Sunday, 13 November 2011

RICKY'S FETISH

 
Just read Stewart Lee's splendidly baroque piece about Ricky Gervais's almost unbelievable new venture.

One of the more encouraging developments of the past year or so has been a gradually dawning, what-were-we-thinking realisation that noughties Brit comedy was an utterly morally bankrupt final travesty of the notion of "alternative comedy". If anyone still doubted that Little Britain was a sinisterly bigoted attack on the weak, after Come Fly With Me this view was no longer tenable. Similarly, the bizarre disability sadism of this "Derek Noakes" thing will probably make people look much less fondly on The Office and its oh-so-ironic wheelchair/midget/sexism gags.

The Gervais project that really riled me though, the point at which the whole edifice came tumbling down and I began to feel profoundly guilty for ever finding The Office funny, was this:


It's quite a short step from this squinting, buffoonish northerner to Down Syndrome sufferer Derek Noakes isn't it? Sometimes I think I get carried away with the north-south divide thing, but when I look at stuff like this, all doubts vanish. Comedy is supposed to dismantle hierarchy and suggest alternative worlds by targeting and undermining power. So what on earth is going on when supposedly alternative - but actually extremely wealthy and influential - comics choose the working class north as a primary target of satire? Oh yeah, what is required of satirists in an age of spiralling inequality, unimaginable elitism and barbarous wars is a lampooning of ethnic minorities, the disabled, and minimum wage workers in depressed former manufacturing towns. What kind of insane bourgeois fetish is this? And what does this cultural stuff say about the distribution of power in the UK more generally?
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Even 15 years ago Gervais's shtick would never have flown. For all its flaws, something like The Fast Show is a record of the notably less mean-spirited, more establishment-ridiculing, stereotype-inverting culture of pre-noughties alt-comedy:

12 comments:

Mr. W. Kasper said...

So many 90s/00s stars seem ever more hollow and washed-up now. The only thing shielding them from utter irrelevance is their obscene wealth really. That's it. Gervais' latest venture is as tired and desperate as Jay-Z's recent attempts to market his OWS fashion line. The audiences both take for granted really have ceased to give a shit. We simply don't care about Ricky's boring bigot mate or what rappers are eating caviar with Donald Trump.

That schtick wouldn't have flown 15 years ago, but it would have about 8-5 years ago. It was a very stillborn comedy trend, based on smug, repetitive borrowings from Larry David, Chris Morris and League of Gentlemen (and even Gervais' own Office, up to a point). How many TV comedians of the time shat on audience goodwill with back-slapping celeb love-ins, or endless sketches consisting of nothing but schoolyard catchphrases? The emptied bowels of the Blair era in a nutshell.

Alex Niven said...

Yeah couldn't agree more. As I say, it's heartening though that Gervais/Brand/Walliams+Lucas and co seem so out of date, and conversely, Stewart Lee seems to be at the forefront of a return to a radicalism of sorts.

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. Unlike just about everything else though, I'm not altogether convinced that comedy should be expected to meet basic standards of decency; and does comedy really have to be politically inflected and always work at dismantling hierarchies, or is it just more satisfying when it dovetails with our politics?
Stereotypes are as crucial (formally) as they are crass. But couldn't you also look at the shitty stereotypes in 'When The Whistle Blows', being part of a show within a show, as an attack on that very sort of programming? But yeah, that Derek Noakes character is fucking indefensible!

Anonymous said...

Btw, of course there's always a line to be drawn! But irony really complicates deciding where.

Alex Niven said...

I see what you're saying about When the Whistle Blows. Clearly, part of the shame about Gervais is that there's an element of something good in what he does -- a residue of alternative culture. Extras sort of has the right target in mind doesn't it, at times? It just seems to me that When the Whistle Blows spectacularly misjudges the cultural terrain of Britain in a way that's quite revealing about its author's prejudices. Wouldn't you have expected him to target something like My Family or The Inbetweeners or even Little Britain? These are the tawdry mainstream comedies of the day: upper-middle-class lifstyle tackiness rather than Victoria Wood-style kitchen sink.

I agree that a sort of institutionalised code of "decency" would be pernicious, but at the same time I would affirm that comedy always has to have some kind of ethical awareness waiting in the wings. And even on the level of humour itself, satire should always bear in mind the basic power relation of a given context: if you're mocking someone clearly less empowered than yourself, then quite aside from ethics, it'll probably just seem a bit sinister or sadistic rather than funny.

Gervais has moved from attacking corporate culture/the culture industry to making capital out of the disabled, and When the Whistle Blows seems quite obviously to me to be a key transition in that trajectory.

Anonymous said...

Yeah good point about The Inbetweeners. Satirising those more contemporary mainstream comedies really *would've* been brave, but possibly also alienating for his own massive audience. He likes a soft target. The fucking bully!

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, maybe alienating his own audience is what he's up to with Derek Noakes. I'm sure Gervais sees Derek not as a handicapped person but as the sort of trainspotting social moron likely to just ask for an autograph. That said, I don't think Gervais was famous when he first came up with Derek. A preemptive fame-anticipating strike at the weak then.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of The King of Comedy, by the way?

Alex Niven said...

I haven't seen it actually, what do you think?

Anonymous said...

I loved it, and think it has some similarities with 'Taxi Driver'. De Niro plays this guy who's utterly desperate to become someone else, exceptional and famous.

Admittedly the connection between this and your post is extremely flimsy on my part, sorry! I was just curious to see De Niro's Rupert Pupkin get compared to Derek Noakes, highlighting a few differences in portraying fame-aspiring 'outsiders'. And, lazily I admit, curious also to see the movie's socialist elements teased out. But no harm and no matter! If you like De Niro and Scorcese, it's one to watch some time and, hopefully, enjoy.

Alex Niven said...

Sounds great!

I hadn't thought of Taxi Driver etc. The Gervais thing seems to go further than just outsiderdom though: there's a sort of postmodern pretention that he's somehow cleverly challenging stereotypes and "raising awareness", Bono-style, but actually he's still basically profiting and deriving authority from the plight of the weak.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I totally agree with you there. I think I've finally burnt out on Gervais now, even his best stuff. I watched some of The Office again the other day and it was all very deflating somehow.