Midway through last year's Talking Funny, a round table discussion among some of the world's most famous stand-up comics, Ricky Gervais claims, "In comedy... I think, you have to be the underdog. There's no place for being above the audience." He asserts that he plays a character on stage, ironically presenting himself as better or more knowledgeable than the people in the seats.
Judging from some of Gervais' more recent television projects, the mastermind behind The Office and the similarly brilliant entertainment industry satire Extras has become so mired in self-satisfaction that any ironic distance between Gervais as performer and Gervais as character is all but lost. To put it another way, there exists a fundamental divide between what Gervais is doing and what he thinks he's doing. Which is a shame, because while his material can often still be very funny, it's a bit harder to laugh along with the school bully than it is with the class clown.
Much of Gervais' work is, by design, intertextual. In addition to his stand-up act, Gervais has played "himself" across a number of series, including warped travel program An Idiot Abroad and Life's Too Short, the Gervais and Stephen Merchant-scripted mockumentary starring Warwick Davis (also as himself). In each, "Ricky Gervais" is charged with berating and demeaning the central character to comedic effect, whether it's constantly thwarting Davis's attempts at a film comeback, or devising elaborate and unpleasant challenges for frequent Gervais/Merchant whipping boy Karl Pilkington on his travels around the world. Taken together with his acerbic Golden Globe appearances, Gervais emerges as a carefully curated persona whose position consistently rests above his audience. And his "character" has been so relentlessly presented that it's now almost completely insufferable.
It's a bit of a shame, then, that each project developed by Gervais and Merchant has been incredibly ambitious, and would work beautifully under the right circumstances. An Idiot Abroad boasts some of the finest travel photography on television, and outside his element, Pilkington comes across more as an everyman than as the uninformed dunce Gervais often insists he is. When traveling abroad, Pilkington (whose perspective on things is, admittedly, often hilariously stupid) is treated seriously, lending the series its greatest comedic weight. The show only suffers when Gervais is on screen (or heard via telephone), making the cheapest of jokes at Pilkington's expense, and, if his whinnying laugh is any evidence, finding them far funnier than the audience does. In Life's Too Short, the presence of Gervais is even less necessary -- his appearances cast a long shadow over the rest of the series, which, especially because of a fine, funny performance by Davis, is a reasonably well-crafted showbiz send-up. Even the jokes regarding Davis's height are surprisingly nuanced when they don't come straight from Gervais' mouth.
So The Ricky Gervais Show, the animated version of Gervais, Merchant and Pilkington's long-running podcast, should in theory be the most offensive entry in Gervais' recent oeuvre, considering it consists mostly of picking apart Pilkington's skewed worldview, to the satisfied laughs of Gervais and Merchant. While it might be intellectually uncomfortable to laugh at Gervais' authoritarian bullying of Pilkington, the show (which began its third season on HBO last week) remains, somehow, incredibly funny. Gervais, of course, became famous for crafting some of the least comfortable laughs on television, but it's a strange phenomenon to laugh at his jokes as some form of guilty pleasure.
That The Ricky Gervais Show works in spite of Gervais himself is a testament to the kind of vision that characterizes the best parts of Gervais' series. The animation is sharp, sort of ironically cute, and brings life to the trio's discussions, while the conversations themselves are far more focused and thematically coherent than in their original podcast versions. But perhaps more importantly, Pilkington has become imbued with a greater sense of agency as the series has gone on; he may be the target of the joke, but now he's self-confident enough to fight back.
Illustrating all of this in the season premiere is a brilliant comedic set piece involving one of Pilkington's goofier ideas for a movie premise: a convoluted idea for Mission: Impossible 7 that involves Tom Cruise's brain being unwittingly implanted into the head of a man named Bryan. A nicely crafted bit of animation casts Gervais and Merchant as a pair of 1970s-style studio executives as Pilkington makes his pitch. Proving that he is at the very least a good sport, Pilkington at one point, fully engrossed in the fiction, interrupts a cackling Gervais, barbing, "Are we going to finish this meeting or what?" It would serve Gervais well to allow himself to be undercut like this more often. He may be right that comedy works best for the underdog. It's just that he hasn't occupied that spot for a very long time.