Ricky Gervais has a gift. I’ve known about it for years, but until just now I could not articulate it.
My introduction to him was with The Office. It remains my all-time favorite show, despite being followed by offerings like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc. The Office taught me more about human nature than anything I’ve seen before or since.
What made it so brilliant was the journey of an asshole, David Brent. Most people see David Brent and they see a complete asshat who does nothing but offend. They reject him. They treat him like the pain that he’s causing, not knowing that he’s simply another victim of it. What Gervais wanted us to see in a David Brent is someone suffering himself, and someone who can be rescued.
Gervais put this potential, and the struggle of its development, on display for everyone in a way that I don’t think has ever been done. The final scene, where he tells off his asshole friend for being mean, was utterly brilliant. Journey of the hero? That scene was it.
I just finished watching the first few episodes of Derek, his new series on Netflix. It’s about a mentally handicapped man named Derek, played by Gervais. First off, his acting is really strong. He manages a difficult combination of snark and humor—while still appearing handicapped—that requires a true talent.
But the message.
Just wow. Unbelievably powerful. You must watch this series.
We first saw this side of Gervais in his movie, The Invention of Lying. To this day I place the scene of him moving through a ward telling beautiful lies to people, which they had to believe, and seeing their faces light up, as one of the most moving scenes ever made. What comes through in that film is an unbelievable kindness. A pure and forceful kindness—one that is so overt that it opens itself to ridicule. And that brings me to the topic upon us.
The reason Gervais is so brilliant is because he conveys kindness almost apologetically, as if he’s deeply sorry for the times when he’s been horrible to people. Much of his humor style is based on seeing into people, and groups, and tearing them down. This is much of comedy in general, but with him it’s keener than with most. It’s downright piercing. And I get the feeling that as he’s aged, it hurts him to do it now—even though it’s still kind of fun.
It’s as if now that he’s become so successful, and gotten older, he sees that he has the freedom to use his insight into people in a positive way. He understands humans so well, and is such a broad-spectrumed individual, that he now can pivot violently from cutting cruelty to the purest kindness imaginable.
And it’s all powered by the secular, existential insight that we saw in the Office—that people inflicting pain are often in pain themselves, and that the force of kindness is unrivaled in the universe.
It’s as if Gervais has a secret that he’s not sharing with anyone, but that can be detected if you watch his work closely enough. The secret is that he’s become an unapologetic champion of kindness and compassion. He dresses up nice, and when angry or when he needs to put on a show he can still destroy anyone in a few sentences.
But I think he decided a few years ago that his purpose in life—his self-created purpose, mind you—is to make the world a kinder and more loving place to live. That’s his superhero disquise: he can walk and talk like the cruelest hotshot comedian actor in the world, but underneath he’s pouring every drop of creative energy into spreading love and compassion.
And I think he’s doing a swell job of it.
When I hear that Gervais has done something new, I know three things: 1) it’ll be funny, 2) it’ll give insight into humanity, and 3) it’ll inspire me to be a more compassionate person.
Ricky Gervais’ gift is kindness.