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Cringe Picasso Returns

With the resurrection of David Brent, Ricky Gervais still aims to displease

Getty Images
Getty Images

We join Ricky Gervais, Cringe Picasso, in the midst of yet another bruising Blue Period. He’s busy. Big TV star, less-big movie star, stand-up comedian, podcast pioneer, Twitter provocateur, children’s-book author, devout atheist, fervid animal-rights activist, acidic award-show host, and owner of the most distinctively jarring donkey-bray of a laugh in show business. He’s a renaissance man for the Dark Ages; respect the hustle, even as it confounds and offends you.

Oh, right: musician. He sings, too. Badly? No, not really, he’s fine, or at least expertly studio-buffed. Parodically, like “Weird Al”? It’s confusing. Get a load of this white-reggae jam called “Equality Street,” first introduced in 2013 and rereleased last week.

Perhaps you recall “Equality Street,” the song title, as a splendid little throwaway joke from The Office, the BBC’s excruciating, inexplicably winsome 2001 workplace tragicomedy that birthed Gervais’s needy empire. Gervais — who along with his buddy Stephen Merchant served as the show’s cocreator, -writer, and -director — starred as clueless nightmare paper-mill boss David Brent, laying the unstable groundwork for a 21st-century comedy ecosystem that often prefers a prolonged wince to a laugh. Running for two terse seasons and a grueling-but-with-a-happy-ending 2003 Christmas special, it remains arguably brilliant and inarguably bleak.

You’d think it would be easier to watch now, though, a decade and a half on, with far more operatic wince factories like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls, and Nathan for You waterskiing uncomfortably in its wake. But no. Please enjoy this near-climactic scene where David’s supervisor and rival grabs a pretty lady and does a cheery, elaborate office disco dance for charity, whereupon a jealous David forces everyone to watch him do his own desperate, solo, impromptu, a capella dance, flailing away as his mortified coworkers stop clapping and simply stare on in horror. Episodes of The Office are about a half-hour long and take me 90 minutes apiece to watch; if you can stomach the last 60 seconds of this clip without looking away, you deserve to be shot back into the deep-space nebula from whence you came.

Anyway, he’s back, in a full-length movie called David Brent: Life on the Road. Seriously. It’s in U.K. theaters now: See it tonight at East Dulwich Picturehouse or Dorking Halls. The old show had a mild running joke that Brent was an aspiring and catastrophically failed musician, quick to hijack a boring training seminar with an acoustic guitar and a peppy original tune called “Free Love Freeway,” or blow a fortune on a gauzy, simply purple remake of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” The film, then, appears to be That Joke, But Too Much. It’s 15 years later, he’s formed a band, they’re on tour, everyone hates him, disasters ensue, but uneasy redemption awaits. Reviews range from “Ricky Gervais hits rock bottom” to “agonising one-note comedy” (three stars!) to “better than The Office.”

Netflix will unleash this film upon America in 2017; in the meantime, you can stream the full soundtrack right now. (Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, wherever. This doesn’t exactly merit an exclusive.) It’s 20 tracks, clocking in at an hour-plus. And that, friends, is the weirdest part. Did the world need a full-length, high-production-value version of “Free Love Freeway,” or any version of “Equality Street” whatsoever? Full of Stones-y, sonically inoffensive pop-rock that’s eager to offend (look out for “Native American”) but unlikely to resonate, Life on the Road, the album, is not as bad as you fear, but that’s of no use. (His crack band includes the rapper Doc Brown, a.k.a. Ben Bailey Smith, a.k.a. Zadie Smith’s brother; also on board is the former drummer from Razorlight, for all you Anglophiles or scholars of Kirsten Dunst esoterica.) It just totters there, in the cheerless dead zone between bad on purpose and good on accident. I’ve listened to most of it: I’m saving “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds” for a special occasion, such as when I go deaf or am dead.

So we confront anew the eternal question: Is he having a laugh? Ricky Gervais is no more or less scrutable in 2016 than he was in 2002; everything he does deserves some of your attention and all of your skepticism. Few men are publicly thirstier; no man works harder to quench his thirst. So it’s worth interrogating this new, particularly bizarre impulse, even if it’s likewise true that if you don’t know him by now, you will never never never know him, and might be better off.

Gervais is quick to rebut accusations that he’s coasting here, or retreating to the profitable comfort of his most famous character. And he’s right: David Brent: Life on the Road is far from the easy way out. (He insists that it’s not part of the Office canon, so don’t bother hoping for cameos from Tim and Dawn, or even Gareth.) Whatever you think of Gervais, his post-fame choices are neither predictable nor safe nor strictly advisable.

The Office, of course, spawned a wildly popular and star-making 2005 NBC remake that ran for far longer (nine seasons) and tasted far sweeter; Gervais cashed in but mostly stayed out of it. He tried movies: Ghost Town was way too mawkish, The Invention of Lying way too preachy. (He played a character named “Dominic Badguy” in a Muppet movie: That one worked.) His TV projects have ranged from the minor-fame-skewering Extras to the dwarf-flaunting Life’s Too Short to the disastrous Derek, in which he played a mentally challenged nursing-home worker who was not, Gervais insisted, mentally challenged. (“A fictional doctor can’t come along and prove me wrong.”)

It got real ugly. It’s not uncommon. He’s rich and famous now, and will humblebrag at incredible length; he’s not beneath going the dreaded mom’s-basement route in dismissing his critics and haters. His real-life-mean-tweet approach to hosting the Golden Globes ruffled the right feathers, but nobody prefers him to Tina and Amy. And his more fervent personal interests — his commitment to atheism especially — have led him to some dark places.

But amid all that, there are highlights and viral sensations aplenty. Think Liam Neeson trying his hand at comedy on Life’s Too Short, or David Bowie belting out a chorus of “He’s a little fat man with a pug-nosed face” on Extras. (Bowie, a friend and admirer, was, and is, a frequent Gervais humblebrag topic.) But the Fatman’s most revealing post-Office moments tend to be quieter and even weirder. Back in pre-fame 2001, Gervais and Merchant started a radio show that soon morphed into a hugely popular podcast, where they’d prattle at length and terrorize an innocent civilian radio producer named Karl Pilkington, who gradually became the third point of a wildly unbalanced comedy triangle. (This is back before every single one of your clod ex-boyfriends got his own podcast.) Karl is a simple, eccentric, antisocial man, a beguiling mix of Egghead and Knucklehead; his two rich and famous friends hounded him mercilessly and launched his career.

This uneasy dynamic resulted in a silly animated HBO show (which I loved) and a live-inaction travel program called An Idiot Abroad, where a cackling Gervais forced the travel-averse and plainly uncomfortable Pilkington to visit various famous places and withstand various indignities. By now this is all a slightly cruel and colossally indulgent Russian nesting doll of inside jokes. But there is rare and abundant joy in the sight of Pilkington, dispatched to Mexico to take in the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, ditching the dry audio tour guide and dancing around instead to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Absurd, culturally haughty, and just slightly poignant, it’s the perfect Gervais punch line: It took way way way too long to set up, and can’t possibly have been worth all that time and effort and insult and injury, and yet somehow it still is. It’s priceless humor at enormous personal cost.

Finally, there’s Talking Funny, a fairly minor but deeply fascinating 2011 HBO special in which Gervais coproduces and quasi-hosts an all-star panel of stand-up-comedy superstars: Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and himself. Gervais has a modest and perfectly admirable sideline going as a working comic, but he doesn’t work even as the Ringo in that quartet. As they discuss their Craft, his thirst to belong, to leap several rungs up the ladder in a single bound, is palpable, and more discomfiting than anything The Office ever threw at you. At one point Louis C.K. recalls a no-name amateur comic who did a bit where he’d sing Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” but change the words to “Sittin’ on a cock ’cause I’m gay.” The other three guys — even Jerry Seinfeld! — concede that it’s deeply stupid but genuinely hilarious, leaving a legitimately offended Gervais to sputter and stomp all over their revelry, ranting about irony and sophistication. He can’t believe that joke gets over, especially among giants. “Why are you upset?” Louis finally asks him. “It’s just funny.”

This suggests, as his career often has, that Gervais takes too-stupid (or too-mean) jokes way too seriously. It’s hard to even plot David Brent: Life on the Road on that axis yet: The movie will inevitably drag on 60 minutes or more past its ideal length, an ocean of misery nonetheless worth traversing for that one thimbleful of joy if you’re a completist or a masochist, which in this guy’s case amounts to the same thing. The soundtrack is harder to figure. Didn’t Russell Brand already master this fake-oblivious form? Are you supposed to approach “Lonely Cowboy” or “Thank Fuck It’s Friday” as comedy music, or actual music? Does it matter? Like the old Rounders poker mantra, if you can’t tell who the joke’s on or even what the joke is, then it’s on you.

“Please don’t make me redundant,” David Brent begs of the overlords firing him, in his character’s most brutal and least guarded moment as The Office’s despair finally crests. There is no danger of redundancy here. But it’s the only danger you can safely exclude.