For me, it was laugh at first sight
I laid eyes on Ricky Gervais for the first time in Ghost Town, the 2008 comedy in which he played the acerbic Bertram Pincus, a dentist who wakes up from a near-death experience during a routine colonoscopy with the ability to communicate with dead people. Bertram, who hates people living and dead, views this as a hardship and goes around insulting everyone in the most shocking and deplorable manner. The movie was hilarious.
Ricky Gervais, the Golden Globes host with the most
His work attracted attention and a legion of appreciative fans, garnering him the hosting job for The Golden Globes four times. Over the years, I'd heard more and more people say they don't watch celebrity award shows because they're tired of "rich people patting themselves on the back." But people tune in when Gervais hosts The Globes.
I'm not proud of it, but I shrieked with glee when he lampooned Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen. The media feigned shock, but who were they kidding? Gervais' act delights TV viewers, who go to bed afterwards feeling better about themselves. Meanwhile, his rich and powerful celebrity targets go to glamorous parties and field offers to become richer and more powerful. Everybody wins.
This is how he started losing me, though
A friend and I couldn't wait to see The Invention of Lying, the movie Gervais co-wrote and -directed with Matthew Robinson. We hit the theater as soon as it came out, certain it would be the funniest thing we'd ever seen, even better than Caddyshack and Airplane. But what seemed like a promising comedy devolved into a rant against religion and anyone stupid enough to believe in God. I believe in God, but I wasn't insulted. I was just really bored.
Eventually, even Gervais' Twitter feed became tedious. I'd thumb away from his posts, thinking, We get it. You're an atheist. Who cares? Eventually, I stopped following him. His insistence the burden of proof that God exists fell on believers seemed silly. Can I prove that God exists? No, I cannot. Can Ricky Gervais prove He doesn't?
Some of my friends are atheists and stand squarely in his camp. They insist they are people "of science." They believe only in things that are provable, but I suppose if you told Anne Boleyn people would fly to the moon one day, she'd have laughed at you. I'll bet the Wright Brothers' neighbors snickered when they heard the gossip about the boys building a flying machine.
My understanding of science is that it requires curiosity, not conviction
In other words: What if?
Which brings me to the seemingly fantastic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, which Ricky Gervais would deem preposterous. In case you don't know, the Assumption refers to the belief of Roman Catholics and some other Christians that Jesus' mother was bodily taken up into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. Even when I picture this scene, it strikes me as ridiculous. I've yet to see a human being pulled up into a cloud.
But then I remember the moon landing and the invention of air travel. The possibility of these things existed during the time of Anne Boleyn. People just didn't know how to realize those possibilities yet. And if planes can fly and rockets can go to the moon, why wouldn't it be possible that a human being could be assumed onto another plane that remains to be discovered by those of us who think we know everything?
I think of it this way: As recently as sixteen years ago, most humans never considered the possibility of Facebook. Now it has taken over our lives.
So anything's possible, even an important and very funny show from Ricky Gervais
My daughter turned me onto his new show, After Life, which centers around his character, Tony, whose wife, Lisa, died of cancer. There are a lot of lovely things about it, especially the sharp writing. (One of the more charming qualities of Ricky Gervais' comedy is that it isn't lazy. It's frequently over the line, but it never resorts to sexism, racism, or exploitation.)
After Lisa's death, Tony remains irretrievably in love with her. He is the husband we don't see in entertainment anymore: devoted, loyal, responsible, and in love with his wife. He doesn't hit on her friends after the funeral. He doesn't have a porn habit. He doesn't go to bars to score one-night stands. In an episode where he encounters a prostitute, Tony's not interested in her usual services but treats her as an equal and ultimately a friend. He's a beautiful, broken, sarcastic man, but he just may be a good one.
He's also an atheist, which makes the loss of his wife even harder: How do you wake up and put your feet on the floor when you you believe she's been reduced to a corpse molting under cold layers of dirt? After Life also asks hard moral questions, especially when Tony gives an addicted acquaintance mourning the death of his own girlfriend money to buy drugs to kill himself. Despite this dark turn, the show is funny. I really should count up the times I laugh per episode.
Clearly, audiences embrace these themes and the way After Life explores them; a second season is now in the works. As long as this show doesn't disintegrate into a boring rant against religion and stupid believers, I'll keep watching.
Art: 1. Ghost Town, Amazon Prime Video. 2. Anne Boleyn, Artist unknown. 3. Assumption of the Virgin, Annibale Carracci, 1560-1609. 4. After Life, Netflix.