Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Ricky Gervais is Dialled in on Funny

When I was a kid I fell in love with comedy and bought every record I could find. The Goons and Monty Python, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Not the Nine O'Clock News team, The Goodies, Kenny Everit and so many more.

When records went out of fashion and everyone was virtually throwing them away I found comedy gold in the old BBC format shows - That Was The Week That Was and Golden years of Radio - the list of well known and obscure comedy was endless. I discovered Shelley Berman extending Bob Newhart's phone calls and Mort Sahl melding politics and humour the way John Stewart and others do today.

A lot of people over a long time have made me laugh and I've enjoyed the evolution of comedy and the genres of comedy that continually get renewed, reborn and reinvented.

The politically correct revolution of comedy came along in the eighties when I was at university with what was called the new age comedy, but was really just comedy with a conscience and an underlying comment or point. From politics to war, from superpowers to household relationships - everything could be commented on in comedy without ever resorting to the old racial or social stereotypes that picked on types like the big kid picks on the smaller kids in a playground. Comedy is capable of doing so much if used well.

But in the past decade a transition has swept through comedy that I'm still trying to reconcile - the second hand politically incorrect humour. The Archie Bunker affect - where a character that is being held up for examination as undesirable gets to say, do and act in a way that no-one in the real world would tolerate.

It's the grandparent phenomenon that causes us all to hide our heads and change the subject when Grandma or Grandpa declares the shopping centre is starting to resemble downtown Vietnam.

Barry Humphries' Dame Edna has been doing it for years, along with Les Patterson. Little Britain and Catherine Tait have had great success with it more recently, as have others - but then came Ricky.

I don't know why Ricky Gervais makes me laugh so much and so hard - it may be as simple as he shares my sense of humour - but I doubt it. It's far more likely thousands, or by now more like hundreds of thousands if not millions feel the same way and we can't all find the exact same things funny.

I think it's more likely Ricky Gervais just has a great sense of what most of the world finds funny and is an extremely good editor of ideas. My guess is he is a story generator creative type - with a constant flow of ideas - and then he ruthlessly discards the ones he decides don't appeal to a wide enough demographic - and his genius is most likely in that selection. The comedy is unquestionably good - but avoiding the flops is what makes someone a star.

There's no question he likes to shock and he certainly pushes the boundaries with his humour as he hides within loveable losers and insults all and sundry. David Brent was a favourite until Andy Millman came along and left Brent as a shadow when he delivered the brilliant celebrity speech in the Xmas special from extras.

Gervais then stepped up to do live standup - something he'd never done before and to many of his fellow comedians credit, when they were interviewed about Ricky, they own up to wanting him to fail miserably at standup. They assumed it would bring him undone. Standup's hard - I've tried it. I was forced to get up and learn how to deliver a routine because few comics are willing to do someone else's material. Working out a set and getting up and doing it proves far harder than anyone could imagine - especially in front of drunk foreign backpackers. God help you if the room is full of Germans.

Ricky not only succeeded, he blew the doors off with the fastest ever sell out tour - I can't remember how fast it sold out - ask Ricky - he's told people often enough.

Flannimals bolted out the door. Ghost Town may not have hit big but it was successful and more importantly  enjoyable. The only wobble on the track was The Invention of Lying - a brilliant premis that didn't quite come together - but still an enjoyable film with great moments and a thoroughly original idea. But writing a screenplay that not only works structurally but attracts a big enough audience away from the rest of life for 2 hours and $30 from their pocket - is a big ask. The Invention of Lying did this well enough and if not for characters not sharing the same weird loveable loser qualities that make his other character 'inventions' so likeable, it may have fared better.

But it is the podcasts that went on to become the animated 'Ricky Gervais' show that worried me most. I couldn't help feeling Ricky with Steven Merchant's help, was picking on Karl. I Googled forums and found a lot of people shared my concern. I watched an idiot abroad and, even though I laughed, the same thought niggled at me as Karl was kidnapped in the Middle East and bundled into the back of a van under hood and bound hands. It felt mean spirited.

Then I watched the new podcast - Learning English.

Ricky, sits with Karl and helps non English speakers learn English. Bless him. We've seen these shows around the world and on our government channels for decades. The way the presenters talk to you like you're two years old - with that patronising teacher's voice and they always choose the most ridiculous phrases.

"The LADDER is leaning AGAINST the wall" - "The LADDER. AGAINST"

If you've ever felt Ricky and Steve pick on Karl then watch this quickly. It suddenly becomes all too clear. In everything else, Karl's true self has been carefully guarded and let out in small manageable quantities. I debated with people whether he was being serious or if he was, like Gervais, some new comic genius who could turn anything into - not just funny, but incredibly biting, shocking and provocative all at once.

Ricky's Anne Frank bit is a classic example. "No second book - Lazy." But Karl reducing the holocaust and the underlying theme from Sophie's Choice to a comparison with Deal or No Deal tops it. It's comedy gold. The moment those two things are brought together - you instantly laugh and feel the person who thought of it should be locked up. That's great comedy - so funny you have to laugh and so shocking you do a nasal spit take - the highest compliment in all of comedy. Karl delivers these moments more than anyone currently working in entertainment. The hysteria is because he doesn't mean to and doesn't seem to understand why what he's said is funny.

In Learning English with Ricky Gervais - Karl's personality is the joke. Sure Ricky niggles and purposely steers Karl to where he knows he'll get a rise - but what comes across is that Karl is an 85 year old curmudgeony man, locked in a middle aged man's body. This is not an act - when Ricky pretends to be a foreigner coming into Karl's fish shop to buy a fish - Karl is genuinely annoyed to be interrupted to serve the customer. It doesn't make sense, as Ricky laments - "This is a fiction, Karl." Karl doesn't care - in his mind he was reading the paper and now he's been interrupted by Ricky's imaginary customer. That mismatch within Karl's head about what is real and what is a fiction is madly funny.

"What's a kipper?" Ricky asks.
"It's a fish!" Karl spits back with a look that indicates he's annoyed to be dealing with an idiot.

Ricky could steer the session anywhere and Karl would react equally insanely to whatever scenario was proposed. Has he forgotten the purpose - to teach English? It seems far from forgetting he's simply failed to grasp the concept at all from the very beginning.

"Chinese would know about fish," he says, shutting down yet another effort from Ricky.

If you've seen the Liam Neeson improv comedy interview within 'Life's Too Short' then Liam's continual shutting down of the improvised setups is similar to Karl in this. Liam's bit was well thought out, clearly worked with a knowledge of improvisation and how to derail it at every opportunity.

Look at the Neeson out takes and you'll see just how well crafted and hard to pull off the whole thing was.

Karl tops it. Neeson was using all his mastered skill to portray an annoying prat as he failed miserably to grasp the basic elements of improv, but to Karl it comes like running water from a spring.

It didn't need Ricky to push Karl's buttons by setting him as a hair waxing salon employee to wax Ricky's back, sack and crack - but Karl's inability to work in a fiction or his long running refusal to accept the fundamental aspects of the human condition we all share, instantly causes more problems for him. His mind, unable to separate an imagined scenario from filling out tax forms and actually enduring every minute detail of such a job, clash and produce real pain on his face. He suffers real embarrassment, frustration and annoyance at having to perform an imaginary job, in an imaginary salon on an imaginary Ricky who is never contemplating letting Karl anywhere near him with wax.

It's painfully funny and I finally get why Karl is the world's best straight man. He's genuinely an idiot. A loveable, good natured, inoffensive idiot - but a huge idiot all the same. His only real concern in the world seems to be to go unbothered by the other 7 billion of us. He's happiest 'pottering' around his home with a cupboard full of snacks, but his opinions are as real as they are funny.

It's as if Ricky has found a universal Grandpa and is finally asking him all the things the rest of the world's family have been too embarrassed to ask all these years because of the fear about what might come from his mouth. Ricky has no such fear.

Karl's xenophobic, sexist, and antiquated views are straight out of a few generations ago. He is less informed, less understanding of society and its differences and less willing to ever change than a statue. There's no denying Grandpa is funny - provided he's not our grandpa.

Learning English with Ricky Gervaise is the new Podcast offering and more than the pilot can be found on Itunes.

It is comedy at the nasal spit take level - high praise indeed!

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