Ricky Gervais Quitting Comedy?

Filed Under Sitcom

Ricky GervaisIt seems inevitable for comedians to do something else but comedy at some point in their careers. The desire for approval is so great in performers, that comedy, which lacks awards and recognition much of the time, has to be foresaken to prove that the comedian has more skills than making silly faces, falling down on command and acting embarassed at the accidental inappopriate sexual comment. (This only applies to comedy performers. Comedy writers fortunately never get this urge, probably because the need for approval isn’t a part of their makeup. In fact, it’s often the opposite.)

So I get it the reports that Ricky Gervais has “quit comedy.” As far as I can tell, those are their words, not his. But in descriping the intentions of him and his writing partner Stephen Merchant after the second season of their sitcom Extras, Gervais said:

“This will probably be the last sitcom we do. We’d like to do drama… We’d like to do something with more weight, like The Sopranos maybe — not necessarily crime but something meaty. Revenge is the best theme.”

My thoughts: that’s awesome. I’d love to see what Gervais and Merchant come up with. They’re brilliant creators and I trust them to see what they could come up with.

What I’m disappointed are the terms “meaty” or ‘weight” used to describe drama and not comedy. Extras is easy to dismiss as flighty since it focuses on the entertainment industry. But the take Gervais has on the desperation to be seen and noticed has a great deal of relevance in a culture where increasing, all of us, thanks to reality TV, talking head nostalgia, blogging and YouTube are told we can have not just fifteen minutes of fame but fifteen minutes from others talking about our infamy and then another fifteen minutes from ourselves talking about others’ infamy. It’s a brass ring that so many aspire to now that Extras, though another comedy about entertainment, has something to say about life too.

But The Office I would argue is probably the meatiest show of the decade, more so than the Sorpranos because it’s about a world which most of us live in. We’re not mafia dons or molls, we’re trying to get by and find a way to do something for eight hours a day that we’d rather not be doing. Examining the depths of that and finding the little victories we have to escape it is far more telling to life. The Sorpranos, for all the darkness and desperation it shows, is escapism for most. The bloodthirsty audience desperate for the next whacking misses out on the message of how mundane crime is. They appreciate the sauce, not the meat. The British Office with all of its bits buffered by the sounds of photocopiers and telephones, we’re surrounded by the oppressive weight of a shitty, shitty job.

“Meaty” and “weight” have nothing to do with genre and everything to do with recognition. I don’t believe in awards for comedy… when you focus on deflating authority, you shouldn’t expect to be raised up just as high. But the image problem that drives great talents like Gervais to “quit” comedy makes me question that belief.

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Posted by anon on 08/03  at  02:24 AM

Here! Here!

Posted by Michael Gerber on 08/03  at  04:22 PM

Nice post as always, Todd. Two quick thoughts:

First, in my experience, comedy writers have just as great a need for approval as performers do, but for whatever reason are willing to forgo the personal, immediate aspects of the approval in favor of other things. For one thing, a writer isn’t trapped inside a persona. For another, it’s a way to be funny for money without having to “live” it 24/7, which is numbing and reductive. There are any number of reasons people become writers rather than performers, but I don’t think they crave approval any less.

Second, I don’t think it’s a lack of awards that makes successful comedians long to try other things. The beauty of making comedy is that you know when you succeed—but that singularity of reaction can get boring, I suspect. If I’m Ricky Gervais, and I’ve made you laugh 1,000 times, doesn’t it make sense that I’d want to see if I could make you cry?

Everybody who’s good at what they do wants to be respected for it—but as far as civilians are concerned “taking someone seriously for comedy” just doesn’t compute. Comedy geeks such as ourselves can explain and explain what’s going on, why it’s just as difficult as serious stuff, but there’s a resistence there which, after the first couple of decades, is maddening. Since that’s not likely to change, I say that comedy folk should be the first to applaud when one of their number steps out and tries something new. As much as we might be disappointed as fans, if we care about the performer as an artist and a person (and I hope we do), we should give him/her props for pushing the boundaries of their talent.

And this is coming from a man who thinks Woody’s early, funny movies were better. So I hear ya. The comedy heart wants what it wants, but artists change—the best ones, anyway. Expanding into drama will only make Ricky Gervais’ comedy richer, when he returns to it. And once comedy’s in you, it doesn’t leave. 

Keep up the good work!

Todd Jackson
Posted by Todd Jackson on 08/03  at  06:23 PM


Good points on the approval front for writers. Everybody wants approval, but it seems to be that comedy writers sometimes revel in the pissing people off parts of the job - which is a form of approval if you think about it.

I agree on the singularity of reaction point as well. It put me in the mind of Michael O’Donoghue’s quote about laughter just being one reaction to a joke. To my mind, Gervais was getting more than one with his bits in at least the Office. There was the cringe factor. And from me, there was yelling at David Brent, “You’re an asshole!” There’s a wide range of emotions and reactions to be had from the humor in the Office.

I agree on the props - I’m down for anything Gervais creates. I just don’t want him to diminish what he’s already done (which I don’t think he means to do, it just happens when you’re trying to describe drama vs. comedy in this age).

As to changing civlians minds on respecting comedy. Well, here we are… trying.

Posted by Michael Gerber on 08/03  at  08:34 PM

Funny you should bring up Michael O’Donoghue, because I think a lot of his rep rests on comedy writers’ desire to be taken seriously. With his emphasis on persona, and his seeming disdain towards making people laugh, he was bound to be an attractive figure to the writers that came after. O’Donoghue’s dictum wrests control of what’s funny away from the audience and gives it to the writer, and what comedy writer hasn’t resented the audience?

Unfortunately, I think most people who consider themselves heirs to MO’D have all of his faults (nihilism, misanthropy, sadism, and disdain for the audience) without many of his virtues (a truly unique voice, a decent ear, a craftsman’s touch). MO’D made the comedy world safe for unprocessed rage, and that’s been a mixed bag, to say the least. He may be liberating to us, but as people say about James Joyce, his artistic approach has proven to be a dead-end.

But the worst thing about the whole “laughter is only one reaction” gambit is how it is a capitulation to the belief that 1) funny equals unworthy; and 2) people are idiots, and only a special few are *really* in on the joke. IMHO, those are both cop-outs, barriers to creating really fine comic material, and MO’Ds acceptance of them limited his growth as a writer. He is a major talent whose temperment doomed him to minor status, because after that initial blast at NatLamp and SNL, he had nothing more to say. I mean no disrespect, of course—it’s just that I recently read the entirety of NatLamp from 1970-74, and was shocked at how quickly MO’D stopped growing, and hardened into a persona. It’s a shame.

Posted by Jack on 08/04  at  05:53 PM

I think the writer/performer issue is really based on the innate skill has in conveying their ideas.  Good at conveying thoughts/ideas with your body/face? You’re a performer! Better at conveying those thoughts via writing?  You are a writer.  In some cases the skills overlap.  But more often than not, you are either one type or another.

And I don’t think it has much to do with being onstage or not.  Egos are big everywhere in the business.  And writers are a bit more passive/agressive in their expression of egos…  But make no doubt, it’s still there.

What I do think it comes down to is audience acceptance.  If you think you can perform on stage and you do perform and you do connect, then you have the potential to make a career of that.  But if you perform and bomb miserably, the only ego issue involved is the fact your performance will drag your ego down like a dead weight.

As far as comedians wanting to be taken seriously, I completely agree.  Except I don’t think comedy will ever be taken seriously.  Just look at burlesque for a tangetal example.  While there are artists in the field who try to make burlesque more than just a striptease, it still comes down to looking at cute girls getting semi-naked.  Ditto with comedy.  Respect and comedy have nothing to do with one another at the most basic level.  And while there is a great foundation of thought and intelllect behind some of the best comedy, it’s still an art that focuses on someone getting hurt and the audience laughing at them.  And at the core of things, there’s no way respect comes out of that.

I think the best that can be hoped for is comedic performers themselves be seen as being multi-talented.  I think Steve Martin the “The Spanish Prisoner”, Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” and Mary Lynn Rajskub in “24” as examples of comedy performers getting respect for themselves.  But sadly in all three cases, those performers had to be off the public radar long enough—or not on the radar at all—to make the “transition”.

It’s not that a comedic actor can suddenly become a respected dramatic performer.  It’s more like they need to fall into career limbo.  And then suddenly revive themselves in a way that makes people take notice and then also appreciate what they did in the past.

Posted by seamus on 08/09  at  03:26 PM

These are all excellent points.

It’s especially interesting to consider Ricky Gervais as a man who wants to transition to drama, because what made David Brent funny was how he failed at just that. Brent thought he was some kind of brilliant comedic entertainer, but the show was the funniest when he tried to be taken seriously. I hope that Gervais fares better than Brent.

Posted by Mike on 08/17  at  11:04 PM

I agree, The Office is hands-down the best TV comedy in the last decade, and in terms of just sit-com, maybe ever.

Unfortunately it was so good,  I think Gervais will have a near-impossible time convincing audiences that he’s really not David Brent-esque in every role.  In order for that to work, Merchant & Gervais’ first venture into drama will have to be top-notch—or to extend the example, a Sopranos-level of writing and acting.  Thankfully, I think they’re quite capable of that.

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