I'm mad at Ricky Gervais for a lot of things: for the monstrously dehumanizing way he talks about fat people; for lending his voice to the myopic throng railing against "political correctness"; and, most recently, for implying that Jennifer Lawrence—along with countless other women—is complicit in her own sexual victimization, because she chose to take photos of her body in the (apparently illusory) privacy of home.
But none of his stances are remarkable—I hear them daily from barely pubescent boys on Twitter. More than anything, I'm mad at Ricky Gervais for taking Ricky Gervais away from me.
I was in college in Los Angeles—still shy, ungainly, unsettled—when the British Office came out. I remember watching it for the first time, hunched over my ancient laptop in my mouse-infested room in my black-widow-infested house, and thinking, "I never knew." I'd been a comedy-obsessive all my life, but I was young. It never clicked before. I never knew that comedy could be so perfect and distilled. So artful. I'd never put it together that if you make a piece of writing very, very funny you can take it very, very dark. The power of humor to manipulate the audience's thinking, to make surgically precise points, and the responsibility that goes along with that—the responsibility to always watch where you're punching—I learned that from the British Office.
Ricky Gervais taught me that the best comedy is humane.
So it's difficult to understand how the person who wrote this scene:
"You look at the paper, you see a picture of Lindsay Lohan getting out of a car, and the headline is 'Cover Up, Lindsay, We Can See Your Knickers.' Of course you can see her knickers—your photographer is lying in the road pointing his camera up her dress to see her knickers. You're literally the gutter press."
...could, just a few years later, Tweet this:
In case you missed his hastily deleted tweet, here is Ricky Gervais blaming the violation of a woman's body on her. pic.twitter.com/Uck6krEGVd
— Emily Reynolds (@rey_z) September 1, 2014
And then double down on it with such a bad-faith, childish lack of insight:
Dear easily offended people, don't be. Hope that helps. Have a great day :)
Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) September 1, 2014
Of course the hackers are 100% to blame but you can still makes jokes about it. Jokes don't portray your true serious feelings on a subject
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) September 1, 2014
There was, of course, no "joke" in Gervais's original tweet, and he knows that. Ricky Gervais doesn't get to use the lazy obfuscation, native to such Twitter kerfuffles, that he doesn't understand what a joke is. Any misunderstanding of jokes is willful on his part. It's the downside of mastery.
People who care about women's privacy and safety aren't "easily offended"—we just care about women's privacy and safety. This is tedious, textbook victim-blaming—leaping at a chance to tell women we're not working hard enough to avoid sexual exploitation instead of telling men, "Hey, don't sexually violate women."
And Ricky, you know that this society is structurally engineered to exploit women. I know you know, because you told me in that monologue. You informed my understanding of the sick, invasive (and gendered) perils of celebrity. A photographer crawling up Lindsay Lohan's skirt and then society telling her to "cover up"—that is precisely the same as a thief forcibly invading Jennifer Lawrence's private life and then society scolding her for not being private enough. So why did you say it?
How did the person with this much empathy for this fat woman:
"I don't think there's enough stigma. With all the political correctness now, and the fact that food is so refined, there's no stigma any more. I laugh about being fat but I should be ashamed. I should walk down the street and have people shouting 'Fatty'.
..."In supermarkets, the really fattening stuff should be behind a really thin door.
"Shops should be full of salads but if you want to get to the pies and cakes, you've got to crawl through a little tube."
I heard someone on the radio once say that they were tired of the prejudice aimed at the overweight. They said something like "you're not allowed to make fun of gay people, so why are you allowed to make fun of fat people? It's the same thing."
It's not the same thing though, is it? Gay people are born that way. They didn't work at becoming gay. Fat people became fat because they would rather be that way than stop eating so much. They had to eat and eat to get fat. Then, when they were fat they had to keep up the eating to stay fat.
"If there's a woman in leggings, eating chips with a fag in her mouth, sterilise her."
David Brent is not the hero of that scene. He treats that woman like her very existence is an affront, and her presuming to be his equal is hubris—he treats her, in fact, the way that society trains us to treat women like her. And it's Gervais's writing (and perhaps more significantly, I'm beginning to suspect, Stephen Merchant's) that positions us, the audience, in her corner. He engineered that moment of realization. If you've ever treated a fat woman with disgust and disdain, if you've ever reduced her to a single dimension, if you've ever scoffed at her sexuality, suddenly you're David Brent. Oh.
That kind of manipulation is what comedy does best. It's what makes comedy important. If you want to talk about "releasing tension" and "laughing at the horrors of life," this is it. Using comedy to cope with tragedy means mocking the systems that victimize people—not the victims themselves.
Ricky, I know that you hated being fat. But how could you write so eloquently about self-hatred and the ways it poisons our interactions in the world, and not see yourself falling into the same tropes you built a career out of lampooning?
How could the person who's written scene after excruciating scene like this:
...bang the "political correctness" drum without embarrassment, and stand behind the slur "Mong" (short for Mongoloid) with such shallow defensiveness?
"Just to clarify for uptight people stuck in the past. The word Mong means Downs syndrome about as much as the word Gay means happy. ie I never use the word Mong to mean anything to do with Downs Syndrome. Just like I never use the word c— to mean female genitalia."
David Brent won't tell the "black man's cock" joke in front of a black person because Ricky Gervais knows that the dehumanization of black people is part of a system of oppression. Brent might not know that (he almost certainly doesn't—his discomfort is selfish), but Gervais knows it. And in that moment—and, particularly, in the subsequent moment when Brent's black employee says that he gets and likes the joke, and a relieved Brent holds him up as one of the good ones—Gervais disembowels white hypocrisy, white guilt, and the cavalier blindness with which white people wield the historic trauma of others.
Being cognizant of and careful with the historic trauma of others is what "political correctness" means. It means that the powerful should never attack the disempowered—not because it "offends" them or hurts their "feelings," but because it perpetuates toxic, oppressive systems. Or, in plainer language, because it makes people's lives worse. In tangible ways. For generations.
Women are told they're responsible for preventing their own sexual assaults. So when teenage girls are raped, we ask what they were wearing. We force them out of school. We worry about their rapists' bright futures.
Disabled people are reduced to punchlines by the same public that turns a blind eye to their abuse, poverty, and incarceration.
Fatness correlates, often, with poverty. Fat people are less likely to be hired and earn less money. Male jurors are more likely to find fat women guilty. Fat people face cruelty and stigma from their doctors, if they seek out (and can afford) medical care at all.
Having once been a slightly overweight white male millionaire does not give you the insight required to speak with authority and flippancy on the complexities of body size and the effects of anti-fat stigma. Or race, or disability, or rape, for that matter. In fact, it makes you look fucking ridiculous. This just in: New Millionaire Discovers Millionaires Were Right All Along.
From that same Extras monologue:
"You can't wash your hands of this. You can't keep going, 'Oh, it's exploitation but it's what the public want.' No...The Victorian freak show never went away. Now it's called Big Brother or X Factor, where in the preliminary rounds we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multi-millionaires."
You are the multi-millionaire now, Ricky. I don't understand why you don't understand.
But it happens in any medium. Our heroes age, their priorities change, their thinking loses its elasticity—and we lose ours too, as fans. I don't tolerate intolerance anymore. When I was younger, when a comedian I loved said something that set off alarm bells for me, I'd think: it must be okay, because he says it's okay, and I trust him. I'd tell myself: there must be a secret contract I don't know about—where women, or gay people, or disabled people, or black people agreed that it's cool, that this is how we joke. But that's not true, of course. There is no contract. And it is a much bolder comedic statement to say so—to mock the powerful and stand up for marginalized groups—than it is to conduct your career with all the nuance of a frantically rationalizing 19-year-old fan.
I'm sure this seems silly. It's "just comedy." Who gives a fuck about Ricky Gervais? Well, I have vitally, painfully important emotional connections to certain pieces of music and literature, but there's just something about comedy, man. If you really need it, the things you love the most get inside of you. They fill holes. There were shitty periods of my life—years long—when I couldn't fall asleep without old episodes of Ricky and Steve's XFM radio show playing. And, later, the podcasts. Honestly, when I called Anthony Cumia a white supremacist on Twitter (which he is, by the way) and thousands of his fans descended, frothing, to call me a fat, unrapeable cunt, I understood. Those people need that radio show, as odious as it is. It's a home. I've been there.
I wish I could still listen to those podcasts. I wish I could still follow Ricky Gervais on Twitter. I wish I could bring myself to watch Derek (kind of). I mourn that loss. But if there's one thing I took away from the Office and Extras, it's the importance of never losing sight of people's humanity. Even David Brent, the irredeemable, is redeemed, and I always took that as a clarion call for empathy, a challenge to see people more deeply. I hold the media I consume to a higher standard now, because of Ricky Gervais.
But maybe I didn't get it. Maybe I never got it. David fucking Brent deserves compassion but impoverished fat people don't? Disabled people don't? Women don't? Celebrities who had their privacy violated don't? Empathy applied only to certain groups isn't empathy at all. It's cruelty.
If Stewart Lee ever breaks my heart like this, I'm throwing myself into the sea.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.