There’s a great moment in the second season of HBO hit franchise Succession when Siobhan Roy, daughter of Brian Cox’s media mogul Logan, makes off with an actor she meets in a New York bar. Back with him, sitting on the sofa, she looks around and asks about his TV. In particular, she wants to know where he keeps it because it’s not on a rickety IKEA stand in the corner of the room as usual.
“I don’t have screens,” he tells her proudly.
“What about news?” She asks.
He says, “I get all my messages from comedians.”
Frightening, isn’t it?
Written by British writer Tony Roche, veteran of Veep, The Thick Of It and In The Loop, this episode is one of the most anarchic in what is already a hodgepodge of weirdness. And if you’re thinking that weird isn’t a word, well, neither was Omnishambles until Roche invented it and put it into a screenplay. Now we couldn’t live without her. It’s probably in the Sue Gray report somewhere, and if not, it definitely made its way into the Tory backbench group chats that followed the report’s release on Wednesday.
Anyway, back to our screenless actor, the one whose messages come from comedians. He and people like him were thinking of watching Netflix’s controversial new Ricky Gervais comedy special, Supernature, which was taped at the London Palladium and debuted on the streaming platform on May 24. What news and perspectives could they take away from it and, let’s stay with the imagination, believe it as gospel because that is their only source of truth? That AIDS was sent to earth by God because he didn’t like watching men having sex? That there are no funny women besides Dame Edna Everage and Eddie Izzard? That “old-fashioned” women have wombs, but “new women” have beards and penises (although that’s not actually the word Gervais uses on the show)?
Hopefully the answer to my question isn’t one at all because nobody is stupid or desperate enough to use comedians as their only news source. But you never know That’s what makes this line in Succession so disturbing.
Aware of all of this, Gervais opens the show by playing the stand-up equivalent of a Get Out Of Jail card. He explains that much of what follows is ironic. “That’s when I say something I don’t really mean to create comic effect and you as an audience laugh at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is. It’s a way of mocking attitudes.”
Fair enough. But if you’ve satirized settings, they must be there in the first place. starting. Simmer under the public discourse. So who can say definitively that you don’t actually reinforce or underpin these same attitudes or give them some level of legitimacy? That we laugh about the wrong thing because we know what the right thing is, sure – at least as long as it’s about Adolf Hitler or obesity or the fact that there are no funny women. But where is the right line, say, on the issue of transgender rights or the thorny question of what constitutes a woman and what does not?
Gervais is particularly concerned with it – and how – and the backlash against the routine was swift, beginning the day Supernature aired on Netflix. Within a few hours, the US-based anti-discrimination agency GLAAD published a statement on Twitter.
“We checked out the Ricky Gervais ‘Comedy’ special on Netflix so you don’t have to,” it said. “It’s full of graphic, dangerous anti-transants masquerading as jokes. He also spreads anti-gay rhetoric and spreads inaccurate information about HIV… The LGBTQ community and our allies have made it very clear that so-called comedians spread hate instead of humor [sic], and the media companies that give them a platform will be held accountable. There are now LOTS of funny LGBTQ comedians to support.”
That’s right. You can even watch some of them on Netflix. Look at Hannah Gadsby or Wanda Sykes.
Was Ricky Gervais graphic? Certainly. So teary-eyed. Was there anti-gay rhetoric and inaccurate information about HIV? From me it’s a maybe for the first and a probably for the second. Was there tirade, hatred erupted like from a drunk Downing Street worker at an illegal Downing Street party? It didn’t feel like it. Gervais even says he is all for trans rights. Quoted last week by The Spectator website, he said: “My target wasn’t trans people, it was the ideology of trans activists. I’ve always grappled with dogmas that oppress people and limit freedom of expression.” He also told BBC One’s The One Show that the purpose of comedy is “to get us through things and I deal with taboo subjects, because I want to take the audience to a place they’ve never been before, even for a split second… Most offense comes when people confuse the subject of a joke with the actual goal.”
We’ve been here before, of course, and so recently and so often that complaints against Gervais are met with an angry eye roll in some quarters (for example on the set of GB News, where gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was attacked against the salty old Nigel Farage as they tackled the story).
Do you remember Jimmy Carr? In February, he was criticized for a line in a Netflix special about the death of Roma, one of the few positive aspects of the Holocaust. His “Get Out Of Jail” card said that while the joke was “crazy as hell,” it had “educational quality.” Right. Meanwhile, earlier this month, aspiring rapper Isaiah Lee, 23, played a Will Smith and attacked comedian Dave Chappelle onstage in the US, allegedly for his comments about trans people in another Netflix special, The Closer, which aired in October became. Chappelle later apologized for those remarks – sort of, anyway – but he lost a fan in British trans comic Jordan Gray, whose Comedy Central web series Transaction is being adapted for TV by Simon Pegg. “It hurts when a master craftsman stumbles and messes something up,” she has said. “It just wasn’t funny. Transgender people are the ones who get it from the back of these flippant comments.” What supports GLAAD’s comments, right?
Here’s something to think about. In Supernature, Gervais constantly refers to his personal wealth. He even makes a joke about being a middle-aged white millionaire. And in a way, that’s what annoyed me the most, because maybe that gets to the heart of the problem. Perhaps the comedy – once considered offbeat and even avant-garde in the right hands – has become a kind of cheesy variety show, corrupted by money and the pursuit of ratings, devoted entirely to commerce. It has become regressive rather than progressive.
We used to have insurgents who railed against the government, who seized upon and questioned the sexual, social and moral status quo, and who always hit out at the establishment or the fat pension-seekers and their enablers. That seems to be gone. Instead, in 2022 we’re getting rich, middle-aged millionaires pretending to fuss over things that don’t really concern them and have no experience with, turning their obvious concerns about free speech into streaming content that, yes, crushes. Sure, the fool crowd gives them permission to say the seemingly unspeakable—but ultimately it’s the king who pays the fool the coin.
I can’t help feeling that we’ll look back on shows like Supernature and see the material within as the 21st century equivalent of the mother-in-law gag. Safe, conservative, lazy. Definitely not a place to go for news.