May 27, 2022

The curse of the literal-minded strikes again. This time it’s Ricky Gervais’s new stand-up special SuperNature which has sent the congenitally humourless into conniptions. Predictably, Pink News led the charge with a report that disapprovingly quotes the most offending lines. The effect is not dissimilar to Mary Whitehouse reading aloud the contents of an erotic novel; few are likely to be aroused.

“Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix special is nothing more than an anti-trans garbage fire,” bawls the headline. Apparently, “Gervais ‘jokes’ at the LGBTQ+ community’s expense throughout the show” and “spends much of the special punching down at trans people”. Of course, framing the word “jokes” in inverted commas is a form of criticism as criminally unoriginally as doing so with the word “comedian”, but when it comes to sophisticated analysis from Pink News, one’s expectations are invariably low.

Other activists have been hastily competing to see who can denounce the show in the most histrionic terms. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) issued a statement in which they refer to Gervais as a “so-called comedian” (another cliché) and claimed that SuperNature is “full of graphic, dangerous, anti-trans rants masquerading as jokes”, “anti-gay rhetoric” and assured us that Netflix would “be held accountable” for content that is “designed to incite hate or violence”.

None of these characterisations of the show is remotely close to the truth, but they do offer us an insight into how comedy is routinely misconstrued in the strange and moiling clamour of the culture wars. Far from “punching down”, Gervais exposes the increasingly unhinged ideology of the ruling class: the sanctification of gender identity.

We live in a time where the most prominent gay charity in the UK is promoting the homophobic myth that lesbians are the equivalent of racists if they exclude men from their dating pool. All major cultural, political, corporate and educational institutions (including the NHS, the BBC and the College of Policing) are in thrall to the new orthodoxy, while policymakers throughout the private and public sectors are urging employees to conform to the quasi-religious notion that we each have an innate gender identity. Are we seriously to believe that mocking this hugely powerful, regressive, and bullying movement is a form of “punching down”?

Gervais has been explicit in his support for equal rights for trans people. This ought to be a given, but such is the determination of these latter-day puritans to take jokes at face-value that it has become necessary for comedians to provide these caveats. “My target wasn’t trans folk,” Gervais explained, “but trans activist ideology. I’ve always confronted dogma that oppresses people and limits freedom of expression.”

Many of the criticisms levelled at Gervais have inevitably taken the form of straw men. One critic described Gervais’s “core demographic” as being the “sizeable brigade who believe ‘you can’t say anything anymore’”, even though finding anyone who sincerely makes this claim is a near-impossible task. Others have claimed that Gervais’s fans are opposed to free speech because they are responding to those who have taken issue with his special. But criticism is not the same as censorship; just as Gervais’s detractors are free to express their misgivings, so too are those who disagree. As Gervais puts it, “You can joke about whatever the fuck you like. And some people won’t like it and they will tell you they don’t like it. And then it’s up to you whether you give a fuck or not. And so on. It’s a good system.”

It’s true that a comedy show which does not stimulate laughter feels more like a lecture, and so it might be natural for those who watch Gervais without breaking a smile to reclassify it according to their tastes: a form of “hate speech”. But it takes quite a degree of narcissism to assume that one’s own view of what is and isn’t amusing should be the benchmark for all of humanity. To say “I don’t find that funny” is irrefutable and fair, given that humour is inherently subjective. To say “That’s not funny” is the most useless of criticisms because it is objectively false; anything can be funny to somebody.

More persuasive is the accusation that humour can be used as a form of bullying. Anyone who was ever bullied at school will be aware that the standard get-out clause is “it was only a joke!” I have seen a number of unscrupulous people libel others online, only to backtrack with the claim that they “were only joking”. Similarly, we are all aware of jokes that operate on the grim assumption that minority groups are inferior or ought to be treated with derision. Such jokes were popular many decades ago, but you would be hard-pushed to find a professional comedian who peddles such material today.

Yet activists are determined to interpret certain forms of comedy as manifestations of this outdated fashion for “punching down”. Largely, this originates in a lack of familiarity with the contemporary comedy circuit. We know this because whenever commentators claim that “Right-wing comedy” is racist, homophobic or sexist, they invariably cite examples of long-dead comics such as Bernard Manning.  But “Right-wing comedy” is a delicate shapeshifter; as a classification it beyond useless because it so often is applied indiscriminately; I was branded a “Right-wing comedian” in an article for Byline Times this week, even though my political views are largely more in accordance with the traditional Left.

Cenk Uygur, for example, claimed that Gervais was only making his jokes about gender identity to “get Right-wing love” and a “lucrative special”, as though Netflix’s commission was in any way dependent on the topics he chose to lampoon. But Gervais is not Right-wing, and it is laughable to suggest that he is attempting to woo a specific political demographic. Moreover, the most determined push-back against the pseudo-religion of gender identity has come from the Left; most notably feminists and gay activists who are rightly concerned about an ideology that is so explicitly hostile towards them.

Uygur’s attempt at mind-reading is par for the course. Much of the criticism levelled at Gervais, and subversive comedians more generally, tends to take the form of cod-psychological analysis. Musician Steve Albini launched into an extended variation on the genre, in which he explained that Gervais has morphed into his “boorish, selfish, unaware” comedy persona because “indulging the pretence eventually becomes so comfortable that it fuses with the person underneath”. What is actually happening is that Albini is making wild speculations about a total stranger’s artistic choices on the basis of his own misinterpretations.  In all such cases, the sheer certainty of these amateur psychoanalysts and mind-readers is striking.

Gervais is the latest in a long tradition of comedians successfully puncturing the pretensions of the powerful; he fulfils a similar role to the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, innocently observing that the emperor is naked when everyone else is too cowardly to do so. We have seen recently how many of our elected representatives are willing to nod along with the lie that the word “woman” cannot be satisfactorily defined. At times like these, we need the jester more than ever, for the jangling bells of his coxcomb to break the earnest silence of the court.