The Life’s Too Short series debuted in 2011 and starred Warwick Davis as a fictional version of himself trying to patch together his struggling movie career. In this concluding special, Warwick manages a roadshow with Les Dennis, Keith Chegwin and Shaun Williamson, or Barry from Eastenders as he’s commonly known. There’s a brief subplot involving Val Kilmer and a possible remake of Davis’ 1998 movie Willow.
The special, like the series, was written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and, like the series, was pretty poor; problematic in many ways and quite laugh free. If you liked the series then you probably liked this, but if you liked the series, then I struggle to understand why. A few good moments aside – the Liam Neeson improv scene for instance – the show was a lazy rehash of previous Gervais and Merchant programmes, with a very similar set-up, characters and even jokes. Plus, it was gratuitously mean, and this special had the same problem.
Gervais’ comedy has always been based on ruthless and often bullying humiliation. His first ever show, a special for Channel 4’s Comedy Lab series, was about a pathetic management type who had ambitions of being a famous singer. Gervais played the lead character and lots of elements from this one-off programme were incorporated into The Office, which also humiliated its lead, repeatedly, and did the same thing with many characters, including Gareth and Tim.
Then there was Extras. Gervais again played a pathetic character, mocked for his ambition and his acting and his weight. Ashley Jensen played a dumb blonde who kept embarrassing herself, and Les Dennis, Keith Chegwin and Shaun Williamson also all showed up as pathetic versions of themselves.
And then there’s Gervais as a person. If you’ve seen any of the footage of him in real-life, he is clearly a compete dick. There’s a documentary on his Politics stand-up DVD in which he acts, over the course of weeks, like an utter cunt to comedian Robin Ince. Take a look at the below video of how he treats an editor for Extras. Seriously, watch it, and tell me Gervais is not bit of a cunt.
This attitude made him a huge global superstar however. And the BBC went on to commission Life’s Too Short. I’ll come to that in a minute, but first, I want to point out what’s wrong with this type of humour. Some people probably think it’s fine: ‘It’s funny, so that’s okay.’ And it is funny. From The Office to Extras to his stand-up and personal appearances, Gervais is a very funny guy. There was some humiliation based jokes in this special and they were funny. But not everything that makes you laugh is legitimate. If you pick your targets appropriately – as Gervais did during his Golden Globes mocking of rich, egotistical celebrities – then humiliation-based humour can be outstanding. But comedy can also be quite a negative thing. Not to get too pretentious, but I’ll quote C.S Lewis here, from The Screwtape Letters, in which a devil writes advice to his nephew:
“Humour is for [the English] the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing grace of life…Cruelty is shameful—unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a joke.”
And so we come to the Life’s Too Short special, in which a dwarf is laughed at by his secretary as he tries to climb on a chair – and then falls off that chair. In which a joke is made out of another dwarf thinking the best thing in the world would be the height-restrictions at Alton Towers being lowered. And I’m not saying that Gervais enjoys laughing at the disabled. No, I’m saying he likes laughing at the disabled, and the non-disabled. Anyone really; whatever your flaw is, whatever makes you different, Ricky Gervais will laugh at you.
The bulk of this special was taken up by Warwick’s management of Les Dennis, Keith Chegwin and Shaun Williamson. All three of them are pathetic. Chegwin is a stupid alcoholic who pisses himself. Les Dennis can’t look at himself in the mirror. This joke about the three was done first in Extras, which featured all of them, and then again in the last series of Life’s Too Short, and now for a third time. Warwick’s manager in the show is the exact same as Merchant’s character in Extras. The joke with Val Kilmer being a pathetic version of his movie-star self was done over and over again in both Extras and Life’s Too Short.
Of course, there are brand new characters as well. Like a spiritual life-coach who Warwick takes the pathetic trio to see. This character is the exact same in every detail to a character that appeared on the American show Delocated; a camp, spiritual life-coach, with the jokes coming from his obvious bullshitting. But I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on that one, and assume it’s a very specific coincidence.
Chegwin, Williamson and Dennis are humiliated throughout this scene and the hour long show. In one part, an executive from ITV2 shows up and talks about how great they’ll be on TV, all pathetic and making shit jokes. The audience is supposed to empathise with the three, and feel negatively towards the ITV2 guy. And that is fucking hilarious, because Gervais and Merchant are doing the exact thing they are criticising. They have put these three guys on TV to be laughed at, via the hundreds of mocking jokes they wrote about them.
Which brings me to the best part; Gervais and Merchant have written themselves into both the series and this special. They play themselves. Not pathetic versions of themselves. Not mocked and ridiculed versions of themselves. No, they sit behind a desk or table, well dressed, laughing at everyone else in the show. Normally, when a comedian puts themselves in a programme, they mock themselves, like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Gervais would rather laugh at others.
I wrote a review of Gervais’ recent show Derek in which I criticised its mawkish sentimentality. If you think about it, The Office was quite mawkish at times too. I think Derek exposed the artifice behind the sentiment in Gervais’ previous shows, and Life’s Too Short has exposed the humiliation-based artifice behind their humour. It’s like seeing how a magic trick works; once you know how it’s done, you start to lose all respect for it. I think Gervais and Merchant can be fantastic writers, and they are both really funny. But the stuff they are making these days is lazy and derivative. And mean.