At his very best, Ricky Gervais does cold misanthropy with an effortless flair. The British comedian excels at scathing, mean-spirited humour, his sets brimming with danger and the thrill of illicit ideas. His excitable, passionate delivery pulls the viewer in, but there’s a twisted subtext to the joke that is often discomfiting. It’s both satire and not: cynical, perverse, rude, piercing in its attacks while at the same time revelling in the cruelty. The malice has a purpose, but you also suspect he’s perhaps having a little too much fun with it. Gervais walks that tightrope—so fundamental to dark comedy—with razor-sharp clarity, knowing intuitively when to push and when to pause and relent.
That’s not the Ricky Gervais we get on Armageddon. As on his last two specials—including the terrible, culture wars-obsessed SuperNature—you get the impression that this is a Gervais who is spending way too much time on the internet, his brain scrambled by all that doom scrolling on X/Twitter. His judgement clouded by social-media brain rot, he’s become obsessed with ‘slam-dunk’ takes on contemporary progressive politics, ‘wokeness’, offense, political correctness, and all those assorted buzzwords.
This stuff was never particularly original or funny, but it’s 2023 now, and we’re all just bored of it. It’s become a fixation for a specific type of comedian: the blunt motormouths of the 1990s and 2000s, rebelling against the PC culture of their time, often to great success. Then the world moved on, as it tends to do. The comedy stage expanded to contain more voices, become more inclusive. These guys though, remain tethered to those dated notions still. No quarter given to nuance, no consideration for changing socio-political contexts. Gervais falls into the same trap, complaining incessantly here about how no one’s allowed to say certain things anymore. And then, five seconds later, he goes on to say those very things. It’s exhausting; we’ve been getting the same routine for years. Take a break, man.
Honestly, regardless of one’s personal politics, the problem is one of creative self-limitation. Why not do something more interesting, something insightful that hasn’t been done a thousand times already? On television, Gervais’s work as a writer and actor has been daring, accomplished, and it feels unburdened (relatively) by these obsessions that his standup is built around. Here, he’s practically frothing at the mouth after every joke, like a toddler who’s just learnt a dirty word.
“Did that offend you?!” he keeps asking the crowd, daring them to say yes, a cheeky leer plastered on his face. He’s less concerned with the joke, more with its reception from some nebulous ‘woke’ group. Those people are soft, weak-willed, easily affronted, he keeps insisting. These proclamations serve to turn Gervais from a thoughtful, clever (and obnoxious) observer of the human condition—stuff he’s been capable of—into a common troll, a windup merchant, a shithouser. And the material suffers for it.
It’s such a banal premise to base your comedic identity around. Like many of his peers, Gervais frames this, maliciously, as a free speech issue. That there are things you can no longer say or do, things that were completely acceptable ‘back in the day’. And while that may be true to an extent—as we speak, there’s a petition urging Netflix to take down a section on Armageddon where Gervais uses the R-word, an ableist slur, for disabled children—the reasons behind it are often just a natural evolution of language and culture, the shifting shape of contemporary morality. Eliminating dehumanising slurs from everyday language does not have to constitute a free speech crisis.
He’s against puritanism in art, and he may have a point there—it can all get a bit much. But he doesn’t interrogate the subject with any real substance. He teases a grown-up examination around the politics of language—about the circular nature of it—but doesn’t follow through, resorting instead to name-calling and framing it as little more than hypersensitivity.
Gervais wants it both ways: he wants to say the bad thing, and he also wants the validation and approval of the people for saying it. That’s a tedious back-and-forth where, to borrow from Reddit parlance, ESH—everyone sucks here. While there is always value in demanding your right to offend as a comedian, to push buttons, to poke and prod, it can’t be completely disconnected from consequence, from the mores of the real world. Wouldn’t it be far more interesting if he simply said what he wanted to, without circling back to the underlying idea of ‘offensive humour’ smugly every time?
While there is always value in demanding your right to offend as a comedian, to push buttons, to poke and prod, it can’t be completely disconnected from consequence, from the mores of the real world.
Because Gervais does have the seeds of a theme worth exploring. He reiterates often that people can’t choose their humour, and comedy does not necessarily signal one’s morality or righteousness. That we can’t control our thoughts. That a joke is very often just that: a joke. It’s not real life; it’s a performance. And that what he says on stage isn’t a reflection of his real-life beliefs, just as Anthony Hopkins is not an actual cannibal. Rather, it’s what makes him laugh. The point of humour, he says with much merit, is “to laugh at bad shit to get us through it”. (And so he makes jokes about illegal immigrants, disabled kids, babies in Africa, Chinese people, paedophilia, and so forth.)
The reason why this doesn’t quite work, though it has all the raw materials necessary, is that Gervais’ engagement with these themes is coloured with resentment and bitterness at the changing tides. He goes from thoughtful conversation to these-kids-today diatribe far too easily. These ruminations on language and comedy would have more value if he pointed his gaze further inward, allowed his introspection to offer a meaningful layer of depth. He’s trying to tell us what he finds funny—why that’s OK no matter how terrible—and the reasons it makes us laugh. As someone who was once at the cutting edge of awkward, grotesquely discomfiting comedy, Gervais might have some compelling things to say about humour and our changing relationship with it. But he’s not quite able to get to the heart of the puzzle, too busy playing “gotcha” to dig any deeper. More than anything then, Armageddon represents a missed opportunity.