Ricky Gervais on Netflix: defending freedom of speech in comedy

Go ahead. You can be offensive. You can insult. And you can be cruel.

ricky gervais humanity
Humanity is not an ode to humanity, it’s the opposite. A necessary criticism about the way in which humor is being received (Netflix)

It’s his first special in seven years, Ricky Gervais staged a comeback with Humanity. And it’s a relief. The clever British comedian had been absent from stand-up during a period in which few were able to maintain the standard of real comedy; the one that doesn’t yield to presumptions.

During his brief, voluntary exile, his hosting of four Golden Globes stands out. Excellent and controversial. He was unorthodox. And it is precisely about these performances that he begins his routine with Humanity.

Today, with the rise in political correctness and censorship in media, cases like Caitlyn Jenner’s require sensitive handling. A joke during the Golden Globes made Gervais earn the label of  “transphobic.”

He jokes about this in Humanity and provides arguments to dismantle the epithet: to mention the name that Jenner answer to for years, or his previous gender, and to make fun of her -or him- does not make him transphobic, “just as making fun of Bill Cosby does not make you a racist.”

The new stand-up special is loaded with timely reflections. Ricky Gervais not only wants the audience to laugh, he takes the opportunity to try to change a dangerous perception being imposed: that comedy should avoid offending.

He says that, after a decade-long rise in the industry, from 2015 on the world has begun to suffer a setback. In a certain way, this is the reason for his return. He is a savior willing to prevent comedy from going to hell and being subordinated to candid censors.

Gervais delivers his routine without pause and constantly reminds us that acidity and cruelty are inherent characteristics of good comedy. He talks about children with cancer and how they become a problem because of their expensive chemotherapy. He touches on death, apathy, and disdain due to wealth. He reminds cheekily how superior he is because of the zeros in his bank account.

Humanity makes one appreciate the always-politically-incorrect Louis C.K. and other comedians, such as Bill Maher. It is a broad defense of the sacred freedom of speech. You can be offensive, you can insult, and you can be cruel. Making fun of pedophilia does not imply an endorsement of it. Making fun of blacks, gays, and transsexuals does not make you racist, homophobic or transphobic. The mockery about stereotypes is also a substantial component in a good comedy.

A few days ago, Instagram closed the Venezuelan comedian Led Varela’s account. His “mistake” was making fun of the recently deceased Stephen Hawking. He published an image of the electric wheelchair and wrote about its sale: “Little use, ready to travel.” Hundreds of offended users denounced Led and a few hours later, not only the post disappeared but also his account.

Led Varela’s case generated a debate as to the limits of freedom of speech in comedy, and to what extent censorship is valid. I could add here a theoretical example that makes it clear how condemnable any kind of censorship is. However, the Ricky Gervais special on Netflix, Humanity, is already an excellent answer.

“I am so aware of ‘freedom of speech,’” says Gervais right after telling how he defended a woman’s right to insult him on social media.

He is the man who on his Twitter account wrote: “Freedom of speech does not include the right to be taken seriously, listened to, or even heard. But you have the right to speak. Enjoy.”

In his special on Netflix, Gervais gives us a raw criticism of prudish public opinion. He talks about Twitter and its ability to offer everyone the authority and moral superiority to decide what to say and what not to say.

“This is how the world is. People take everything personal. They believe that the world revolves around them. Especially on Twitter (…) They read my tweet and take it personally. It’s like going downtown, looking at a sign that says: ‘Guitar lessons’, and reacting with: But I do not want guitar lessons.”

Without looking stiff, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, an extremely genuine Ricky Gervais offers a routine whose goal is not to kill the audience with laughter. They are not his best jokes, but the hour and eighteen minutes that the special lasts ends up becoming a convenient occasion to reflect.

Some moments are magnificent, but it never ceases to be a coherent show. Humanity is not an ode to humanity, it’s the opposite. A necessary criticism about the way in which humor is being received. Ricky Gervais bets on freedom as the cornerstone of comedy. A brilliant return, without a doubt. It is also an excellent defense of freedom of speech in comedy.

“I’ve always wanted people to know that they can laugh about the bad and it does not mean that you’re bad (…) We’re all going to die, so it’s better to laugh. If you can laugh when facing adversity, nothing will affect you,” says Gervais at the end of his routine.

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