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Ricky Gervais Knows No Fear

The comedian's new Netflix special has its weak spots. But when it comes to goring gender ideology's sacred cows, no one does it better

· 9 min read
Ricky Gervais Knows No Fear
Ricky Gervais at the National Television Awards 2021 held at the O2 Arena, London September 9, 2021. (Photo by Ian West via Getty Images)

Another Netflix stand-up comedy special, another manufactured media meltdown over alleged transphobia. This time it’s SuperNature, Ricky Gervais’s follow-up to his wildly successful 2018 instalment, Humanity, which, like Dave Chappelle’s The Closer in 2021, has become a hit thanks in part to the massive free publicity it received from outraged activists and woke commentators. And nothing demonstrates the disjuncture between popular and elite opinion more than SuperNature’s scores on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, where it holds a 92 percent positive score from audiences versus a dismal 29 percent score from the handful of reviewers who’ve dared to go near it.

In my view, SuperNature is a solid B. Gervais’s timing and characterizations are impeccable. At least two thirds of his jokes landed for me; and where they didn’t, it was mostly because of my personal sensitivities, which are irrelevant to any kind of general assessment; or because some topics are overly familiar and so have become banal as comedy fodder. Of greater interest is the media sound and fury over Gervais’s material regarding trans activism—especially since this accounts for a relatively small portion of the show, and is far less transgressive than his material on, say, AIDS, the Holocaust, and pedophilia.

But first a quick rundown on the show as a whole. (Warning: Spoilers follow.) SuperNature was recorded live as part of a comedy tour that Gervais began performing in 2019 and 2020. The recorded Netflix version begins with the Gervais-narrated announcement, “Please welcome to the stage a man who really doesn’t need to do this,” signalling that the comedian will enthusiastically lean in to the reality of his own boundless freedom and privilege—gleefully boasting of his multimillions and 17-room mansion (plus wine cellar). It seems an odd gambit given that comics are usually eager to appear relatable, but Gervais is a guy whose roots are so clearly working class that the audience is inclined to cheer his success. He’s aspirational: Who doesn’t want to be rich and popular enough to give the finger to the powerful without fear of repercussions?

Gervais begins the show proper with what might be described as a Beginner’s Guide to Irony and Metaphor. As he patiently explains, what people say isn’t necessarily what they think, especially when they’re comedians; and metaphors, especially the comedic variety, aren’t to be taken literally.

From there, Gervais breaks into a series of stories: extended jokes with riffs and asides building to their punchlines. Some are weak by virtue of being predictable. (For instance, his disbelief in ghosts and God: Thoughts and prayers are nice, but if a loved one had cancer, he’d rather they get chemo. We’ve heard this kind of thing before.) Other bits are middle-of-the-road family friendly, like (most of) his riff about cats and dogs. But in the main, Gervais grabs for various third rails, the reason we’re watching in the first place.

When Gervais heads into dangerous territory, he usually starts by proposing a ridiculously uncontroversial statement, as in “I don’t want to divide the room, but … I don’t like Hitler.” The immediate joke is the implication that half of us might be Adolf fans. But it also primes us for a more extended Hitler riff that winds through wickedly dark passageways that lead to the idea of killing the baby Führer or turning a photo of the tot into a depraved sexual fetish.

In other cases, Gervais pretends to stand on the side of woke angels, as when he adopts the guise of a trans activist and invites us to share his outrage at the “old-fashioned” women with vulvas who don’t want penises in their public toilets. “What if he rapes me?” says Gervais, now channelling the voice of one of these old-fashioned vulva-havers. “[You mean,] ‘What if she rapes you,’ you fucking TERF whore!” responds the pronoun-fixated trans activist (also voiced by Gervais, of course).

Such segments conclude with a meta-joke to the effect that the bit we’ve just seen won’t make the special. But of course, it has made the special, because we’re watching it. Still, the aside flatters us with the conceit that we are part of a select group whose members are sophisticated enough to appreciate the master’s transgressive tastes.

Depending on the bit, and who you are, Gervais’s technique can make for uncomfortable viewing. In one section, for instance, he shares the uncontroversial point that religious fundamentalists were insanely cruel and ignorant to claim that AIDS was God’s curse on gays. To demonstrate, he playacts a scene between God, whom he imagines as a working-class guy, and the HIV virus, which he anthropomorphises as a bunch of cartoon minions. I’m not the first critic to note that Gervais plays both sides, in this case attacking the bigotry of religious fundamentalists while getting laughs from mentions of gay sex, or, as Gervais says, “bumming.”

Even when handled by a skilled comedian, subjects that touch an audience member personally are bound to leave him or her conflicted. I didn’t laugh much at the AIDS-related material, as I was unable to separate the comedy from the death of so many of my friends from the disease (and my own AIDS paranoia). But viewed objectively, the sketch is brilliantly played on the purely technical level of comedy tradecraft. And I’d give it a high grade if it didn’t seem so dated, a criticism that Gervais can’t deflect by reference to political correctness.

Gervais also takes on so-called “Body Positivity”—sometimes known as the “Fat Acceptance” movement—whose adherents refuse to accept that obesity is a serious health issue. He is refreshingly honest about his own overindulgences—an ability to mock oneself being a necessary virtue for any good comedian. But he errs by building his scene around a roly-poly doofus, the sort of character who gets easily bullied in real life, instead of the sort of sanctimonious zealot who preaches “Fat Acceptance” on social media. The idea of “punching down” instead of “punching up” tends to get applied selectively by those who criticize comics for ideological crimes. But in this case, it really does feel like Gervais went in for the former when his better option was the latter. Likewise, he lets himself down with a pun based on a Chinese character’s mispronunciation of L and R, which ranks as childish and insensitive grade-school humour, even if it hardly qualifies as hate speech.

These lazy patches explain why I wouldn’t give SuperNature top marks. But they don’t diminish the entertainingly giddy interplay between a master comic and his live audience, or the brilliant vulgarity of his best jokes. To wit:

There’s a new type of comedy at the moment called woke comedy, right? No, it’s very progressive, you know? There are clubs where the comedian has to sign a thing saying he won’t say anything contentious or anything that could offend anyone. It’s a safe space for the audience. Woke comedy. And, uh, I tried to watch a bit of it, and I decided I’d rather watch Louis CK masturbate.

As the wide range of above-described comedic themes illustrates, Gervais presents no special focus on trans issues—though you wouldn’t know this from the critical outrage that SuperNature has elicited. Why is the trans issue so uniquely radioactive that it blots out everything else, especially when Gervais has made clear that he isn’t mocking old-school transsexual women whose body dysmorphia creates unbearable suffering, but rather the ideology of the current transgender sort—“the ones with cocks and beards”—who are totally happy with their male bodies even as they insist they’re the opposite sex?

The truth is that far from “attacking” trans people, as Gervais’s critics claim, much less denigrating them as “something less than human,” he skewers the absurdities and contradictions inherent in gender ideology. And since these absurdities and contradictions have been embraced by all manner of powerful public institutions, this skewering very much counts as punching up. It’s a subject that Gervais comes at early in the show by way of progressive cancel culture more generally:

If you’re the type of person to revel in someone getting cancelled for summat they said 10 years ago, you’re just ensuring that one day you’ll be cancelled for summat you said today. You can’t predict what’ll be offensive in the future. You don’t know who the dominant mob will be. Like, the worst thing you can say today, get you cancelled on Twitter, death threats, the worst thing you can say today is, “Women don’t have penises,” right?

[Audience laughs]

Now, no one saw that coming…

[Audience laughs]

You won’t find a 10-year-old tweet of someone saying, “Women don’t have penises.” Do you know why? We didn’t think we fucking had to.

Humorless puritans, whether of the religious or secular variety, have always been a popular target for comedians. And it counts as special pleading to insist that trans activists must alone be protected from mockery—even if it’s a form of special pleading that, as the controversy over Dave Chappelle’s own Netflix special showed, has become an established element of progressive social dogma.

As those diverging Rotten Tomatoes scores show, the insistence that trans mantras must be treated as unfalsifiable (and untouchable) holy writ is starkly at odds with the views of the broad public. This helps explain why Netflix has set down a new policy on “artistic expression,” explaining that the streamer will not “censor specific artists or voices” even if some employees claim such content is “harmful.” (“If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth,” Netflix told workers, the company “may not be the best place for you.”) More and more, the statements that activists present as smoking-gun evidence of transphobia strike most people as simply plain common sense. And one suspects that even many of the progressive journalists and culture critics who denounce Gervais as transphobic are simply disguising their true beliefs so that they may ingratiate themselves with their professional peers (who may themselves be operating on similar motives).

But I think something more may be at play—because one thing this is not is a conventional left-versus-right culture-war theatre. Chappelle, after all, is (putting the issue of gender to one side) a card-carrying woke ideologue whose comedy is grounded in intersectionality (even if he doesn’t call it that). As Chappelle makes clear throughout The Closer, as a black man, it is impossible for him to “punch down,” since he’s basically at the lowest rung of the society’s racist privilege hierarchy.

In Chappelle’s view, his targets, including Jews and the LGBT community, are “white”—i.e., on top of the heap—rather than with the blacks at the bottom. Or as he puts it: “I have never had a problem with transgender people. My problem is with white people.” Despite major black figures such as Laverne Cox, RuPaul, and Lil Nas X being featured prominently within the LGBT community, Chappelle’s cognitive dissonance causes him to believe that “gay people are minorities until they need to be white again,” and “In our country, you can kill and shoot a n*gga, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this kind of theme, based on ideas such as black erasure and oppression theory, makes The Closer ugly in a way that white critics haven’t addressed (though gay black critics sure have).

Similarly, Gervais has always been on the political left, a strong supporter of LGB and trans human and civil rights, and an early advocate of equal marriage. And though he may be exasperated with wokeness, he also has a very clear-eyed vision of his own limousine-lifestyle privilege, which he sends up in a gleefully ironic bit of anti-intersectional shtick:

We’re still only five percent black, five percent Asian, five percent LGBTQ, you know? Tiny numbers. Now, I’m a white, heterosexual multimillionaire, right? There’s less than one percent of us. But do I whine? No! I don’t mind. I just get on with it … I’m like Rosa Parks, know what I mean? … Except I fought for the right to never have to take [any] seat on a bus.

Rather than targeting anyone for abuse, Gervais stands as a modern court jester for whom sacred cows exist to be gored, and the proposition that a comedian taking the piss out of society’s scolds should be treated as an accepted (and indeed necessary) part of communal cultural life. “I talk about AIDS, famine, cancer, the Holocaust, rape, pedophilia, but no, the one thing you mustn’t joke about is identity politics,” he says. “The one thing you should never joke about is the trans issue. They just want to be treated equally? I agree. That’s why I include them.”

This refusal to be intimidated by polite progressive taboos has been Gervais’s calling card since he put a mirror to Hollywood’s hypocrisies at the 2020 Golden Globes. And as the reaction to SuperNature shows, it’s what drives bourgeois puritans crazy—because they believe that if a Netflix comedian can get away with candidly saying things about gender that everyone secretly thinks, it will become that much more difficult to enforce ideological discipline among the general population. And on this score, one can only hope that they’re correct.

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