Back in 2010, Ricky Gervais appeared in the third-ever episode of Louis CK’s cult TV show Louie. His character, Dr. Ben, is an old high-school friend of Louie. When Louie turns up at his clinic because he’s feeling unwell, Dr. Ben thinks it’d be funny to tell his friend that he has AIDS. That safely out of the way, Dr. Ben then insists on a rectal examination, and at the end of the procedure, finger-bangs his friend for about three seconds until Louie shouts in protest, “There’s no way it’s supposed to go in and out like that!”
How charming and not-at-all-pathetic to see Gervais 12 years later, still hacking it with the same jokes in SuperNature, his new Netflix special. In the middle of a long and tedious Richard Dawkins-style late 90s atheism routine, there’s the AIDS joke again. And another one, minutes later, involving a physician performing a surprise rectal examination. “Comedy evolves, right? It changes with the time”, Gervais declares in the middle of a self-serving strawman routine about ‘woke comedy’. With SuperNature it’s clear that while comedy may indeed evolve, Gervais never will.
Although the show’s hook is about debunking supernatural phenomena and by extension, organised religion, there’s very little time devoted to that theme and when Gervais does do so, the jokes are distinctly dated. Instead, SuperNature’s first 13 minutes are devoted to two things, the first of which is Gervais making paper-thin jokes about seemingly anyone who has ever criticised him: ‘woke comedians’, newspaper columnists, internet commentators — at one point, he reads out a real tweet making fun of him and then tells the audience why the tweet is rubbish.
The second thing, inevitably, is transphobic jokes. Within SuperNature, you will find a great many jokes involving trans women, some depicting them as predators and potential rapists, others exhorting them to “lose the cock”. None of them are funny, all of them are harmful and dangerous and absolutely contribute towards the frightening frequency of violence directed against trans people (most recently, the school shooting at Uvalde, Texas was falsely blamed on a trans woman by certain journalists and a Republican politician, leading to a trans teenager being assaulted elsewhere in Texas).
Unlike Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais doesn’t actually claim to question trans rights, careful to remind us that he’s just kidding. “Trans rights are human rights”, he says much later in the show. But this is arguably worse and involves an even more cynical bent of mind.
The overwhelming feeling I have about routines like these is not outrage; it’s tedium.
Gervais at once declares his one-percenter status (“I am a white heterosexual multimillionaire”) and also keeps depicting himself as a simple, salt-of-the-earth bloke who’s being unfairly targeted by uppity, woke mobs. Like the time he launches into a rant about ‘punching down’ in comedy, where he employs the classic Trumpian move of depicting one’s (unspecified) critics to be out-of-touch university educated elite, who’re snobbish and petty and jealous of a ‘man-of-the-people’ rising to prominence and power.
He says: “There’s Oxbridge comedians writing for the posh papers, the rules of comedy, they’re laying it down, laying down the law. And it’s all stuff like, ‘Comedy should punch up. You should never punch down.’ Sometimes, you’ve got to punch down. Like when you’re fighting a disabled toddler. If you don’t punch down, the little cunt will win!”
The overwhelming feeling I have about routines like these is not outrage; it’s tedium. In most people, this strain of sophomoric humour—the standup equivalent of ‘blooper videos’ involving people getting hit in the nuts—dies a natural death while they’re still fairly young. Unless of course, Netflix is paying you 40 million dollars specifically to stick to this mind-numbingly dull formula, designed to feed the culture wars. When Gervais is announced on the stage at the beginning of the special, we’re told that he’s someone “who doesn’t need to do this”. Gervais then spends the next hour showing us just how true this was.
Is there anything redeeming about SuperNature? A couple of things, perhaps, if you squint. Gervais is serviceable when he’s talking about British idiosyncrasies. He’s also funny when he talks about ageing and the inevitable decaying of our bodies. The latter is in line with his fine work on the Netflix dramedy After Life. But for much of SuperNature’s hour-long runtime, Gervais is deeply unfunny and relies on tropes and templates that would’ve come across as hackneyed even a decade ago. My advice: skip it, unless you’re a diehard fan or just deeply committed to being annoying on the internet.