Ricky Gervais: Humanity Needs an Empathy Lesson

Ricky Gervais. Photo: Ray Burmiston/Netflix

I’ve got to hand it to Ricky Gervais: Despite having undergone a rare experimental procedure that made his already thin skin almost transparent, he looks great. In Humanity, his first stand-up special in seven years, Gervais is in high spirits as he elucidates a list of grievances against people who he’s never met and who don’t have a thousandth of his influence, joining his Netflix stablemate Dave Chappelle in lashing out against nonfans who, in the greater scheme of things, have no power over him.

After an opening 20 minutes of transphobic material directed mainly at Caitlyn Jenner (which, of course, Gervais takes great pains to insist is not transphobic at all, even as he imagines Jenner asking a doctor to remove her external genitalia) and at trans people generally (who he gleefully likens to humans wishing to be transformed into chimpanzees), he settles into a solid groove, in which he defends the decision to not have children. In so doing, he simultaneously makes both himself and the world into the butt of the joke, transforming himself into a Jack Benny–like caricature of pure, miserly selfishness — a junior Scrooge so cruel that he kicks a baby that he let die of neglect. (This is how Gervais seems to think the world sees him, but it might also be a comic’s exaggeration.) After that, there’s a solid stretch about fear of aging, where he mocks his own sagging physique, slowing metabolism, and distended testicles.

But here, as in the opening section, Gervais can’t make himself the butt of humor for long. He keeps drifting back toward personal grievances against unnamed, non-famous, non-powerful people who criticize his choice of targets or the quality of his jokes. He invariably shifts from outrageous, corrosive, and self-critical back to peevish and petty, compulsively looking for new ways to climb up on the giant cross he’s built in his mind and nail himself to it. It is, as they say, not a good look. It’s downright Trumpian.

The Jenner stuff is sparked by Gervais recalling the press and the public’s reaction to his 2016 stint hosting the Golden Globes, in which he referred to her as “Bruce,” and said that while she’d become “a role model for trans people everywhere … she didn’t do a lot for women drivers,” referencing Jenner’s 2015 car crash. Somebody on social media criticized Gervais then for “deadnaming” Jenner — i.e., using the name she went by before her transition — and Gervais makes a big show, in Humanity, of having learned something he didn’t know and feeling bad about acting from ignorance. But a few minutes later, he’s envisioning Jenner’s gender-reassignment surgery (which he imagines as just lopping it all off, as if with a hatchet), calling her “Bruce” and “him,” and doing that chimpanzee routine: “I’ll be legally a chimp,” he says. “I’ll be be properly chimped-up! I’ll be able to use chimp toilets!”

If Humanity is any indicator, Gervais has spent the last seven years hanging out on Twitter, baiting people and recoiling whenever they snap back, or even when they mildly reprimand or question him for having baited them. He tweeted and tweeted and tweeted, all while insisting that he didn’t care what anyone thought of his tweets, even as he made mental notes of specific people who quarreled with him online so he could single them out years later. He does this more than once in Humanity, building three whole bits around arguments he had with people who criticized him for making, respectively, a joke about rape, a joke about food allergies, and a joke about a “fundamentalist, creationist Christian” who reacted to his tweets about “science facts” with, “Your science won’t help you when Satan is raping your British ass.”

The routine that Gervais builds out of that last bit — envisioning himself in a South Park–ish scenario alongside a self-righteous Christian who’d have to be in Hell himself in order to witness Satan’s violation of Gervais — is superb, deriving all of its force from his decision to take the tweeter at his word and construct a ridiculous tableau. But the fact that the bit is inspired by his interaction with somebody who probably has a dozen followers, compared to Gervais’s 13 million, gives the whole thing a rather sour quality. The sourness intensifies when he laughs about how his Twitter followers dog-piled the man after he retweeted his remark: “Watch the fun, people piling on: ‘Ah, loser!’ And he’s fighting back, really witlessly, saying things like, ‘Go fuck your sister, you English faggot!’” It’s unseemly to be so thrilled by a victory that required no effort whatsoever. It’s like bragging that you beat a 5-year-old at basketball.

Giving strangers a blow-by-blow description of an argument you had on social media while making yourself seem like both the victim and the hero is one of the most boring things a human being can do — even more boring than launching into an unsolicited description of a dream you had. More boring than either is explaining the jokes you’ve just made, to try to convince people that they were dumb for not laughing. Gervais does that a lot in Humanity, too.

But let’s set all that aside for a moment and look at the professional victimology of Ricky Gervais and other major stand-up comics like Chappelle, because it reveals a lot about our culture.

Gervais devotes much of this special — which lasts about an hour and 20 minutes — to complaining that the world keeps telling him what he can and can’t say. He makes it sound as if hearing an opinion or a personal reaction to a comedian’s work (on Twitter, or in, say, a TV review) is the same experience as being fired or jailed by the government as retaliation for criticizing an official. In fact, it’s just a sign that the capitalist American system of expression is working about as well as can be expected, notwithstanding the fact that millionaire entertainers with Netflix deals will always get a bigger platform than yokels on Twitter — or, for that matter, the trans people who are actually singled out for demonization and discrimination by governments, and who endure unconscionable rates of harassment and violence as a result.

Nobody is denying a platform for Gervais, Chappelle, Chris Rock, or even Louis C.K. (who had a Netflix special last year, a few months before his career imploded). They’re free to say whatever they want during their routines, and Netflix is free to give them time and space in which to say it. What seems to infuriate these comedians, however, is that audiences can talk back more easily now and say, “I don’t like that,” or “I didn’t find that funny,” or “That seemed cruel to me.” What comedians like Gervais object to is being made to think about what they’ve said, and potentially feel regret or guilt over having made a poor choice of material or words. That their initial impulse is to feel anger and resentment at the person raising an objection is telling. (Though Chappelle has sometimes acknowledged — at least in his last couple specials — that he’s not really the victim.)

What these comedians are demanding is that we respect their feelings while they exercise their constitutionally safeguarded prerogative to hurt other people’s feelings. That’s not a level playing field. It’s the power dynamic preferred by a playground bully, in which all the discomfort flows in one direction: away from them. They aren’t really angry about “censorship,” but instead about being reminded that other people are as human as they are, even if they refuse to recognize them as such. As my friend Jay Smooth put it recently, “The only thing more tiresome than lazy punch-down humor is all the tortured sophistry trotted out in defense of it, whenever someone deigns to critique it.” The title Humanity is ironic in ways that Gervais didn’t realize: The title tells you what’s missing.

Ricky Gervais: Humanity Needs an Empathy Lesson