Ricky Gervais, David Brent and the Destruction of a Comedy Legacy

Is it the curse of the auteur or the by-product of success that means comedy greats like Gervais and Seth MacFarlane are hell-bent on breaking what they made?

by Joe Bish
16 March 2016, 2:20pm

Poster for Life On The Road

Not long ago, when I was home alone and without a lot of money, I stuck an oven pizza in and put The Office on the telly. The whole thing, including the two Christmas specials, was on Netflix. Six episodes a series, two series in total, wouldn't take long. I sat and watched something I hadn't seen in nearly a decade and was mesmerised by how much it had changed. When I was younger, I had thought it was an #awks 'cringe-fest', but what I saw this time was a painful, incisive documentation of total banality and trying to escape it through any means necessary. It was a picture of a forgotten part of our society, the one away from any limelight, a hundred thousand beige prisons up and down the country facilitating not lives but existences, especially in the case of its agonisingly sad protagonist David Brent.

Ricky Gervais is one of the last great British comedy auteurs. Since The Office and, to a lesser extent, Extras, no one else has really seen their original vision come true in such a way. There have been popular formats and programmes: Mrs Brown's Boys, the endless sneering panel shows that clog up the daily Dave viewing schedule... Even the best BBC comedy in years, BBC3's (or BBC ii-upside-down-'i' as it's now referred to) People Just Do Nothing, borrows heavily from Gervais's themes, as does Channel 4's Phoneshop, also good and clearly indebted to Gervais (who acted as script editor on it) too.

But that particular comedy of embarrassment will always belong to him. He will always be a reference point for other shows using that style. And David Brent, the sap who started it all, will go down as one of the greats. Or, perhaps, he would have, had Gervais not decided to eke every tired wheeze out of this heavily flogged dead horse. In August, a feature-length film called Life On The Road will be released. It's another Brent vehicle, in which the character tours with his old band Foregone Conclusion. Of the story, Gervais has said: "This film delves much more into his private life than The Office ever did and we really get to peel back the layers of this extraordinary, ordinary man."

But Brent isn't an extraordinary man. That's the point of him. He's a schmuck, a norm, an idiot, a whatever, but that doesn't make him a bad character. Gervais is taking his creation and potentially turning it into shit, and for what?

The controversy surrounding Gervais's most recent TV comedy, Derek, brought out that staunch destructiveness in him. Many viewers were upset at his portrayal of an apparently disabled man working in an old people's home, which he then countered by saying that Derek wasn't disabled, and he would know, as he created him. It was a facile argument – you could go to a fancy dress party as a plane crashing into a building and say it's not meant to be 9/11, even though everyone can see it – but it alls feels as if Gervais is out to destroy his own medium because he's the only one who can. He wields the knife, and he can do with his intellectual property whatever he wants, even if that means running it into the ground and ignoring what made it special in the first place.

This isn't just the curse of the auteur, though. It's also a by-product of success. Movie directors and producers ruin their franchises all the time, in ways that are distinct from clear grabs for money, but have the feeling of power-tripping, of ownership and control. Gervais's trans-Atlantic contemporary, albeit on a greater scale, would be Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, American Dad and Ted. MacFarlane created his brand of fourth-wall-breaking, pop-culture-referencing style of comedy in 1999. But since then, this style has drawn regular derision from people who have recognised the format he works in and think they're above it. They see it as repetitive, and that may be so, but the difference between MacFarlane and Gervais is that MacFarlane would never do things with his characters that go against the style in which they were created, even if, like Ted and its unwatchable sequel, it was terrible to begin with.

There's something fatalistic about watching Gervais continually do this to his characters. It's been going on since the infamous 'do the dance' period of charity appearances, but the process has been a slow, tumescent spread to the lymph nodes of his beloved creations. It's difficult to believe that someone capable of such greatness is also so blind to how far that greatness can fall. But that's what happens when you achieve something great and then try for the rest of your life to emulate it; you end up crushing and debasing your magnus opus, until it's unrecognisable in the face of your immense, newfound vanity.

I no longer believe that Gervais is capable of creating something good and real, not now that he's been some consumed by his own self-imposed comedy demi-god status. But how much can we blame him for it? He's fallen into the hole of others before him by thinking that a moment's genius can be replicated ad infinitum. You shouldn't watch Life On The Road, not because it will be crap, which it almost certainly will be, but because it's disrespectful to the memory of David Brent, who died a long time ago.


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