Despite being in the midst of a Covid-addled stupor, I was able to watch Ricky Gervais’ new stand-up show when it was released on Christmas day. The show is taken from Gervais’ phenomenally successful international stand-up tour, and has been massively hyped by Netflix. The anticipation is so great that the inevitable disappointment should probably have been factored in well in advance.
Critics have expressed mixed opinions about Armageddon. Some have criticised Gervais for relying on tired stereotypes, offensive humour, and recycled material, calling it deeply problematic and not funny at all. Others have mentioned that Gervais is trapped between two ill-fitting styles and outclassed in both directions. Overall, the reception to Armageddon has been polarized, with some finding it disappointing and others acknowledging some funny moments.
The expectation is high when Gervais walks onto the stage, but then like a slow puncture on a bouncy castle, as the jokes fail to land, and the gaps between them are extended, the formerly rapturous audience falls silent. It’s as if they are waiting for a thunderbolt of wit to emerge from Gervais mouth that will overturn their accumulated perspectives on the meaning of life. The epiphany they crave doesn’t come.
Instead, Gervais delivers a set of rationalisations and excuses about why his form of humour should be accepted. For the most part, I like Gervais’s barbed and inverting forms of humour and analysis. Unfortunately, on this occasion, Gervais falls into the trap of telling his audience how funny things are, and not showing them in the jokes. Rather than performing a carefully selected discourse that uses mirth and irony, instead the audience and viewer are given a lecture.
Ricky Gervais has responded to criticism of his Armageddon show on Netflix by dismissing the critics as “faux” offended and “hecklers” who have no effect on him. He has also issued a content warning for the show, acknowledging that people are allowed to be offended, but stating that it will not stop him from doing what he loves.
The show covers a potentially ripe range of topics, including artificial intelligence, political correctness, family weddings, funerals, and the end of humanity. And at times, Gervais deploys his signature brand of sharp, often controversial humour, with his willingness to push boundaries, addressing subjects that some may find offensive or cringe-worthy.
Unfortunately, Gervais only lightly touches on each of his themes. Surely, there must be more he can say about climate change, robots, disability, free speech, global warming, the holocaust, and Elton John? Each should be a rich vein of incisive and comedic sensemaking? Disappointingly, as each topic is only mentioned in passing, the opportunity to dig deeper into the absurdities of how we deal with these matters is lost. This was more TED-Talk than comedy gig.
Given the media hype that Netflix has built-up to promote this show, most would know well in advance that Gervais addresses the travails of political correctness by incorporating jokes and commentary that supposedly challenge the concept and way of thinking itself. However, Gervais never seems to point at a worthy and deserving target to make his point.
Who are the Barons, Bishops and Dukes of today that need this inversion of status? The TV talk-show hosts, the corporate HR managers, the consultants, the policy advisors? Surely, there are better living targets to aim one’s ire and consternation at than people who post memes and comments on social media?
While some viewers may appreciate Gervais’ dark humour and insightful observations, others may find the content repetitive and predictable. I did. What’s worse, is that Gervais actually showcases how good he could be if the show’s spirit were curious and engaged, rather than macho and smug. He discusses the overuse of the word “fascist” and cultural appropriation, but the irony seems lost on himself.
Perhaps what is most disappointing, is that Gervais could easily be drawing from the depths of the English comedic tradition, that bridges the experiences of both the powerful and the general population. Instead, Gervais is tilting at imaginary windmills, the projections that haunt his social media feeds. Gervais is shadow-boxing with his own reflection and other people’s fantasies and projection’s on social media.
There are better observers of human nature, whose work stands the test of time. Gervais would be well advised to seek them out and learn from them.
“When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit
seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man
more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.
-As You Like It, Act 3, scene 3”