It seems that most successful comedy actors eventually reach the stage where they're no longer content with playing themselves. It's something that I've termed "The Norbit conundrum". It surfaces when a previously successful comedian-turned-thespian realises that they have no range in their acting ability, and have essentially been playing an amplified, Nandrolone version of themselves for 20 years. The public are losing interest and they need to diversify to save their career. It's evolve or die time. So what do you do?
Well, if you're Ricky Gervais, you stick your tongue in your chin and start talking in a "retard voice". I guess it's an interesting decision to make when your career looks on the verge of petering out – to start milking the disabled for lulz – but is it an intelligent one? Isn't there some other section of society that Gervais could be mocking instead? The world is rich with misfits in 2012. After playing the film extra with delusions of grandeur, why not a PCSO or hacktivist with delusions of grandeur? After Brent, why not a fat, middle-aged man who has fallen out of work into the Occupy movement, which is basically just middle-management for people who still feel inadequate when they walk past the Camden Lock punks?
But Gervais doesn't want to do any of that, he wants to play a disabled man with delusions of grandeur. A disabled man called Derek who has a Downfall haircut and misses his mum and hangs out with a load of surrogate mums who keep dying off because they live in a care home. Of course, the one thing holding Gervais back is that he's not actually disabled, so instead he has to pretend to be disabled – or, as it's known in the industry, "act" disabled – for the premise of Derek to work.
But this isn't a problem, because Gervais is really, really good at it. Watching Gervais stumble around in his pilot last night, armed only with a self-applied underbite from the playground school of facial alteration, you could really tell that this was a man who's spent his life watching "mongs" and "spastics" fall into ponds and sit down in bowls of custard. And laughing at them.
Curiously, it seems that Derek failed to blow everyone's mind with its revelation that disabled people are more than just sub-human creatures who deserve to while away their lives in a state of permanent sadness. So what next? Where does Ricky go from here? Let's have a look at how some other comedians who've flirted with fascism have tried to win back the public's affection:
Whenever something like Derek happens, I always tend to go back to this video, mainly because a) I can't believe that it actually exists, and b) I don''t think British comedy is stupid or tasteless enough to do anything like this ever again. It's not massively well-known, and as far as I'm aware Barrymore's never faced any real censure for it, but in my mind, at least, it's a watershed moment. Because what the fuck was he thinking?
Despite this, there was a time during the 90s when Barrymore was the king of Saturday night television, gadding about with his extraordinarily long limbs and head, endlessly dancing something I only faintly remember as "the mole dance". I was a child at the time, so I wasn't told why he disappeared from our screens, but I'd learn later of Barrymore's struggles with booze and his own sexuality, which were all wrapped up for the tabs in a tasty scandal sandwich in 2001, when Stuart Lubbock was found dead in the comedian's swimming pool with drugs in his system and severe anal injuries.
I'm not sure what Gervais has to learn from this, to be honest. Don't throw parties where people are likely to get allegedly raped allegedly to death in a swimming pool? Don't try to make the public forget about it by appearing on Coach Trip? Maybe it's best we just move on.
Big Jim Davidson
After a career spent making bigots laugh, Jim seemed to have some kind of epiphany/ existential crisis in 2011, when he tried to tour a theatre production about "a washed up racist comic" (it flopped, only visiting four of the 12 cities it was supposed to). Gervais is a pretty meta kinda guy, but if it took Davidson over 40 years to work up the gusto to pretend to be sorry for being a prick, it's difficult to imagine Gervais folding any time soon. Unless...
...Gervais pulls a Michael Richards and realises that all people really wanna do is laugh at him. Not a disabled person. That's why people liked The Office, Gervais. Kill your Hollywood ego – which, presumably, is what made you stop setting yourself up as the butt of your own jokes – and save yourself. Easy.