Ricky Gervais is the latest brave comedian to have experienced the horror of being “cancelled,” after his new special, SuperNature, dropped on Netflix, and sparked online backlash due to transphobic jokes.
In this context, “cancelled” means being paid millions of dollars by Netflix to make fun of a marginalized minority, then being criticized by strangers on the internet – when will the persecution against comedians end?
Watching Gervais cracking jokes about trans women being rapists and having penises, tittering like he’s pushing the envelope, instead of repeating Facebook-tier comments, reminded me of David Brent, protagonist of The Office – the original UK version.
Ricky Gervais’ The Office was the show that launched him to stardom, and still holds up today as a clever, original mockumentary, a show that skillfully incorporated the camera into the story, a tragicomic tale of a man who completely sabotages his own life through his desperate attempts to be perceived as funny.
David Brent is not “politically correct,” and is constantly cracking inappropriate jokes that make his coworkers feel uncomfortable. The show doesn’t frame David as a brave truth-teller, or his coworkers as humorless scolds; the running joke of the series is that David is hopelessly out of touch with today’s social norms, and is incapable of seeing himself the way he really is.
Gervais plays David Brent so perfectly, so precisely, capturing the excruciatingly awkward experience of working under a manager who believes they’re edgy and clever.
At the time, Gervais clearly understood how obnoxious, wannabe comedians behave; it’s strange to watch The Office now, because Gervais seems to have devolved into David Brent, albeit, a successful version who gets paid handsomely by Netflix to tell his “politically incorrect” jokes.
Gervais doesn’t seem to want to listen to his critics anymore; several Twitter users who have mocked his transphobic jokes claim to be blocked by Gervais.
Arguments defending these stand up routines are always framed through the perspective of free speech, which is misleading. Comedians should be free to make whatever kind of jokes they like (and they are), but millionaire has-beens are hardly the ones to be making that argument. There’s a reason we never see young, up-and-coming comedians making these jokes – it’s because it’s stale material!
Homophobic comedy routines, like Eddie Murphy’s Raw, used to be viewed as edgy and boundary-pushing, until comedians wised up to the fact that those jokes weren’t challenging the status quo, but reinforcing it.
When it boils down to it, there is only one transphobic joke, and it repeats itself ad infinitum – indeed, the joke is so stale that there’s a whole subreddit (r/onejoke) that exists to parody it.
Without the “one joke,” comedians like Gervais and Dave Chappelle would have to figure out some fresh material – the Babylon Bee would go out of business entirely.
Comic legend George Carlin understood the importance of weaponizing humor against powerful people, rather than the underdogs of society. When a comedian chooses to target the marginalizing, they are not being silenced while being criticized – they’re just being, well … criticized.
In fact, Gervais himself summarized the situation succinctly on Twitter, in 2019:
Gervais is correct – he is free to tell as many stale jokes as he likes, but he can’t make the audience laugh along with him.