The Rise and Fall of Ricky Gervais

In comedy, reputation is everything and nothing. It’s something to be valued, earned as it is through endless nights of stand-up and well-crafted jokes, but also something to be surrendered at a moment’s notice for the simple pleasure of a laugh.

Ricky Gervais has a more complex relationship with the idea of reputation than many comedians. Most sitcoms have jokes that rely on mocking people’s reputations, but Gervais built an entire career around it. With his ground-breaking sitcom The Office, Gervais made mockumentary the defining sub-genre of the new millennium and created an icon in David Brent, a man who lived and died by his reputation.

Brent was a man who more than anything wanted to be loved and admired by those around him. He was a corporate middle-manager who desperately wanted to be a chilled-out entertainer. Yet it was that very desire that made him such a cringe-worthy character, so eager to be the center of attention that it immediately became impossible for anyone to like him. You could compare it to a Greek tragedy if it wasn’t also so hilarious.

As a comedy, The Office was built on the idea of causing offense. Brent would say something crass or politically incorrect — like this, or this, or this — and the audience would laugh because Brent made it OK to. He provided the distance between the joke and the viewer, meaning they weren’t laughing at it, they were laughing at him.

More importantly, he earned the viewer’s sympathy because we could tell that underneath all the bluster and posturing, his heart was in the right place, even if his words often weren’t. He was a man tormented by his need to be liked, not one making jokes to intentionally upset anyone.

Gervais followed The Office with Extras, his most underrated sitcom, following the hapless extra Andy Millman as he pursues his fame and fortune. It takes a very similar comedic approach to The Office, gleefully making life as awkward as possible for Andy and his best friend Maggie through a series of embarrassing faux pas.

If anything, the comedy is more merciless in Extras than The Office because Andy is a far more relatable lead than Brent. Both have a reliable tendency to put their foot in it, but whereas Brent only ever had himself to blame, Andy feels more like the victim of events conspiring against him, like countless other sitcom leads. He’s also far more aware of his own flaws, finally confronting his hunger for fame in this brilliant scene from the Christmas Special, comfortably the best thing Gervais has ever done:

Since then he’s returned to his trademark brand of awkward observational humor time and time again, with diminishing results. He’s written and directed two more TV sitcoms in Life’s Too Short and Derek, neither of which comes close to the brilliance of The Office or Extras.

Life’s Too Short offers the same kind of mockumentary of a flawed, ambitious entertainer that Gervais perfected elsewhere, the only difference being dwarf Warwick Davis as the lead. Derek is an openly less comedic prospect from the word go, but like all Gervais’s work it has a complex relationship with provocation and offense. Gervais courted controversy immediately with his performance as lead character Derek, a home-care worker who appeared to have learning disabilities or perhaps autism, an accusation which Gervais has firmly denied.

Derek is crucial amongst Gervais’s work as the moment where the responsibility for the offense caused onscreen shifts from fictional characters like David Brent or Andy Millman to Gervais himself. Derek is a saintly figure, defined by his motto that “kindness is magic,” and his purity almost feels like a dare to anyone thinking of criticizing him. Nevertheless, a massive question mark hangs over the whole program because of Gervais’s portrayal, souring his good intentions. He has said that he “wanted [Derek] to be like that so kindness can come along and trump everything,” but his performance feels a little manipulative, using Derek’s characterization as a get out of jail free card.

Gervais’s feature-length efforts (The Invention of Lying, Cemetery Junction, Special Correspondents) are forgettable compared to his serialized creations, but he has finally combined the two with David Brent: Life on the Road (now on Netflix in the U.S.), a film revisiting his most famous character’s attempt to launch a music career. Sadly, it’s a pale imitation of The Office’s brilliance.

The struggle for Gervais was always going to be how he developed Brent between eras, and his choice is to double down on the original’s tragicomic tone. When it comes to the comedy, Gervais turns the occasional revealing faux pas into a repetitive barrage of incompetence and racial insensitivity. His rapper sidekick Dom (the excellent Ben Bailey Smith) exists purely for Brent to point out his blackness, to the extent that you wonder whether Smith had to act much when he was pulling his fiftieth exasperated look to camera.

The biggest problem is that Gervais tries to give Brent — a character he clearly loves — the happy ending enjoyed by Tim and Dawn in The Office, despite never coming close to earning it. Fifteen minutes from the end, unprompted, half the cast suddenly start to feel sorry for Brent when really he thoroughly deserves their scorn. A colleague gets a dressing down for behavior nowhere near Brent’s level of idiocy. One character reveals her feelings for Brent when he’s spent the last 90 minutes ignoring her. We only like Brent because we’re in on the joke, so why on earth do they?

By revisiting his most beloved creation 13 years on, Gervais has only served to highlight how far his stock has fallen. He perfected the awkward, tragicomic mockumentary on his first try and since then he’s only been able to repeat the trick, with little evolution to his ideas. Reputation is everything to both Brent and Gervais, and after years of diminishing returns they’ve finally lost it.

Tom Bond looks exasperatedly at the camera in London.