Watching Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix standup special—SuperNature—is like watching the climactic rap battle in 8 Mile. Every accusation you want to hurl at the comedian, he hurls at himself first. Gervais has always enjoyed winding people up—he usually picks easy targets such as extremists and bigots—and SuperNature is no different. It unfolds, essentially, like an hour-long tirade against the concept of overcorrection.
Things have gone too far, he rues midway through his rant. “Everything is a syndrome, or an addiction, or a preference.” Affecting an almost wistful tone, he sets his joke up by reminding the packed arena about the history of persecution against homosexuals, and women. All transgressors were declared ‘mental’, and thrown away in asylums. Or worse, tortured.
Wearing his trademark black T-shirt, a can of beer always within arm’s distance, and a cackle at the ready, Gervais peppers his jokes with reality-checks such as this. Of course he isn’t a homophobe, he says, before firing off a joke that could easily be perceived as homophobic. Later, he pulls you in with an earnest comment about Boris Johnson and his racist remarks against women wearing the hijab. “It’s no man’s business to tell a Muslim woman what to wear,” he says. But then you see that famous twinkle in his eye. “That’s her husband’s job.”
This could be a case study in Gervais’ subversive comedic philosophy. He’s one of those old-school comics; the sort that would go to any lengths to get a laugh, because for them, no topic is off limits. As he says, punching down isn’t always a bad idea. He illustrates this point with a classic (and somewhat literal) punchline aimed at defenceless toddlers.
But humour is subjective, he argues; what he finds funny might sound profoundly tone-deaf to someone else. Comedy evolves; that’s the point. And SuperNature is a special about one of the world’s most provocative comedians confronting an environment that has changed beyond all recognition in recent years. He revisits some of his favourite topics—baby Hitler, animals, and atheism–with visible glee. He’s giving his fans what they want; to some it may come across as pandering. Those who’ve never seen him perform might be scandalised.
It was almost inevitable, then, that among the many thorny subjects that Gervais chose to satirise in SuperNature, the most prominent was trans rights. This is an issue that has generated much controversy in recent years, especially in comedy. Dave Chappelle’s last few specials, for which he might have earned in the vicinity of $100 million from Netflix, prompted some of the streamer’s employees to stage a walk-out in protest. Netflix stood its ground, taking the ‘freedom of speech’ line of argument. But nothing that Netflix said in Chappelle’s defence was as strong a statement as giving Gervais the platform to address the same issue.
There’s a crucial difference between Gervais and Chappelle, however. Gervais is doing it to rile people up; he wants to make people laugh at exactly the sort of thing they’ve declared is off-bounds. He revels in the discomfort, much like the now-cancelled Louis CK. For a laugh, he’d adopt the persona of a bigot, a racist, or a Christian. Even though he is none of the above. Chappelle, on the other hand, actually believes in what he’s saying.
Gervais understands his privilege. He introduces himself as ‘a man who doesn’t need to do this’, and later calls himself ‘a white, heterosexual millionaire’. Everything he says, technically, will be punching down; he’s a part of the one-percent. But here’s the thing about Gervais; he’s an equal opportunity offender. There’s an extended bit that could, theoretically, offend doctors. But it won’t. It could if this was India.
In fact, none of what Gervais says in SuperNature would’ve been tolerated in our country. “That’ll be cut,” is a disclaimer that he throws out regularly. But none of it is. And that’s the point. Watching something that you’re offended by and then complaining about it is hypocrisy. And remember, Kapil Sharma is merely a click away.
Ricky Gervais: SuperNature
Rating – 3/5