Ricky Gervais is trolling us with After Life
Some commentators may find Ricky Gervais’ new series After Life hopeful, but behind saccharine guitar music and rousing declarations, it's the same old bullshit from the 'maverick' jokester
One of the Twitter teasers for Ricky Gervais’ new series After Life features his latest semi-autobiographical incarnation hiring a sex worker while adamantly refusing to call her anything but a “prostitute”. And at this point, you already know whether you’re going to head over to Netflix or not, because Gervais has been doing this for a while now. Looking for buttons to press and giggling about how “offended” everybody gets. At this point, you either buy his self-portrait as a maverick jokester sticking it to the man or you see him as a smirking bully taking cheap shots.
But how we feel about this style of comedy, and this style of personality, kind of matters right now. At this particular, moderately dystopian political-culture moment that we’ve found ourselves in, Gervais' style taps into a sensibility that’s proven to be more widespread and potent than we might have imagined. It’s the “fuck your feelings” mentality, the idea that political correctness has run amok and ruined us. The anger that “you can’t say anything anymore”, that you can’t just call prostitutes “prostitutes”. Essentially, that you can’t just say whatever you want all of the time and without consequence.
The truest embodiment of this sentiment is found online. Specifically, among people who are “Very Online.” Trolls have existed pretty much since the world wide web went mainstream and as much as the apparatus and the audience might have changed, the goal has always remained the same: provoke the strongest emotional reaction possible by any means necessary. It’s founded on a sort of performative nihilism that sees not caring about anything as the highest intellectual achievement. Essentially, it’s Tyler Durden with an internet connection.
A major figure on Twitter and known for gleefully tangling with trolls, Gervais often trades in the same sentiment. Whenever he receives too much blowback for a joke – such as lines about trans people in his latest Netflix special – he will unfailingly reach for the “it’s just a joke” defence. He wasn’t making fun of trans people, he was making fun of the idea of making fun of trans people. It’s satire, not bigotry. Don’t take it so seriously. It’s just a joke.
But the thing is, it’s never just a joke. It’s the joke from the literally limitless supply that’s there to choose from. And ever choice, every joke selected, entails a decision. It requires the teller to decide who they want to make laugh and who they want to make them laugh at. If you want to make it easy for yourself, you appeal to the safest, most comfortable portion of society, and you ask them to keep laughing at those they’ve always laughed at. Those whose cultural capital is the lowest, whose position is the most precarious. And you are absolutely allowed to do that. Free speech has got you covered. But you should at least be able to own that that is what you’re doing.
Because, for all the saccharine guitar music and rousing declarations about “hope” in After Life, this is still the bedrock of what Gervais does. Comedy comes from the sudden release of pressure. Gervais looks out across an audience who feel pressured, even oppressed by the expectation that they should make meagre concessions to treat those around them with basic decency. And he throws open the release valve. He reassures them that they are right, and smart too, for seeing through the bullshit.
Throughout After Life, characters tell Gervais' pseudo-self over and over again what a good man he is, despite all his edgy shenanigans. And that’s what he tells his viewers.
After Life is streaming on Netflix now