Ricky Gervais is a beloved comedian here in America and also in the U.K. for knowing just how to tiptoe across the line into offensive humor without being so offensive as to lose our love for him (see: The Office, Extras, his podcasts, his hosting/presenting riffs on awards shows).
In a proper stand-up set, however improper Gervais may set out to be, he still has some work to do if he wants to match the quality and longevity of his good friend Louis CK, let alone any of the other true greats in stand-up comedy. Gervais already certainly has adopted CK's casual fashion sense, taking to the stage in Chicago (taped this September) in a black V-neck T-shirt, loose-fitting black pants and sneakers.
The material covers virtually the same territory as "Science," which is what this fourth hour from Gervais is called in Britain and available on sale already there on DVD. And I'd seen much of it a year ago when Gervais played Carnegie Hall. But for HBO, he has called it "Out of England 2" (airing several times through the end of January 2011, and also on HBO On Demand) with big English and American flags onstage, and mascots paired up on a podium that also conceals a large can of Foster's beer for Gervais to sip from between bits.
Here's a clip of Gervais explaining himself, with snippets from the act:
As I'd observed in November 2009, Gervais clarified that he'd never tell an off-color joke about children to pedophiles. His philosophy on stand-up comedy: "There's a social contract between the two parties that neither of us are really like that."
But he also really likes to have a laugh at the idea of taking you into those sick places, usually accompanied or topped off by one of his not-yet-trademarked cackles.
And he is quick to acknowledge that he is fully aware of how success has changed him — thanking the audience for paying to see him during a recession that "really didn't affect me, if I'm being honest," then cackling. Or joking about how that volcanic ash cloud from Iceland had impacted travel plans around the world, forcing Gervais to hire a helicopter so he could make it to a gig in Dublin — "It cost me 12,000 pounds, just because I couldn't bear to let anyone down. Or take the ferry."
He also has gotten into better shape in 2010, and when the audience applauds him for losing 20 pounds, Gervais uses that opportunity to remind them he was only now finally doing what he should have been doing all along by eating less. That propels a chunk of material about fat people, and how Gervais is not making fun of the obese, but merely pointing out how and why people get fat.
In the Christmas spirit, Gervais also uses the holiday season to poke fun at the idea of charity (wondering how his present could be a goat for an African family in his name), rescue animals (giving a dying dog to his nieces and nephews), and tying it all up in a bow with a drinking-and-driving message that ends in a rape joke. If you saw Comedy Central's Night of Too Many Stars benefit, then you saw much of that bit. Roll it again!
For HBO, the DUI joke gets another saucy tag about the old bag he nearly killed but only raped. It's all shocking just for the sake of being shocking.
From that, he jumps to spiders?! It's a reflection on how the set itself could use a bit more structure, or at least some semblance of it. Not that you need a perfect segue, but still.
As I've noted before, covering and mocking the Biblical Old Testament story of Noah and the Ark isn't exactly revolutionary ground for stand-up comedy in the 21st century, though Gervais tries to take a new look at it through an old children's book version of it he received at Sunday School in 1965. Here's the full bit as told in "Science."
When Gervais closes by reading from another illustrated book — this time about homosexuality in animals — and making more gay sex jokes, it again feels like he's trying to hard for an easy taboo laugh.
Gervais is much more effective and powerful when using his satire to point out more truly shocking truths, such as when he took insurance claims that the volcanic ash cloud was "an act of God" to act out wondering which tragedies were and were not also acts of God.
There are moments of great comedy here. You just have to get past your own shock and awe of Gervais to see some of it.