This week, Ricky Gervais unveiled short trailers for his new, one-off comedy-drama, Derek, much to my excitement. I am a huge Gervais fan, and have enjoyed virtually everything he’s done from the Office to An Idiot Abroad. Gervais is, in my opinion, the greatest British comedian since John Cleese, and his substantial awards collection and him being chosen to host the Golden Globes three years running backs up my opinion. What makes him so great is his ability to take his comedy to the edge, makes us question ‘can he really say that?’, while also creating memorable, multi-dimensional characters that make us laugh and pull on our heart strings.
Whenever Gervais unveils a new project, there comes the inevitable backlash of those offended by the topic, blasting him for even dreaming of making a comedy from a sensitive subject. Derek, from what we’ve seen in the trailers, uses his trademark ‘mockumentary’ style to tell the story of a man who appears to be, shall we say, mentally challenged. He lives (or works?) in an old people’s home and has a gang of oddball friends, including Douglas, brilliantly portrayed by the bottomless comedy pit that is Karl Pilkington.
The title character is played by Gervais himself, a character he has used in stand-up routines and youtube skits previously, by crossing his eyes, donning an awful hairdo and putting on an overbite. On first glance, it could be easy to come to the conclusion that Gervais is making fun of people who have any sort of mental disability to gain a cheap laugh. I, however, do not believe this is the case.
Looking back at Ricky’s earlier television work, he has dealt with sensitive issues like this many times. The Office deals with what is deemed politically correct, we see David Brent desperately trying, and failing, to be politically correct. Extras has scenes where Andy Millman mocks a woman with cerebral palsy (thinking she’s drunk, unaware of her condition) and complains in a restaurant about the noise level of a boy with down’s syndrome (again, unaware of his condition). Life’s Too Short deals with how people react to little people in society. No where in any of these shows does Gervais outright mock these people, the humour comes from the situations that arise when someone is uncomfortable. It’s an instance that happens to most people in society, not quite knowing what is the appropriate way to react to a sensitive situation.
I’m sure Derek will have a similar theme. Gervais is not the kind of person who will discriminate and mock someone who is defenseless, and I’m sure an institution like Channel 4 would not dare broadcast something that simply pokes fun and those with disabilities.
Since the reveal of these trailers, many have questioned Gervais’ morals here, perhaps going too far. The point I want to make in this post is not simply to show how much I love Ricky Gervais, but to address the issue of what is right and wrong when it comes to comedy. I believe that a joke can be made about anything. Now, I’m not encouraging things such as racism, sexism, or any other ‘ism’ for that matter (ism’s are not good, to quote Ferris Bueller), I’m simply saying that we should be able to make comedy out of anything, as long as it comes from the right place.
Comedy can come from a good or a bad place*. If you are simply making a joke to laugh AT someone, to pick on and belittle someone that cannot help who or what they are, then that is wrong. However, I firmly believe that making light of a situation can be the best way to deal with it, as long as you’re not discriminating. I believe everyone should be treated equally, therefore I think comedy should be equal. If we get to a point where we say ‘you cannot make a joke about that’, then surely we’re not being equal. Just as long as we’re not discriminating, singling anyone out unfairly. Back to Derek, sure, a man with mental disabilities is being used for comedy, but the short trailers clearly show that it is not just poking fun at him for being different, it is just a cultural context/background used to address things such as current society’s obsession with fame and wanting to be on telly (a theme prominent throughout Gervais’ TV and stand-up).
I’m saying all this before I’ve even seen the show, who knows, perhaps this will be the most disgusting piece of abuse ever put on television, but I can assure you it wont be. Comedy should be found in any context or situation, its what makes us human. As long as the comedy comes from a good place, and is not from someone who genuinely feels they are above someone. We are all equal, no matter what race, beliefs, abilities we may or may not have, therefore we should all have the right to make jokes, as long as we’re willing to take a joke back (i have gross feet and can’t dance, come at me, bro).
And remember, just because you’re offended, it doesn’t mean you’re right*.
*Some of the arguments I have made have been pulled directly from quotes from Ricky himself, I do not take credit for these, was purely using them for arguments sake. I was not expecting such a large response, and regrettably did not properly reference him. Apologies and thank you for your comments