Last year at the Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais made the now infamous joke about Caitlyn Jenner, in which he made a snide (some would say offensive) remark regarding her car accident in Malibu. A 68-year-old widow, Kim Howe, died in the accident; Jenner wasn’t found guilty of any wrongdoing. Of course, Gervais couldn’t have written a new stand up without going over some of the finer points of the ensuing Twitter war, and he does so in Humanity with the total lack of tact he has become famous for since the early days of The Office. Arguing quite convincingly that it was okay to use the name Bruce Jenner in a joke – an extended sketch shows Bruce Jenner going into a doctor’s surgery to undertake a gender transition; every time he talks to the doctor he refers to himself as ‘the big strong man, in the past, way in the past’ – Gervais then goes on to perform a rather tasteless joke about him transitioning into a chimp. The point of it isn’t quite clear; is it that it would be okay to make jokes about him transitioning into a chimp? Or is it that the whole idea of transitioning from one species (read: gender) to another is absurd? One hopes it is the former, or the shrieks of ‘transphobia!’ that erupted on Twitter at the time of the initial joke seem more viable.
Humanity eventually moves past Caitlyn Jenner (though it takes a while) and as the show goes on, it improves. Gervais’ take on the trials of growing old – his balls sagging so low in the bath, for instance, that they eventually come bobbing up to float on the surface – are refreshing in their total honesty and their playfulness. Gervais talks about aspects of his personality already evident from social media – his deep passion for animal rights, for instance – as well as revealing some personal and touching stories about his family.
One particular story reveals how he and his brother had a rule that if they thought of anything funny, however offensive, and whatever the company, they had to say it aloud. That this is a rule Gervais has abided by strictly throughout his life is more evident in this show than in any previously. Topics of jokes include rape, cancer, babies dying, adopting an African child and, of course, his own wealth. This last topic he throws around intermittently with the same apparent sense of irony he always has, but one wonders whether he actually thinks some of these things about himself deep down; either way, many parts of this show are less laugh-out-loud funny, and more groan-and-hold-your-head-in-your-hands funny.
Still, the main point of Gervais’s show seems not to be about humanity itself; rather, his focus is on free speech and its importance in stand up. At one essential point in the show, he speaks of Twitter follower who says he will be ‘raped by Satan’ in hell. Eventually, Gervais finds himself defending the man’s right to say such things to him after another follower finds Gervais’ response disagreeable. Obviously, Gervais’ penchant for a bit of shock hasn’t gone away; and his overriding point that people should be able to joke about whatever they want (and that a joke can only be fully understood in its context) hearkens back to earlier comics who broke the rules and faced the backlash.
Comedy has always been about breaking down the boundaries of what is acceptable to say and what is not, if anything. From the early days of Lenny Bruce, through Bill Hicks and now Frankie Boyle and Ricky Gervais, comedians have striven to shock their audiences into involuntary laughter. Sometimes, Gervais gives this tactic the whole of his weight in Humanity (as he mimes, for instance, holding up a dead baby by its leg before throwing it back down into its cot). But there are moments of tenderness in this show, too, which show Ricky Gervais for the soft human being he actually is—such as when he hands out tissues at his mother’s funeral on which he has written ‘snivelling little bitch’, so as to get his nieces and nephews to remember the laughter their mother brought them, rather than cry over her departure. Humanity hasn’t beaten Fame as Gervais’s best stand up show to date, but after a seven-year hiatus and some terrible films, it shows that he can still do it like he always did: crass and objectionable, or sentimental and truly funny.