervais tends to always surround himself in these kind of shows with deliberately strange people in order to distance himself from the population. In Extras it was finding well known versions of celebrities weird or bonkers (be it a bigoted Keith Chegwin or Shaun Williamson masturbating over a pen) and if they were too famous to make too weird, they’d be insensitive, selfish or horrible often for effect to the little people. In After Life, the people of the small town of Tambury that Tony inhabits (a picture perfect Home Counties England that doesn’t really exist) are by degrees oddballs who desperately want to get in the paper by dressing their baby up as Hitler or claiming a stain on their wall looks like Sir Kenneth Branagh. If people aren’t weird then they’re either nice or dull in order to make Tony seem like the odd man out.
Again, even to a smaller degree, After Life reveals an obsession and anger with fame and where the pursuit of fame is leading. Extras turned his anger ultimately on the ‘gutter press’ in the age of phone hacking scandals, an age that prefigured the rise of social media and everyone becoming their own brand. Gervais is still ranting about fame for the sake of it, angry now at the swathes of people happy to be famous even for being talentless, but it essentially remains the same old arguments he has been having for the last two decades. After lampooning the desperation for fame in David Brent’s character and later through Extras examining the cost, After Life feels largely resigned to the idea that no amount of scathing satire will change anything. Tony is the most disconsolate and apathetic character he has ever played and, if anything, it feels reflective more of Gervais’ mindset as a creative right now than anything else.
If After Life is about grief, my question is this… just what exactly is Ricky Gervais grieving?
The easiest and shortest answer could be: His career. Gervais has grown into a deeply divisive comedic presence who has never quite managed to best what he became known for originally. The Office was a global success and, much as it too still polarises, unquestionably cemented its status as probably the first ‘classic’ British comedy series of the 21st Century, quite brilliantly capturing the painful boredom and inanity of modern office life. Extras never quite reached the same level of critical and commercial acclaim but it was a success. Gervais cashed in on his own newfound fame on both sides of the Atlantic to rope in major A-list celebrity friends and admirers to help him satirise a meteoric rise he has always had an awkward relationship with. On the one hand, Gervais seems to court adoration and global success, yet on the other he appears keen to play it down or make a joke of it, or even attempt to position himself as a ‘bad boy’ of comedy insulting the Hollywood elite – just look at his Golden Globes hosting controversy which put paid to him ever getting an Oscars hosting gig, which was once suggested.
Gervais eternally seems caught between global stardom as one of Britain’s leading comedians and the working class boy from Reading who probably wanted to be a rock star instead. He flirted with New Romantic fame in his early 80s band Seona Dancing, which he later worked to satirise through the painful musical aspirations of David Brent. Gervais both would love to be David Bowie but at the same time is painfully aware he never could be. Sometimes you feel the same with his position as an actor. He always appears far more comfortable holding court on stage in his live shows – two of which, Animals and Politics, are genuinely great – than he does performing. Perhaps because he’s aware of his limitations? Aware of the fact he can only ever play one character, in many ways: a variant extension of himself. Even when he was briefly an IRA bomber on US action series Alias (no really), Gervais always seemed to have one wry eye on the absurdity of it all. Bravo made a behind the scenes documentary about his role on Alias and he spends the whole of the shoot mocking everything the American cast and crew take seriously.
In other words: Does Ricky Gervais know quite where he fits as a performer? He has proven time and time again that he doesn’t work as a leading man in Hollywood cinema – just look at DOA projects such as Ghost Town or his own The Invention of Lying (again very much playing with the whimsical idea of a world free from consequences). He’s taken few leading man comedy roles on the big screen in the last decade, with his villainous role in Muppets Most Wanted (and there humans always play second fiddle to Kermit et al when it comes to star billing), his shared star billing with Eric Bana on the risible Netflix film Special Correspondents, and the David Brent movie the notable exceptions. Largely, Gervais now just plays in ensembles in the US and has abandoned temporary pretentious that he could ‘pull a John Cleese’ and break out as he did with A Fish Called Wanda (although that didn’t last long either). Gervais still very much has one foot in the States but it feels like he has consistently worked to better or equal on British television what he achieved with the gaping hole in his creative life that is Stephen Merchant.
Compared to Extras or The Office, both of which had skilled levels of pathos at their core, his first solo series Derek drowns in mawkish sentimentality from the get go. The first season manages to elicit laughs mainly from Karl Pilkington playing an extension of his own ‘Idiot Abroad’ persona but he was gone by Season 2 and the show just became unwatchable and saccharine. It was hard to reconcile how Gervais ended up there without pointing to Merchant’s absence as a factor, despite how it would be unfair to suggest Merchant was why The Office and Extras were both so good. It was a team effort backed by great performances by both of them, Merchant particularly in Extras where he frequently stole the show as Andy’s hapless agent Darren Lamb.
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After Life feels like a reaction to all of this. It is a weirdly personal show, to the point you don’t always know whether you should laugh, even though the jokes are well telegraphed. It feels like a dark fantasy of Gervais’ own life, of him imagining an alternate reality where he lost his long term partner, lived in a quaint corner of England, and worked as a journalist for a newspaper nobody reads. Tony is so maudlin, so depressed, Gervais spends the entire thing walked around, shoulders slumped, sighing audibly as the weight of existence bears down on him. It feels like Gervais is working out his own demons on screen, yet has transmuted his own grief into the concept of losing a long-term partner.
That alone is acute and sad, and an untapped minefield of the bleakest of comedy, but After Life could have been funnier if Gervais had written Tony for someone else. Imagine someone with gravitas not normally associated with comedy; Iain Glen (Resident Evil, Game of Thrones), for example. The jokes oddly could have landed better without the uncomfortable suspicion that Gervais is, again, playing out his current emotional state on screen through a character and a situation. After Life is the grief of a creative who perhaps feels like his best days are behind him; and he has no idea how to become something different, new and relevant.
This is perhaps because, as stated before, Gervais has only ever played a variation on the same character and has always explored similar themes in his work? He has moved between ‘knowingly nasty’ in his early Channel 4 projects, to David Brent who was constructed on a deep river of existential pain, to Andy Millman who became the thing he loathed the most, to the questionable portrayal of Derek Noakes. He’s just consistently upped the sentimentality and sadness – indeed in many ways David Brent: Life on the Road feels like a precursor to After Life, even to the point he recruits for After Life several actors from that movie, such as Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon and Jo Hartley, playing very similar, sympathetic roles.
Is Gervais insulating himself creating this familiar repertoire of actors? He also brings back David Earl from Derek and even Ashley Jensen from Extras along the way. It feels like a leading man deeply wounded by how his previous work has been greeted by fans he clearly works hard to try and please – you only have to look at how much he searches his own trending name on Twitter as proof (he even liked an article on Extras I once wrote) – who is expecting a tirade of abuse for putting himself out there and wants to cushion the blow. Tony is sad, vulnerable and unable to see a future in After Life. Maybe Gervais feels similar about his own career?
Could that be what Ricky Gervais is grieving? His own relevance? Is After Life a reaction to a world who just don’t seem to appreciate what he does anymore, and his cry for help? And, most importantly, are audiences willing to soften their hearts as After Life works hard to try and make you do, in order to tell him it’s ok, we’re here for him, and we’ll stand by him?
By the end of the final episode, you may want to give the man a hug.
After Life is now available on Netflix.