From Ricky Gervais to TikTok: why politically incorrect comedy is back in style

Ricky Gervais performing his hit Netflix comedy special Armageddon
Ricky Gervais performing his hit Netflix comedy special Armageddon - Netflix

Ricky Gervais’s last Netflix special Supernature wound up being one of the streaming service’s most watched stand-up shows of the past year, a success spurred, in no small part, as the unrufflable braggart has noted himself, by the howls of protest that greeted it for alleged transphobia.

Though viewing figures for Armageddon, this year’s live-show capture, will emerge in dribs and drabs, Gervais can approach the New Year confident that he’s going to lead the pack again. At the time of writing his third ‘exclusive’ had made it into Netflix’s Top 10 most-watched shows.

Though some critics have been dismissive, Armageddon did a roaring trade live (at the Hollywood Bowl, it broke the record for the highest gross for a stand-up performance). And there was a useful fillip of controversy ahead of the Christmas Day Netflix release. A petition was launched to demand the removal of material about critically ill children and the Make-A-Wish Foundation (“Why didn’t you wish to get better?”).

A backlash can’t hurt viewing figures: Jimmy Carr became a Netflix cause celebre with His Dark Material, which contains consciously unacceptable, cancellation-inviting material about the unstated “positives” of the Holocaust (“The thousands of Gypsies killed…”).

Gervais’ set is an outrage-baiting carousel of jokes about the weak and defenceless – here a paedophilia gag, there one about Alzheimer’s, with knowingly callous routines about a disabled toddler, a child needing a motorised wheelchair and an African baby with Aids (“Ha, ‘baby with Aids’. I know that it’s funny, I just need to work out why,” he deadpans, presenting this as still work-in-progress at the time of recording).

The star duly weaves in comments about the fictionality of his targets, and his persona, and rounds off with the sermonising: “I know in the real world… you get in trouble. People tell you off for saying certain things, or thinking certain things or even laughing at certain things. Some of you take it to heart, you think “Am I a bad person?”. That’s exactly what humour is for – to laugh at bad s___, to get us through it. It’s good to laugh at dark things…” He’s like some kind of uncaped crusader against the worst of ‘woke’, too. “If woke means being a puritanical authoritarian bully who gets people fired for an honest opinion or even a fact, then no, I’m not woke. F___ that!” He gets a roar of audience approval for that.

You’ll hear similar statements – and blunter ones – from other like-minded, dark-humoured comics – “It’s a joke!”, Frankie Boyle almost wearily reiterated on his recent tour Lap of Shame. The freedom of speech rationale for such shock-fare isn’t massively sophisticated. Some will say that Gervais sullies the validity of his cause by grubbing for gags that seem barely to have evolved from playground taunts. Others that the idea he’s risking something by saying the unsayable, when he’s plainly able to exercise his freedom to do so, makes the whole enterprise hollow. Twitter is full of people calling Gervais a comedy dinosaur – a modern-day Bernard Manning, no less.

Whatever the debate that rages about the intellectual structure of his shtick and the particular lines that he crosses, the idea that Gervais’s politically incorrect act is out of step with the times is actually wide of the mark

Though four years from UK retirement age, Gervais is down with the kids, or at least Gen Z (those in their teens and twenties). He has some 874k followers on TikTok (Carr, king of the easily consumed emetic soundbite, now has over a million). And if you’re minded that warped way, the social media giant will inundate you with ‘sick jokes’, as if the world and his mate (and it seems to be men here) are piling into the fray (sample taboo groaners include - “What do you call an autistic kid with a gun?.. Special forces”/ “Why is there air conditioning in hospitals? To keep the vegetables cool and fresh”). It’s as though the alternative comedy revolution, resisting Seventies prejudices and bigotry, never happened.

The American poster-boy for the new old-school carry-on is Matt Rife, 28, who recruited an army of admirers on TikTok before heading for the big time on Netflix – his first special Natural Selection provoking uproar in November. The offending opener concerned a hostess in a Baltimore restaurant with an off-putting black eye. His companion wondered why she was working out front, not the kitchen. “Yeah,” he recalls joking, “but I feel like if she could cook, she wouldn’t have that black eye.”

Cue a chorus of disapproval about Rife’s trivialising of domestic violence – and his sexism. “I would f___ a grandma in a heart-beat,” runs another line from the wholesome Ohioan. “F___ being somebody’s first – being somebody’s last, that’s a blast...” Riff doesn’t seem to care who he upsets: “You can’t cancel me. I’m not your gym membership,” he sneers.

Some of this material is so regressive that Rife – rather than Gervais – invites comparisons with Bernard Manning, who could do domestic violence gags in his sleep. “I used to be fat like that,” he jibed at one male audience-member in a recorded show before his death in 2007. “If I can do it [exercise], anyone can. It’s only will-power. Up in the morning, punch the bag about. Then she gets up, makes a cup of tea.” Manning became a byword for unreconstructed chauvinism, casual racism and anti-minority mindsets. Now his dead-behind-the-eyes shtick has been reincarnated in a youthful twinkle.

Earlier this year I caught a Manchester show by Roy Chubby Brown, a peddler of political incorrectness so unfiltered he makes Gervais look saintly. One gag, complaining about the price of gas, ran: “If it was this price in 1945, we’d have six million more f______ Jews walking around.”

There’s something illicit-feeling about a Chubby Brown gig – he has been cancelled by several venues in recent years – but what might have a clandestine quality in real life is becoming almost mainstream online.

The 36-year-old US comic Adam Friedland has a lucrative fanbase of thousands of subscribers for his unbridled chatter, along with Nick Mullen, on The Adam Friedland Show podcast. The pair caused controversy in April when The 1975’s singer Matty Healy joined them to laugh at their imitated Chinese, Hawaiian and Japanese accents. Consider too the ableism, stereotyping and non-PC clowning that fellow American comic and YouTuber Brandon Rogers (who has 6.58 million followers on YouTube and 2.5m on TikTok) gets up to in his clips and skits, and it’s as if respect and self-restraint are being consigned to the dustbin of history.

It’s tempting to extrapolate that today’s youth – reportedly more stressed and afflicted by mental health issues than their predecessors, according to a recent report in The Economist – are becoming very bored of progressive idealism. Especially men; a recent Change Research survey in America, shared by Teen Vogue, found young men were more likely to identify as conservative than their female counterparts. Much like the transgressive smoking renaissance, perhaps this generation’s newfound love of old-school jokes is simply a case of rebelling against the absurd overload of strictures imposed by their peers.

A cultural sea-change seems nigh. Though it won’t enter the annals as a comedy masterclass, Armageddon might well mark the moment when wokery got given its marching orders.