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.