The sad clowns of Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais might be the most misunderstood man in showbiz. Yes, he’s snarky, his wit is often savage and his original British TV creation The Office took mockumentary delight in making viewers squirm.  But Gervais is not the heartless bastard he seems.

Gervais’s Office character, David Brent, was the worst middle manager in TV history, an attention-craving, ambitious screw-up whose whinnying laugh, nervous sidelong glances into the camera and false bravado barely hid his bitterness towards those climbing the ladder ahead of him. Brent practically reeked of flop sweat and desperation; here was a man who knew he was at the fraying end of a dream, and his downfall was designed to discomfit the viewer as much as possible. There was voyeuristic pleasure in watching the self- delusional Brent implode in slow motion, heroically manage to retain an atom of confidence, and make the same mistakes again. But you pitied him as much as you were glad not to be him. Brent was the essence of a tragicomic hero. I never thought it would be possible to be moved to tears by watching a man dressed in an emu costume beg for his job back,  but that’s the genius of Gervais. He wins you over with comic worlds that seem designed for viewing from behind the modern comforts of irony and cynicism. But then he knocks you off guard when a character at whom you’ve had such fun laughing reveals himself to be a human being after all, and one in terrible emotional pain. The hardened comedic shell of The Office is like the Trojan Horse that delivers the sneak payload of pathos.

But how many times can the ol’ Trojan Horse trick work?  Many, as Gervais demonstrated again in his HBO series Extras (like The Office, created with Stephen Merchant),  and his feature film (written and directed with Matthew Robinson) The Invention of Lying,  a charming comic parable about an Everyman who introduces the concept of fiction into an innocent alternative universe where people are only aware of truth and honesty. Gervais’s Lying character is received as a Moses/Jesus figure and inadvertently creates “religion” when he tells the world’s first lie;  he’s eventually hounded into delivering a sort of “Ten Commandments” scrawled on two pizza box lids, advice he makes up on the spot about being nice to people and not killing anybody.

Lying may look like a story about the discovery of faith, but it really is about something else. Gervais is an atheist, and the message of the movie is that the capacity for treating others with kindness and generosity has nothing to do with being handed a tablet from a booming authority figure in the sky, it is innately within us. Gervais’s real-life Twitter arguments with believers are gems of logic:  when one critic argues that without the reward of “Heaven”, there would be no incentive to be a good person, Gervais replies that if you are only being  a good person to get some kind of reward, then you are not, in fact, a good person.

In Gervais’s latest series, the earnest Derek (all seven episodes of which just premiered in the U.S. on Netflix), the Trojan Horse is that — there is no Trojan Horse. We’re not meant to laugh at Derek. He’s Gervais’s simple fool who is wiser than the rest of us. Derek, who appears to be mildly autistic, believes that “kindness is magic”.  He is captivated by animal videos on You Tube, wears his hair matted down over his forehead and scuttles around with his jaw always working and his hands cupped like squirrel paws.  Derek lived his entire life with his mum until she died (his father abandoned the family when he was young), and he now works as an aide at the Broad Hill nursing home. “I likes old people. They’re kind and they’re not going to be around forever, so be nice to them,” Derek explains to the camera (yes, this is another mockumentary).

It’s difficult at first to know what to make of a show that wears its heart on its sleeve as much as Derek does. I ended up willingly giving over my tears for a good jerking. Yes, it’s sentimental (danger: Coldplay montage ahead). But Gervais has made a deeply empathetic show that makes you really look at the forgotten people around us. Derek is as much an ensemble about a work family as was The Office. Derek is smitten with Hannah, the selfless manager of Broad Hill, played with gorgeous sympathy and spunk by Kerry Godliman. Away from work (which we never see in these episodes), he shares an apartment with the nursing home’s sad-sack handyman Dougie (Karl Pilkington, in a revelatory performance far from his usual role as Gervais’s dimwitted podcast foil). The third Stooge in this triumverate (come to think of it, Derek and Dougie appear to visit the same barbers as Moe and Larry) is unemployed misfit Kev (David Earl), who hangs around the nursing home boasting about his (nonexistant) sex life and (consensually) bedding willing residents. Kev’s schtick wears thin fast, but even he has his moments of pathos.

American sitcom audiences are used to seeing old age played for humiliation and laughs. While Derek admirably rejects this route, it’s strange that Gervais hasn’t given his elderly actors more to do than just sit quietly in the dayroom as a sort of napping, custard-eating sentient backdrop. Maybe this is intended to make a point about how we prefer the elderly to be invisible in our youth-worshipping society, but this is a choice that might not play well much beyond seven episodes.

Still, with an absence of irony, Gervais has made a graceful show about unsung caregivers, and about compassion as  an undervalued commodity. Hannah barely makes a living wage at her job, but she stays on because she loves the residents. More than that, she understands that many of her fragile charges would die if she didn’t fight the bean-counters angling to shut small, unthreatening homes like Broad Hill down in favor of larger, more economically viable institutions. She’s single and lonely, but Hannah can’t turn away;  if not her, then who? And that’s what the timeworn phrase “doing it out of the kindness of your heart” truly means.

Speaking of David Brent (insert mental image of Brent giving a sidelong glance toward the camera, quirking his mouth to mutter “Who’s he then?”, then gasping out a giggle), the former general manager of the Slough branch of Wernham-Hogg paper company is currently enjoying a resurgence on Gervais’s You Tube channel. Brent is back on the road doing what he loves best (so he claims), which is “repping”, as in, “sales repping”. His new employer is a bathroom product company. But it seems that Brent still itches to be in front of a camera.  He’s now starring on You Tube in a series of  instructional videos called Learn Guitar with David Brent.

You’re probably thinking, “Hang on, isn’t David Brent the worst possible person to teach anything?”  Why, yes, yes he is.  His guitar wisdom is shaky at best. “I’m not going to start by telling you all the chords. … And I’m not going to tell you what order they should be in. … It’s all about doing your own thing. It’s almost … it’s almost saying, ‘Don’t listen to me’ (nervous wheeze).”

True to form, whenever David Brent faces a camera and starts talking, self-aggrandizement, inadvertent revelations of his own inadequacy, and abject misery swiftly follow. Each five-to-seven minute “lesson” is an uneasy yet snortingly funny glimpse into the Brentian psyche, a place that I for one never tire of visiting. Gervais has written some brilliantly mediocre songs for the series, which is a trick in itself. They couldn’t be too good, because this is, after all David Brent. But they couldn’t be too horrible either, because Brent possesses that little bit of dangerous knowledge;  he’s a capable enough guitar player, but, as in everything Brent has ever done, he lacks the focus to do it at an exceptional level.  There’s a great joke in Episode One, where he tells us that we’ll never use half the chords out there:  “A, A minor, uh, you won’t need B, C, D, E, E minor, F, G. That is all you’ll need.”

His classic composition “Free Love Freeway,” from his gigging days with the ’80s band Foregone Conclusion, makes an appearance in Learn Guitar with David Brent.  There are also such new favorites as the stirring world peace anthem “Spaceman Came Down”,  a ballad about his home town, “Slough” (“It keeps the businesses of England great/ It’s got Europe’s biggest trading estate …”),  which leaves both singer and listener depressed, and the stomping weekend anthem, “Thank Fuck It’s Friday.”

And through it all, David Brent is far from being played out as a character; he just gets funnier and sadder and more indelible. I don’t know how Gervais does it, but long live David Brent.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013