Ricky Gervais: Comedy Punching Down

by Neil Kennedy

Ricky Gervais' use of the word "mong" on twitter was probably intended to provoke publicity-generating controversy. But he is far from the only comedian to use a privileged position to attack vulnerable members of society

First published: 20 October, 2011 | Category: Culture, Disability, Media

Ricky Gervais has, you'll have heard, caused quite a stir on Twitter by using the word "mong" – derived from "mongoloid", offensive slang for a person with Down's Syndrome. Gervais has been reluctant to justify his tweets, and admonished his collaborator Warwick Davis for apologising when he copied Gervais' use of the word, offending his own followers in the process. However, he has defended them by arguing that the meaning of words change over time, and that "mong" no longer refers to the disability. 

To some extent, this is true.  People in my age-group commonly used it to mean "stoned" or "trippy", which I've seen reflected in programmes like Peep Show.  Gervais' argument seems curiously disingenuous, though, given that he also liberally posts pictures of himself pulling "mong faces".

"Mong"

These will be all too familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1980's. In 1981 the Cerebral Palsy sufferer Joey Deacon appeared on Blue Peter in order to teach children about disabilities, the goal being to show that they are not necessarily limiting.  The message of hope and empathy was lost on most kids, however.  Joey's distinctive speech problems and physical tics quickly became huge currency for playground bullies.  Children are, after all, still very much in the process of developing their ethical boundaries, and testing the limits of what is and isn't acceptable is a large part of that. 

However, this kind of nuance-missing mimicking happens with adult audiences, too.  In the 60's, Johnny Speight satirised attitudes to immigration with shows like Till Death Us Do Part and Curry and Chips.  Although seeking to highlight and satirise discrimination, Alf Garnett, the former show's main protagonist and reactionary bigot, became a champion to some, while Curry and Chips was cancelled after 6 episodes amidst a flurry of complaints. 

These kind of satirical comedies always run the risk of being adopted with a straight face by their intended targets.  That's unavoidable; satire can be twisted to quite grotesque levels, and still not be recognised as such.  It can just seem like "common sense" to those who espouse the same views.  Neo-nazis will look at a film like This Is England, for instance, and simply celebrate the most vicious aspects of it, missing that the fascists' actions are condemned.

That this is unavoidable is clearly a shame.  But art can't, and shouldn't, be produced so that it is always clearly understood by the stupidest (or youngest) members of the audience.  Should all subtext be stripped from narrative, simply to cater to those who don't engage with art on that level? 

Comedy has a huge potential to influence an audience's thinking, and this is one of the reasons I believe comedians should have a strong ethical drive behind what they do.  My love affair with comedy started when I was fairly young, and probably got underway in a more earnest manner when I was around 15, and saw Bill Hicks' Relentless in Montreal set on Channel 4.  As a politically ignorant young man, I found myself opening up to the ideas being presented by Hicks, my guard having been lowered by the delightful pain of laughing until my cheeks ached.  I began to see comedy as the greatest single way of communicating an idea.  You become more willing to listen to someone's theories when they make you laugh.  It disarms you, makes you intrigued and open to new ways of thinking.  So, they'd better then follow that up with something worth my time, right?  Hicks delivered, with an idealism and passion that forced me to think.  His intelligence and humour was infectious.

That, to me, is what comedy is all about.  Comedy, as an art-form, is far more complicated and nuanced than most people (particularly in the media) are willing to admit.  Given that the desired end result is laughter, it can easily be seen as a flippant art form.  But, paradoxical as it may seem, it deserves to be taken seriously.  The best comedy actually contains, and is borne from, fierce intelligence.  It says the unsayable, knocks the consensus, and makes you rethink your previously entrenched positions.  That should be the ideal.  There is also, however, plenty of room for less serious comedy, and for silly mucking about over Twitter.

The problem Gervais is having is that he's using the word "mong" freely on a notoriously rabid medium, while associating it with pictures of people 'belming'.  His argument that the meanings of words change over time, and that "mong" is no longer associated with Down's Syndrome, doesn't ring true. Partly because of the aforementioned pictures, and also because he's suddenly started talking about bringing back a character, Derek Noakes, from a failed pilot he made before The Office.  Derek has Down's Syndrome, and Gervais used him as a stand-up character a few times before his big breakthrough.  He also recently brought him back for a Comedy Central promo.

A manufactured controversy

This will admittedly sound cynical, but I believe Gervais has deliberately fomented the current controversy.  He briefly tried Twitter two years ago, then swore off it, doing many articles and video pieces about how much he hated it.  With a new show to produce – Life's Too Short on BBC2 – he's suddenly decided to try it again, quickly announcing that he's in love with it.  This despite initially following no-one on there, and only eventually doing so because of the barrage of complaint tweets he received about his own self-absorbed usage of the medium.  He doesn't involve himself in the discussions either.  He uses it as a marketing tool, as many, many people on Twitter do.  That's fine, although makes his talk of "loving" a medium he clearly doesn't understand look a bit insincere. 

It is worth recalling, too, that he created a similar tabloid furore by calling Susan Boyle a "mong" last May.  His defence of the word didn't ring true then either, with the routine this statement came from containing the phrase, "It's one of the easiest words to say... you just need lips, even mongs can say it!"  Surely that is hinting at some kind of physical and/or mental disability.  Susan Boyle, let's remember, suffered from oxygen deprivation when she was born, resulting in minor brain damage and learning difficulties.  Gervais, in one of his recent tweets, posted a "mong pic" where he said he intends to look like he has brain damage.  So it's pretty clear what he actually means when he says "mong", regardless of his insincere quibbling over semantics and the 'changing nature of language'.

The Susan Boyle routine then went on to picture the incensed internet users who, Gervais predicted, would react in an offended manner to his use of the phrase.  He was aware, therefore, of the power of the word to shock while using it; it was proven to kick up a media storm after he used it in 2010; and now, here we are again, with Ricky going into overdrive with the phrase just as the Life's Too Short media blitz commences.  Controversy sells.  It's also easy: being offensive requires no skill or wit. All it requires, at its basest level, is the desire to be shocking.  Which isn't to say that offensive, controversial comedy can't be all those things, and more. 

Offensive comedy

The Office had serious points to make about how we can feel awkward around those who are different to us, particularly when the differences are so externally obvious.  Latterly, though, it seems that Gervais' comedy has become increasingly pointless.  There's a growing sense that, actually, this is just the kind of humour he gets off on, to the point that one now suspects The Office was not Gervais trying to make serious observations about society, but that he saw satire – and a shield of irony – as the best vehicle to legitimise his penchant for offensive humour that mocks people for being different.  Some of Extras was just downright unpleasant, particularly the bits that carried on the homophobic streak that is common to a startling amount of his work.  He tends to legitimise dodgy material by working with members of the targeted minority groups, leading to lots of 'well, they seem fine with it, they wouldn't do it if it was wrong' arguments by his defenders.  Indeed, as I write this, he's just retweeted a comment saying exactly that kind of thing.  But working with Francesca Martinez (who has now admonished Gervais for his use of the term and, it appears, revealed to Richard Herring that she wasn't initially sure of his motives with Extras) and, on The Office, producer Ash Atalla, does not then give him permanent immunity from charges of using hate speech.

Indeed, his references to Ash Atalla's wheelchair at the British Comedy Awards became such an annual tradition that Armando Iannucci once mocked an unamused Gervais with, "you peaked with the wheelchair stuff, Ricky."  That was in 2005; Ricky has been mining this same vein of humour for a long time now (eventually hitting on the recipe to make it palatable with The Office), and seems set to continue with Life's Too Short, the aforementioned Warwick Davis vehicle, which is now being trailed on BBC2.  Perhaps it'll once again show the sensitivity that was largely evident in The Office, but with the promos showing Ricky and Steven Merchant simply laughing at Davis, and Gervais dressing him up like a frog for his own amusement, I can't say my hopes are high.  It's just unpleasant for the sake of it, really, isn't it?  This would all be easier to take if Gervais had more decorum when faced with negative reviews, or tweeters who don't like him.  Sadly, though, and unlike the brilliant, controversial and genuinely transgressive Scottish comedian Jerry Sadowitz, Gervais never allows his own status to be attacked.  Which makes him a bully.  A bully with form when it comes to mocking people with disabilities, along with his cohorts Steven Merchant and Karl Pilkington.

Gervais also seems to see himself as an edgy, intelligent comic, who can do progressive material about taboo subjects.  I believe he thinks his Susan Boyle routine is up there with Chris Rock's famous bit on the N-word.  Louis CK also does some very challenging, thoughtful pieces on the anti-gay F-word, and on the N-word.  He even does material about how dishonest and pointless it is to say "the N-word", because you're simply putting the actual word in the mind of the listener anyway.  Gervais wants us to think he's on a level with comedians of this calibre, and to this end, earlier this year he got his production company to put himself, Rock, CK and Jerry Seinfeld in a room together to discuss comedy.  Here, as with the Susan Boyle routine, Gervais proved himself to be out of his depth, and unable to meaningfully trade stand-up comedy observations and anecdotes with people who have been honing the craft for decades more than he has. 

Let me point out that I run a website which started as a Chris Morris and Peter Cook fan-site.  I am unshockable, and grew up loving offensive comedy, because it challenged what I thought was acceptable.  It can be gut-bustingly funny, and wildly provocative.  However, the vast majority of this comedy stands up to close scrutiny - if you take the work of Chris Morris, for instance, he can be susceptible to playful taboo-busting, and barking at the boundaries just for the sake of it, but the majority of his work has a solid message to it, and a reason for existing.  Chris Morris got away with things when they seemed to be impossible to do – the media climate has changed so, so much in the space of the last 15 to 20 years, and now many of those taboos are gleefully broken on the instruction of Channel 4 executives. 

I don't believe that any subject is off limits when it comes to comedy.  I don't believe any words are, either.  Gervais has – in between sending his hordes of sycophantic fans out to attack negative reviewers, which they do, like the obedient bile-spitting dogs that they are – characterised those who have a problem with his "mong" tweets as being rampant Mary Whitehouse types who want to ban him and burn his past works.  In reality, most of us simply want him to consider that he's not entitled to reclaim a word that was never used against him in the first place, and to give some thought to the ramifications of his actions.  He has rapidly brought back into play a disablist word that equates a disability with stupidity.  His fans use it to tear down the negative reviewers he insecurely points them at, the people who criticise him on Twitter (without even '@'ing him, in at least one case), and, latterly, towards the people who have complained about the very use of the word.  Richard Herring has been brilliantly vocal on this whole issue, and has been retweeting angry Gervais fans, proving that they are indeed using the word to mean that which Gervais claims it no longer represents.  All that's being sought here is a bit of sensitivity, really.  An acknowledgement that bringing back the word "mong" with this derogatory meaning attached to it, is as wrong as perpetuating the use of the word "spastic."  Words do indeed change over time, but Ricky Gervais is not the sole arbiter of when they do, and what they now mean.

Punching down

Gervais is not making a grand point.  He's not being funny.  He's certainly not being intelligent.  All he's doing is being arrogantly offensive and, as I said, if you're going to be offensive, be good at it.  Have something to say, and a reason for doing so.  Otherwise, what's the point?  Gervais is simply further demonising a section of society that has enough to contend with already.  Disability hate crimes rose 20% last year.  20%, for goodness sake.  Those who have to be on disability benefits are demonised by the media and the coalition, and now live in fear of having their welfare taken from them by an uncaring cabinet.  23 of the 29 people who make up the cabinet are millionaires, detached from the harsh realities of having to survive in this economic climate.  We don't need Ricky Gervais, and his ilk, bringing back more archaic words that will inevitably be used against people with disabilities, and which reinforce the idea that they are 'gormless' and worthless.

Why would any comedian want to do that kind of material, anyway?  That's what it always comes back to for me.  Why would you want to be at the forefront of comedy which mocks people (mainly minorities) for the way they are, and for things they can't control?  Finley Peter Dunne, the journalist, originally coined the phrase 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable' when talking about the role that newspapers should have, during the muckraking journalism of the early 1900's.  This is what comedy should mostly be aiming for, too.  Punch up, not down.  Show some basic human fucking empathy.

Let me end this piece by pointing out that Ricky Gervais and his "mong faces" are only the tip of the iceberg.  I was originally asked to write an article like this for New Left Project back in January, when they became aware of my complaints about the amount of punching down in British comedy over the last few years, which I believe reached something of a climax in 2010.  So, I'll round off with a bullet point list of some of the lowlights. I hope you'll see that the 60's/70's comedy we are all so quick to look down on, and distance ourselves from, is sneaking back in under the guise of irony, with Ricky Gervais at the forefront.  I hope people subject Life's Too Short to a much greater degree of scrutiny as a result of his Twitter exploits.

- Frankie Boyle, Tramadol Nights, Channel 4, 2010.  Frankie caused a stir with racist language on his Channel 4 show in late 2010, but this gag featured in the same episode as his racist language and slipped by without any real comment from the media.  Showing, in fact, that we, as a society, don't seem to take disablism seriously:

"My Granda is one of those guys who could be funny just reading out the phone book... He's a spastic."

- Morgana Robinson on the TNT Show, Channel 4, 2009. Morgana appeared as Gilbert on Gilbert's Special Report, a 'special needs boy', surrounded by a disabled crew, who interviews celebrities.  The humour is entirely derived from the celebrities being made to feel awkward around people with disabilities – which directly follows on from much of Ricky Gervais' work – and the crew are depicted as being completely inept at their jobs.  Morgana, backed by powerful showbiz agent John Noel, was given her own show, in which Gilbert reappeared, this time disingenuously rebranded as 'just a bit socially inept.'  Cue lots of kids belming like Gilbert on YouTube, and uploading videos of themselves with their tongues lolling out of their mouths.  The money shot, for Morgana, is simply low-rent celebs – easy, easy targets, many of who are cross-promoting C4 reality shows – sitting, looking around, confused.  They talk to Gilbert with nothing but softness in their voice.  They show extreme patience, because they've been told the whole set-up is about empowering the disabled.  They all walk out of it with infinitely more dignity than Morgana Robinson, or anyone else involved with this uninspired rubbish.

Balls Of Steel, Channel 4, 2005.  Another show where people were made to feel awkward around those who purported to have disabilities.  Interestingly, I've never come in contact with anyone who feels awkward around people with disabilities in real life – they seem to reside almost exclusively in British comedy shows.

- Stand Up For The Week, 2010 on... you guessed it, Channel 4. Early on in the run, Jack Whitehall wrings a laugh out of the term "Japarazzi".  He places it behind a smoke-screen of irony, shoving the words into the mouth of his Dad, a middle-class theatre promoter, who is caricatured for the piece as a blustering, racist general type.  This character finds a journalist in his garden, apparently interested in snapping Jack Whitehall after he was caught sniffing coke off a blackberry (in the week leading up to the first transmission of Stand Up For The Week, helpfully enough).  Fast forward a few episodes, and Whitehall is doing World Cup material.  He points out how having an HDTV is just like being there, which is an unpleasant thought to him, because "he doesn't want to be given AIDS and have his telly stolen". That's just a bog-standard racist joke.

- Harry Hill, 'I Wanna Baby', 2010.  Harry broke free of his carefully cultivated zany, Saturday tea-time persona to give the poor a damn good kicking.  With car number plates bearing the inscription "CHAV 1", he caricatured the working classes as being shallow, rampant consumerists; lazy, self-absorbed scum who care little for the value of life.  Hill picked, as a target for his satire, underage girls who get pregnant, and he put it all down to a lack of morals brought about by the fact that all us council estate scum apparently also go around causing crime constantly.  We're the ones who hate society, you see.  And, let me repeat this:  Harry Hill, for the subject of his satire, in a time of recession, decided to pick on working-class underage girls who get pregnant.  Hateful.

Neil Kennedy runs the comedy discussion and analysis website Cook'd and Bomb'd and hosts  a comedy chat podcast. Follow him on twitter at @cookdandbombd.

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