‘Life’s Too Short’ Special review – and why Ricky Gervais is a bit of a cunt

Life's Too Short Gervais 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.

Life's Too Short 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.

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4 thoughts on “‘Life’s Too Short’ Special review – and why Ricky Gervais is a bit of a cunt

  1. Get a sense of humour, if you dont like it watch something else. I thought the special was brilliant, much better than the series which was had its moments but was largely dissapointing. The office and Series 2 of extras are in my opinion up there with the best british comedies of the last decade. Not everyone gets Gervias or likes Gervais which is fair enough, it seems your personal loathing of Gervais has made up your mind before you have given this special a chance but I think the majority of people would disagree with this arcticle.

    • I don’t loath Gervais and I also think that The office and Extras are up there with the best british comedies of the last decade. I tried to make that clear in the review by saying repeatedly that I think Gervais is very funny and a ‘fantastic writer.’

      I also think though that his comedy is very mean, and his targets have gotten less legitimate as his career has progressed: humiliating characters he himself played, then characters others played, then A list celebrities, then down on their luck C list celebrities and now, finally, dwarfs. Making jokes about how small they are, and how they can’t reach the top shelve or get off a chair, while he writes himself into the show as a well-dressed producer who sits behind a table and laughs at others.

      The reason I watched the show is because I think Gervais is a good writer and I hold out hope that he and Merchant can make another show as good as The Office or Extras. This wasn’t it though.

  2. I feel kind of bad now cus i’ve made a ‘dwarf related joke’ on another review!! I promise I did it before I read this. Honest!!

    I’ve got to admit i’m really torn on this. I was never actually a fan of the office, it was amusing for me, but i don’t own it on DVD, or know any quotes or lines etc from it ( my mates often hurt me because of this, usually pork scratchings and other pub snacks being thrown at me ) and Extra’s was similar for me. Of course there were moments when I laughed and thought it was very clever writing, but again, once i’d watched them, i didn’t really have the need to re watch. However, stick Gervais and Merchant in a room, lets say with a microphone and a link to recording podcasts, and i think they’re some of the funniest guys on the planet. ( helps having Pilkington there )
    One of the reasons i stopped watching ‘an idiot abroad’ was because i started to get bored of the constant picking on Pilkington, and the constant ‘bullying’ aspect, however i also stopped because i think all of the shows involve one very powerful thing, and thats being able to tap into the little part of our brain that makes us smile at someone else’s misery, or embarrassment etc. i think it also brings out the bully in us sometimes too.
    Some shows make us laugh when someone falls over, or when someone gets hit in the face by a custard pie, they’re show makes you smile at a dwarf struggling to get on/off a chair. Thats the cruel/lovely thing about comedy.
    Life’s too short and Derek, I think, are the ideas that Gervais and Merchant have come up with after years of worldwide success. They’re probably at that stage where most things will be criticised, so why not go for something a bit unusual and different.
    I actually didn’t mind ‘life’s too short’ the series, i thought it was quite good. The special was not as good, but still made me chuckle a few times.
    I’d be slightly concerned if they tried to make another series as it’s probably best left alone.

    Anyway i’m to go bake some custard pies. Do you bake them??? Or is that cheesecake?

    • Yeah, the Pilkington stuff is another example of Gervais’ bullying. Like you say, it does tap into a part of us that enjoys laughing at others and Gervais is really good at finding that part. I just wish he would pick his targets more appropriately.

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