How Ricky Gervais's Pop Star Past Explains the Spiralling Quality of his Comedy

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Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

After university, Ricky Gervais was the lead singer in a short-lived synth-pop duo called Seona Dancing.

They managed two singles in 1983: the first, ‘More to Lose’, peaked at 117 on the UK charts; the second got to number 79. ‘More to Lose’ became an enduring hit in the Philippines, but the group split in 1984.

Seona Dancing didn’t work out, but Gervais eventually did get to book those stadium tours. He’s been one of the truly massive live draws in comedy for nearly two decades now and SuperNature, a recent show which landed on Netflix this week, hit a lot of familiar buttons.

At the top of the show there’s an ironic moan about women. “Not all women, I mean the old-fashioned ones,” Gervais says. “The ones with wombs. Those fucking dinosaurs. I love the new women. They’re great, aren’t they? The new ones we’ve been seeing lately. The ones with beards and cocks." Touch tie, look to camera.

He argues that he’s attacking “trans activist ideology”. That trans people overwhelmingly think he’s being transphobic, and that the people rejoicing in the material include pretty committed transphobes, feels fairly conclusive. The approval of resting actor Laurence Fox – best known for playing second banana to a guy who used to play second banana to Inspector Morse, and for losing his deposit in last year’s London mayoral elections – might give him pause.

We’re already past the bit of the cycle where we talk about irony and comedy, and when the clips of George Carlin discussing ‘punching down’ and James Acaster’s bit about Gervais being a “brave little cis boy” do the rounds. Everyone entrenches their positions. His fans chalk up another victory for freedom of speech; everyone else points out that Gervais has been very average for some time. This will blow out, and then it’ll happen again.

There’s another way of looking at this public curdling of his persona though: Seona Dancing never really went away.

Photo credit: Nicholas Hunt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Nicholas Hunt - Getty Images

“I tried to become a pop star and failed miserably,” Gervais told The US Office’s Brian Baumgartner on his The Office Deep Dive podcast. “My mistake was wanting to be a pop star, and I should have wanted to be a songwriter.”

He’s always orbited musicians – there’s Bowie, obviously, but watch him recording ‘Freelove Freeway’ with Noel Gallagher and see how genuinely buzzing he is to be in a studio again. He did always want to be a musician, and now his career makes most sense not as that of a comedian-provocateur, but of a fading rock star.

After an epochal, still-revered first effort in The Office, there was the difficult second in the spiky, sour, but still rewarding Extras. He bought a massive house in Hampstead. He broke America as Golden Globes host. After a few duds, After Life was the ship-steadying collection of big band standards.

With his live work, Gervais finds himself in the kind of holding pattern that some bands find themselves in: not old enough to be heritage acts doing their seminal debut album in full, but not young enough to be anywhere near a Brit awards longlist. They’ve long been way too wealthy to write the kind of relatable stuff they did when they really, really wanted it. So he does what those bands do. He plays the hits.

In SuperNature you’ll find a lot of familiar material: stuff about trans people, dogs are better than humans, how irony works, how comedy works, things people have tweeted to him, things he has tweeted back to people, the word ‘cunt’, atheism, AIDS, I’m very wealthy, atheism again, predictions of a backlash. In his last show he did a routine about identifying as a chimp; this time, he’s identifying as a pram.

It’s not very good. It doesn’t really hang together as a show, just scraps of ideas and routines cobbled together with rote observations about going to the doctor, acting working class around builders and the differences between cats and dogs.

Perhaps he is, as David Brent once put it, performing how he wants to perform. But watching him now is a bit like seeing latter-day Oasis trudging around, still doing the big rooms and rolling out ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’, while adding new tunes that sound like the old tunes.

You know that underneath, it’s the same thing. A few glued-on synths didn’t distract from the fact they were still basically mixing the Sex Pistols with Slade. Gervais has no fresh ideas about any of the things he was doing material on 15 years ago. He has new targets. That’s not the same thing. His trans material feels a bit like Kings of Leon going tropical house.

And like those bands, there’s not much incentive for him to take any risks anymore. Like the Stones in the Eighties and Nineties, he can just keep rolling and take the gigantic paycheques.

We have been here before with Ricky Gervais, and no doubt when his next Netflix special Armageddon lands, we shall all be here again. He’s on the treadmill now, and he doesn’t have the choice of splitting up.

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