Voting for Emmy nominations is now underway with the nominees expected to be announced on July 28. And that means everyone is campaigning. This year’s Hollywood Reporter’s comedy actors roundtable features Ricky Gervais, Kumail Nanjiani, Ramy Youssef, Kenan Thompson, and Dan Levy – an interesting crop, especially as Gervais is something of an old-guard comic at this point, and the others all represent the vanguard of television comedy, in one way or another. You can feel the genuine admiration and respect the younger comics have for Gervais, but at the same time, they spend much of the conversation just roasting him, or pushing back against his “anything goes” approach to comedy. I continue to be frustrated by how anodyne these conversations are, because I think this group really could have dug into the difference in perspective between Gervais and the others and gone to some interesting and illuminating places about comedy and how it responds to social issues, but no. The conversation must move on to the next campaign talking point.
Where it starts, though, is with Gervais talking about responsibility in comedy and his philosophy that “anything can be funny”. He’s not wrong, anything CAN be funny, but as Kumail Nanjiani points out, you really, REALLY have to consider the perspective of the joke, the target of the punchline, and ask if the thing you’re joking about actually deserves to the be the butt of that joke. The problem with Gervais’s humor over the last ten years or so is that he has not wanted to accept any responsibility for people misunderstanding his jokes. He reiterates that here, saying that “there are stupid people in the world” and he can’t worry about them not getting his jokes, because almost everyone else gets it. That attitude only works if the jokes are really sharp, really smart, and really well delivered, because then the joke is so well done that it is tragically obvious when someone doesn’t get it. Much of Gervais’s recent comedy, though, has been lazy and/or mean, and when people point that out, he doubles down and says that criticizing his bad jokes is just “not getting it”. Saying “some people are stupid” has become Gervais’s excuse when really, the problem is he isn’t crafting better jokes.
I wish the others had been allowed to dig into it. Nanjiani points out the danger of insincere humor and normalizing mockery toward already-marginalized groups, but before the conversation can progress further down that road, it is steered back around to discussing Dan Levy’s deliberate choice to make Schitt’s Creek, the show and the town, a place of safety and acceptance and love. Even though the conversation moves away from Gervais’s toxic-baiting style of comedy, it is interesting how the others are so invested in the outcome of their comedy. They each seem acutely aware of how their comedy plays not only to their intended audience but to outsiders, too, and how their individual representation resonates for their communities at large.
I don’t want to make everything the youths vs. the olds, but this is a real generation gap in comedy. There is a prevalent, old-guard way of thinking in comedy that is, “I can say whatever I want, and because I’m joking, it isn’t bad or racist or any other negative connotation. My intention is to be funny, that is all that matters, I am divorced from the outcome.” That is the school of thought that leads Tina Fey to do multiple blackface episodes on 30 Rock. Why are there so many otherwise good, even brilliant, shows with blackface episodes? Because whole generations of comics share in Ricky Gervais’s school of thought. And while depiction is not endorsement, some things MUST be considered, and you cannot be divorced from the outcome of your comedy. You own the joke, and you own the fallout of that joke, regardless of your intention.
The younger comics seem to understand that. They are considering not only their punchlines, but how those punchlines might resonate beyond their intention. That’s why Levy chose not to give voice to hate on his show, saying, “My feeling was if I were to include homophobia or bigotry of any kind in the show, it would be giving power to those people who see themselves on TV.” Again, anything can be funny if the joke is good enough, but as the person telling the joke, you have to ask yourself if you want to even possibly be the conduit to a bigot sitting at home and comforting himself in his bigotry because he sees himself on TV. By excluding that perspective on his show, Levy ensures bigots can’t see themselves and feel accepted or even supported by that representation. “Anything for a laugh” has never really been a great philosophy, because some laughs just are not worth it. I wish this conversation was allowed to follow this thread further, but I guess I’ll settle for nearly 20 minutes of everyone roasting Ricky Gervais.
Check out the video here.