On Saturday night, Ricky Gervais was serenaded by DavidBowie as he stepped onstage to perform his first full-length standup in America at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater. Not manycomedians can make their debut performance at the biggest venue in the countrywith a bona fide pop icon as a warm-up act, but it’s a testament to the enormoussuccess of The Office andits American offspring that Gervais could pull it off. Still, in spite of thesuperstar aura, he walked out in a casual T-shirt-and-jeans combo and immediatelysettled into a relaxed conversation with the capacity crowd — insofar as it is”relaxing” to joke about autism and AIDS.
A Cliff’s Notes version of Gervais’ routine might readlike a primer on 20th-century taboos. Anyone who’s a fan of The Office and HBO’s Extras knows that his comedy often gravitates towards the darkest corners of human condition. AsDavid Brent, he ventures into the territory of a sad, embittered man driven byvainglory, self-delusion, and puerile humor. In his standup, the targets were abit more obvious and potentially more volatile: cancer, the Holocaust,bestiality, Pol Pot, and war (”Vietnam: best soundtrack… WWII: best ending”), to name a few. At one point, his discussionof watching too much of the History and Discovery channels led to an unlikelycomparison: sharks vs. Nazis (warning: routine is NSFW). ”Sharks? Brilliant. Nazis? Rubbish… [A shark]can smell the tiniest secretion of blood or sweat from a human — one part in abillion — from a mile away. A shark would have found Anne Frank like that!” Afterattributing the abrupt ending of Anne Frank’s diary to laziness, Gervais wenton to imagine a conversation between Nietzsche and Hitler in which Hitlercasually reveals that he may have ”read between the lines” a bit when hedecided to ”kill all the Jews.”
It may sound risqué, but Gervais managed todance around these potentially controversial topics without an ounce ofviciousness. Part of the effect came from his relaxed delivery, which at itsbest sounded more like pub banter than monologue. But more importantly, there wasa certain schoolboy-like cheekiness to his shtick that kept it in the realm ofthe irreverent rather than the exploitative. He seemed to know he was hitting close to thebone and seemed to relish getting away with it. With his playful grin and high-pitchedsqueal of a laugh, Gervais did a good job of making himself hard to hate.
That said, he was perhaps at his funniest in ano-holds-barred and perhaps slightlymalacious rant against Stephen Hawking: ”He’s not a genius. He’s pretentious.He’s from England,yet he speaks with an American accent.” He posited that ”too much thinking”has made Hawking the way he is and suggested that he should take a break andwatch some TV: ”Look, Robot Wars ison, Stephen. You like that.”
But there is another side to Gervais’ comedy that existsbeyond the guilt- and taboo-driven schadenfreudeof The Office and Extras. Gervais is also the man whowrote Flannimals, a children’s bookof bizarre, make-believe creatures, and the man who made an art form out ofprodding the inexplicable mind of Karl Pilkington towards the edge of absurdityon the brilliant ”Ricky Gervais Show” podcasts. In this mode, there is stillan endearing boyishness to his comedy, but it comes from his genuineintellectual curiosity rather than a mischievous streak. The highlights of theshow for me were Gervais’ silly but insightful bits about animals and nurseryrhymes — more G-rated, but just as hilarious. He showed his knack forimprobable impersonations by imagining a cow that couldn’t walk down the stairsand an elephant going for a swim. But he truly hit his stride by readdressingthe lessons that he learned from nursery rhymes as a child. His alternative moralsto the Humpty Dumpty tale (also NSFW)? ”Don’t sit on a wall if you’re an egg.” ”Don’tsend horses to perform medical procedures.” ”If your surname’s Dumpty, don’tname your first-born Humpty.”
Finally, there is a third aspect to Gervais’ persona — RickyGervais the comedic entity. The man with international fame, criticaladoration, and — as he so loves to point out — ”three BAFTAs.” He turned theattention on himself by joking about his charity work with a trademark mix ofself-aggrandizement and self-effacement. He seemed acutely aware of his own celebrity,and he cleverly played off his big-headedness by suggesting that maybe the oldaphorism of charity work — ”You can never do too much” — doesn’t apply tohim. Thankfully, he wasn’t beyond laughing at himself. After insistingthat obesity is not a disease worthy of his time, he pointed to his own weightproblems and recalled some of the euphemisms he’s been tagged with by theBritish tabloids. His least favorite was ”chubby funster,” which he thoughtsounded like a ”gay pornstar.”
In his 70-minute set, Gervais drew on all of theseaspectsof his comedic arsenal to get laughs that were generally satisfying, ifnotalways big. However, those who are not familiar with his stand-upcareer may bedisappointed to hear that the three solo shows he has toured with inBritain were called ”Animals,” ”Politics,” and ”Fame.” Sound likefamiliar topics? This show was essentially a”best-of” with very few original jokes Sure, he’s been busy writing Extras, starring in films, and doing”loads” of charity work. But honestly, Ricky: What about the Office fans who have taken the time toseek out your other material? And you say Anne Frank was lazy…