Friday, July 22, 2005

Tate: 3 Gervais: 1

The most surprising thing about Extras, the new Ricky Gervais comedy, is that nobody has taken this as a subject before, given that writers and producers spend so much time amongst those people who spend their lives doing non-speaking parts. Maybe it wasn't done before because it was felt that it didn't have enough comic potential. That was probably an accurate judgement.

It was probably giving a hostage to fortune to have Ben Stiller say the line "Was that supposed to be funny?". I'm sure some newspaper critic today will have seized on that as a verdict on the programme. It's terribly easy to criticise a follow-up to a massive success but I can only be honest and say that it hardly made me laugh at all.
Using Hollywood stars as guests is wasted on me. I'd never seen Ben Stiller before and knew nothing about him so that may have reduced my enjoyment of the programme.
But I was also uneasy about the subject matter. Maybe I'm becoming over-sensitive but I thought that using the brutal murder of even a fictitious Bosnian woman as a peg for jokes was rather unpleasant.
Then there was the sequence about the man who had one leg shorter than the other. Doing a series of gags about his surgical shoe ("Can you get them in different styles?" "Do you have to buy a pair and throw one away?") seemed rather puerile to me. But, as we've seen before, Gervais loves jokes about disability. Personally, I'd rather leave such jokes to people with disabilities themselves. I knew a young chap in a wheelchair who, if he thought he was being patronised, would shout "I'm a cripple not a fucking cabbage!" That was a great line although I don't think he intended it to be funny.

It feels like sacrilege to say it but there's a certain similarity between Gervais's comic persona and Tony Hancock's comic persona. Like Hancock, Gervais always plays the same stupid, self-deluded, self-important character in every situation. The difference is that, despite his faults, the audience loved the Hancock character. There was a universality about him and often great pathos. And sometimes, like Victor Meldrew, Hancock was right in his ragings against a crazy world. None of this is true of Gervais who is just a prat, full stop. He's brilliant at making us cringe but that's a very joyless type of comedy that soon wears thin.

I laughed far more at the Catherine Tate Show, which followed Extras. This is a far more traditional genre of comedy, a series of sketches with a gallery of characters. What lifts it above most others is Tate's acting ability and some very good scripts.

I particularly like the foul-mouthed old grandmother. People who have only ever moved in polite middle-class circles may not realise that there are very elderly working class ladies to whom the 'F' word is no stronger than 'Good gracious'. I've certainly met quite a few.

So far as I know the Tate character has only ever been seen in her living room. But there's huge comic potential when such people attend family functions where the rest of the family have managed to climb the greasy pole of the class system and are wide open to embarrassment.

I once attended a 'top hat and tails' wedding to which an elderly uncle had been invited. He was a chronic alcoholic and looked as though he slept in the local park. Halfway through the wedding breakfast he staggered to his feet, undid his flies and was about to piss on the carpet. Two of the family sprinted from the top table, popped his penis back inside his trousers and carried him from the room. The lady next to me turned to me and said "This is gorgeous smoked salmon", as though nothing had happened.
It was the only wedding I've ever enjoyed.


At 3:28 PM, Blogger Wyndham said...

I'm with you on that assessment Willie. I found Extras funnier perhaps than you did but was uncomfortable watching it. One of the joys of The Office is that we could all empathise with the people trapped in that office together. But inviting your famous Hollywood mates to appear on your next show and you start distancing yourself from the rest of the human race, it's a sign of emerging megalomania, I think.

But Catherine Tate was marvellous -she's not only a funny comedian but a damned good actress.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Let's hope that Ms tate gets showered with BAFTAs. That will wipe the smirk off Ricky's face.

Just one qualification to what you say. Millions of people didn't like The Office and didn't 'get it'. The millions who have never worked in an office didn't relate to it as much as those of us who have.
I quite enjoyed it but the 'spoof doc' was hardly an original concept and had been done brilliantly before by people like Chris Langham.

At 4:53 PM, Blogger cello said...

I did smile a few times at 'Extras' and particularly enjoyed Ben Stiller's use of his box-office stats. But I've always been equivocal about Ricky G himself, even though I loved 'The Office'. I strongly suspect that David Brent was uncomfortably close to his own personality. Watching 'Politics' confirmed that - in fact I now think David Brent is pleasanter than Ricky Gervais. His arrogance overshadows his talent, whereas it's quite the opposite for the wonderful Chris Langham.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Matt said...

at the risk of merely parroting everybody else, I fully agree.

It took me a series (and being bed-ridden) to get in to the office so I might be judging Extras too soon, however I remember seeing Ricky Gervais as himself for the first time on Room 101 and thinking: hmmn, so David Brent really isn't much of an invention of a character. Extras seems even more like just Ricky Gervais, rather than a character.

But Catherine Tate: loved, loved, loved it. I did really enjoy her previous series, especially foul-mouthed Nan.

And I can already feel myself starting to use 'how very dare you' far too much.

At 11:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Hmmm didn't see either. But, as someone who has worked in that type of office all my life , I have to see I thought "The Office" was tedious.

"One trick pony" I think. Mr Gervais - whenever I have seen him since, is quite simply David Brent writ smaller (mostly - but if you heard his "joke" at Live8 you may thing larger).

Phoenix Nights - in my opinion was a better comedy series. Exquisitely observed and played to perfection.

Or is there a north/south thing going on here?

At 10:35 AM, Blogger JonnyB said...

Ditto everybody, especially the quotes around the word 'joke' above.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

That's pretty much unanimous, then.

steve, the other night I watched the first two episodes of Phoenix Nights for the zillionth time and cried with laughter. What a glorious character Ray Von was!
Yes, there was a slight north/south divide regarding Phoenix Nights and The Office, as I discovered from forums at that time. I'm a southerner although I did live in the north for a time so perhaps that made a difference.
I think you should feel better after watching a good comedy, almost as though you'd taken a drug. I get that effect from Dad's Army, Phoenix Nights and Green Wing but never from Gervais's stuff.


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