I used to think that the title of funniest, edgiest (and the two are connected) comedian around was an impossible choice between Chris Rock and Eddie Izzard, but Ricky Gervais’ HBO stand-up show has him closing in on them. He has always been so cheerful and good-natured that he gets away with skewering the most outrageous targets. In the new special — innocuously called Out of England 2, premiering Saturday — he is as funny as ever but even darker.He sounds harmless enough. His voice veers into a falsetto as he imitates a disheartened goat sent as a gift to a starving African family: “A week ago I was gamboling around the Cotswolds!” But the same falsetto turns up as the voice of the suspicious, illogical side of Gervais’ own mind when he sees a Muslim at the airport. He races giddily along telling stories about Christmas presents and insurance coverage, then ends with lines that don’t so much punch as sting. Where was God when some supposed Act of God like a tree falling on a car happened? ‘”I was in Africa that day,” God says, “giving AIDS to babies.”
His humor is piercing but not off-putting – really, it’s not! – partly because Gervais uses some smart, disarming tactics. He jokes about fat people — he’s blunt, he says “fat” – but turns the joke on himself, or rather (an even wilier strategy) on his former piggish self before he lost 20 pounds. He barely gets away with a joke about pedophiles by making the fictional victim himself as a boy. But his prime target is religion, and in the show’s hilarious centerpiece he reads and comments on a book about Noah’s ark he saved from his own Sunday school days. In hindsight, that kids’ book makes Gervais do more than marvel at the absurdity of the story; he has to wonder if God and Noah were a little bit gay. I won’t ruin the evidence, but it’s fall-on-the-floor funny.
The main reason you stay on his side is that the cheerfulness is more than a facade; there’s nothing malicious or mean-spirited underneath, just hard-nosed realism. The stand-up reminds you that this is man who so brilliantly created David Brent in the British series The Office, a harsher, more poignant version of Steve Carell’s toned-down, likable bumbler in the American remake. (Still a jerk, still makes you laugh, but definitely toned down.)
For a taste of Gervais’ turned-on-himself irreverence, take a look at this clip from his appearance with David Letterman on Monday, describing his scheme to make his family crack up at his mother’s funeral, and why she would have been proud.
Gervais’ standup relies on the sardonic humor that he uses more sparingly in guest spots. That selective use of acid wit makes him the perfect Golden Globes host, last year and for the show coming up next month. Who better for the awards everyone pretends to take seriously than a comic who sees through the crowd’s hypocrisy and politeness, calls them on it, and is still that good-natured guy? You have to love him for that.