When Masks Slip

Posted on Wed 25 May 2022 in comedy

Another week, another culture war/comedy crossover. This time it is the arrival of a hotly, er, anticipated return to the screen of one Ricky Gervais, in what has been billed in some quarters as Netflix's most transphobic show yet. Still, I'm not just interested in this phenomenon as a target of his increasingly tired output, but as someone professionally interested in comedy and satire. I'm going to come back to issues around stereotypes in another post, but here I want to discuss through the medium of Mr. Gervais' fading career how comedy, satire and abuse interrelate, how they are managed and what this says about both performers and audiences.

So (as I have perhaps hinted), I am not a fan of the Gervais oeuvre. I have decidedly been an unfan since he first appeared on British screens in the late 1990s in the Channel 4 series, The Eleven O'Clock Show. His routine at that point was already to trade in the comedy of abuse and offence, in the guise of a suburban middle-manager type (you may find this familiar). Apparently, the idea was that we were to laugh at his crudeness and offensiveness, not to laugh with the jokes themselves. This was an era where ironic humour was coming to be a major thread in the comedy landscape, and so it seemed part of the zeitgeist.

I've never bought it. Partly this is because I have profound doubts about irony when it comes to offensive humour, and partly because of Mr. Gervais himself. I've written elsewhere about the problems of ironic humour. The classic case is the Johnny Speight series of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s starring Warren Mitchell as the the bigot Alf Garnett (racist, sexist and homophobic; not particularly transphobic, as we weren't important enough then). In this instance, although the writer and lead actor were writing from a strong left-wing perspective (and Mitchell himself was Jewish), this was not the perspective of the audiences with whom I watched the programmes, who saw the Garnett character as speaking truths that could not normally be said aloud. He was excessive, impolite and uncouth, not disgusting. I also strongly doubt that all involved with the programme were unaware of this. (I am reminded, too, that the Left has has had its probems with gender and sexuality, as current readers of The Guardian will be aware, and indeed on race.)

Mitchell was a serious actor (I was forced to watch his BBC Shylock at school, and although I hated Shakespeare with a passion there, he was really good) and so I can believe that he was playing a bigot. Ricky Gervais is not a great actor. He plays versions of himself and always has done. This seemed transparent to me in 1999, and nothing he has done since has shaken that conviction. What then of the claim to be ironic, to be adopting a persona? It was a protection—for him, the performer, but also for the audience.

Persona Theory and Satire

Appeals to irony in relation to satire were nothing new in the '90s. Classicists have been trying to excuse satire for decades. In the case of the Roman satirist Juvenal (early second century CE), scholars grew increasingly uncomfortable with characterising the poet as a down-on-his-luck petty bourgeois figure ranting at the state of the world, and instead argued that the poet was inventing a series of characters whom the audience is meant to find amusing, or more specifically, to laugh at. Where the rants are not in the voice of a specific character, the narrator (‘Juvenal’) is to be treated as a character. Even in post-war academia, it was becoming difficult to validate (let alone heroise) a poet who appeared to be trading in rank misogyny (Satire 6), racism (including anti-semitism, Satire 3); also homophobia in various forms and contexts (although it wasn't called that then). Or maybe it was proving difficult to square Juvenal's continuing canonicity with his lack of discretion.

There is a bigger problem here than simply the problems of satire, which is how to move from any performance or literary work to the author. Literary theorists distinguish the narrator from the author (and even distinguish the author position in a text [‘fictional author’] from the actual author). Although the underlying issue is often framed as one of intent (what did the author really mean), the underlying problem is actually often one of commitment—can the author have really meant it, or does the work really say what it appears to say? Thus, for example, while some were talking about the satirist's persona, most of the critical debate about Vergil's Aeneid at the time involved trying to argue that the poem is something other than an apparent validation of Roman imperialism in general (‘endless empire‘, imperium sine fine) and Augustus' authoritarian regime in particular, paving over inconvenient obstacles along the way (all very regrettable, of course). There's nothing particularly special about satire in this respect.

In the case of Juvenal, there are ways of distancing the rants, not just by using distinctive characters, most notably Laronia who talks back about misogyny in Satire 2, but chronologically too, by mocking the past rather than the present—the regime of Domitian (Satire 4) was a politically convenient and safe target. Laronia's main target, though, is hypocrisy of philosophers talking about gender (no modern parallels spring to mind at all) and I'm not sure this gets Juvenal off any hooks when ‘Juvenal’ is the voice. But not all of Juvenal's characters are so distinct. The narrator of the bulk of Satire 3, on the city of Rome (adapted by Pope in his ‘London’) is one Umbricius who talks much like, er, ‘Juvenal’. The difference is that while Umbricius is leaving Rome, ‘Juvenal’ is staying put, appalled and loving it.

I once taught Roman Satire to a class that included a tabloid journalist. We repeatedly ended up talking about Juvenal through the frame of the Daily Mail, a publication whose main function appears to feed outrage in middle England, appalling and titillating them in equal measure. If they could not find modern depravity at which to rail, they would have to invent it (and so they often do). I do not know how self-aware any of its journalists are (some evidently are true believers), but functionally this is neither here nor there.

In stand-up comedy, it's much harder to signal there is no commitment to what is said. In drama, or in narrative that includes characters' voices, there is more complexity. The effect of such works is the interplay of those many voices and it's a bad idea to suppose that one particular voice speaks ‘for’ the author, or provides some kind of key to the meaning of the work (the author is, after all, responsible for all the work), but there are ways of giving particular voices more weight (for example the gods in the Aeneid provide a particular meta-narrative, which it's quite difficult to evade). In Aristophanes, the chorus can claim at points to speak for or as the author, but elsewhere their privilege is more questionable; likewise, exceptionally, a character appears to do something similar (Dicaeopolis in Acharnians), but that is a tactic. In these instances, ancient comedy comes closest to modern stand-up.

Character, Truth and Irony

Gervais' career is fascinating, as its progression reveals what is implicit in many other comic performers. The performances of The Eleven O'Clock Show were clearly adapted into the character of David Brent in The Office, which Gervais co-wrote. Here it was undeniably the case that some, at least, of the humour was directed at the Brent character, who is presented as almost wholly lacking in self-awareness, precisely because so many key moments are in pieces of supposed self-reflection to camera. Even so, like his precursor in Garnett, there is also use of this character to engineer humour at the expense of his luckless subordinates. Because so much of the series is focalised through him, there is even a sense of pathos (as well as deserved come-uppance) as his little kingdom disintegrates.

This raises an intriguing question for me which is how far Gervais' co-writer, Stephen Merchant, was responsible for exploiting Gervais' character rather than that of Brent. Or, to go back to my earlier point, how much acting was actually involved there?

I have often wondered about a similar issue in relation to the various output of the Monty Python team in relation to John Cleese. Cleese's speciality was the uptight authority figure—Reg, the leader of the People's Front of Judaea, the judge overseeing the stoning in The Life of Brian; the bureaucrat of the argument sketch; the very straight and psychotic Sir Lancelot in The Holy Grail; a private school teacher in The Meaning of Life. Although these characters are often mocked (the humourless sectarian empire-builder who won't take part in terrorist activity because he has a bad back; the judge who is himself the victim of stoning), they are also the vehicles for targeting others, including one of the earliest pieces of sustained transphobia in modern comedy (‘symbolic of his struggle against reality‘). This type of role certainly predated the Pythons, as it was also exploited in the well-known class sketch (1966). My abiding suspicion is that Cleese was not always aware of how much he was himself the butt of the joke, and whether the other members of the team were exploiting what they saw in him without his being fully aware of it. Compare, for example, the way that Michael Palin played authority figures, much more varied but frequently with a gleeful sense of their own ridiculousness (the leader of the Spanish Inquisition sketch; Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian; the proprietor of Swamp Castle in The Holy Grail). The Cleese character is there too in Basil Fawlty. Despite the cue in the name, Fawlty Towers trades on abuse, particularly xenophobia, including migrant workers (Manuel) and guests (notably German ones), and in sexism (Sybil and Polly) that looks (and even then looked) indistinguishable from that of the less celebrated situation comedy of the period.

The parallels between the careers of Cleese and Gervais extend further as they have become less relevant. Gervais' follow-up to The Office was hardly a hit, and his output recently has largely consisted of being ‘outrageous’ while hosting awards ceremonies. Cleese, as I've noted elsewhere, has been largely inactive since the 1980s. Both are now trading in tired culture-war tropes and (of course) complaining about being cancelled in the process.

Offensive Humour

Someone might ask (to use a repeated device from Roman satire) why I am interested in such material, since I appear to find it so objectionable. In the case of Gervais, it's not so much (or not only) that I find his material objectionable, it's that I don't find him particularly interesting or funny.

Let's compare Gervais with a far more edgy comic, Frankie Boyle, who (unlike Cleese or Gervais) has literally been cancelled for going too far. Boyle's targets (the ones that have landed him in trouble) are those with power, such as (in the 2000s) Tony Blair, the Tories and the royal family. He frequently trades in obscenity that offends against middle-class pieties, But he also explores topics with empathy, not least narratives about his native Glasgow. As a long-term Glasgow resident myself, I experience this both as the comedy of recognition (not only of actual reality but of how the city sees itself), but can also see how it will play with a non-Glasgow audience: the sense of deep understanding of the city is evident. For example, after the introduction of a ban on smoking in public places in Scotland, Glasgow sprouted an implausible number of outdoor seating, or, rather, drinking areas, around some of the grimmest pubs you can imagine. His description of this as like Paris after a nuclear bomb was funny because it caught a truth about the situation (both visually and in the determined resilience of drinkers in the face of environmental adversity, such as the Glasgow whether).

There are certainly places where Boyle's routines make me feel uncomfortable, but for the most part he is not punching down on easy targets, and much (even most) of the boundary-pushing can make you stop and think as well as laugh. There's enough of that in Aristophanes, and even (perhaps more optimistically) in Juvenal to outweigh the material that is problematic (whether arising from historical situatedness or otherwise). Contrast Gervais. His response to criticism from LGBT organisations for material in his latest show is (according to the BBC) that ‘comedy is for getting over taboo subjects’. But there is nothing dangerous, edgy, or taboo-breaking about simply repeating in right-wing talking points, not least ones that are aired plentifully in all sorts of media contexts. Creepy men fantasising about trans women is just sad. How very David Brent, indeed.