A New Way to Laugh
When I first saw The Office, I didn't get it. I can't even remember what episode it was, but I watched it passively, like I would any other sitcom or drama on TV and found it pretty drab.
What was the point of following around regular assholes? I get enough of those in real life.
But as I watched more episodes, I found myself being sucked in. I realised it was a masterpiece of human behavioural observation, and, far from boring, it was teaching me a new way to laugh. Once I "got it", I was able to binge-watch the entire first season and declare it as one of my favourite shows of all time.
Waiting for season 02, I watched all the interviews and behind the scenes I could find, and got willingly obsessed.
An Essential Collaboration
In my mind I invented my own narrative about how it had come about. Stephen Merchant was the serious genius, Gervais the funny clown. Gervais was the master of gags and cringe-worthy moments, but Merchant was the one that brought structure to the story, and worked in the long-game payoffs that ended up being the show's highlight.
I began to avidly follow Gervais' and Merchant's careers. I was disappointed with Extras, as I thought fame was the most obvious and least interesting things for Gervais to explore. I also didn't like him playing the straight man -- or at least, maybe I liked him fine, but felt he was better at portraying cringe-worthy characters. Or maybe I just wanted Brent back.
I told myself that Gervais had gotten too big, and Merchant's influence on the project had been diminished by Gervais' new-found fame. I continued to hope that Gervais would collaborate with Merchant more, and was disappointed when he went mostly his own way.
But then something happened: "Hello Ladies" aired.
Now, don't get me wrong, I loved Stephen Merchant's "Hello Ladies". It was a humourous, heart-warming and obviously personal look at the LA dating scene. However, it wasn't as strong in the areas I had thought (or more accurately imagined) Merchant had brought to his collaboration with Gervais.
I felt like "Hello Ladies" was a show attempting to follow in the footsteps of "The Office", with varying degrees of success, while what Gervais was doing with "Derek" was taking the core and pushing it into uncharted territory. Had I been wrong about who was carrying who, and in what areas?
Then I saw "Life of the Road", with not a single credit going to Merchant, and Gervais pulls the old rabbit out of the hat, creating a wonderful, nuanced and surprising narrative that brings the old Brent back to life again. And he does it alone.
Alright, case closed! Whatever Merchant's influence on the original "Office" Gervais is completely at ease doing it all on his own.
The One Trick Pony
I've heard Gervais referred to as a "one trick pony". And in a way, I guess he is. His body of work certainly contains similar elements, and build on similar narrative techniques.
His characters mostly have little or no backstory, instead being fleshed out by the very nuances of their behaviour. You already know these people, you've met them in your everyday life.
But, far from cardboard cut-outs, they are the fragile, insecure and damaged people you recognise from life; the ones who have created big bold personalities for the world to hide their needs, fears and pain.
Likewise, the actors ARE their characters. There's no fakery here, and while I wouldn't claim the actors are not working hard behind the scenes, they are good enough that they make the acting work invisible. They are so real, you even like the characters who would be intolerable in a more traditional "Hollywoodized" narrative.
Freed from the necessity of character exposition, Gervais is able to front-load his stories with pure emotional tension. He doesn't just set things up and pay them off, he slowly begins to twist the coil until you're almost screaming at the top of your lungs for the characters to get their comeuppance, or the couple to get together, or the weak character to get fed up and show some strength.
He then waits until the VERY LAST MOMENT, until you're internally begging for it and looking at your watch to check how long the film has to go, just in case you're not going to get the payoff you know you should.
"Chris. Why don't you fuck off?" -- a two second payoff from "The Office" that brought me tears of joy and an incredible rush of adrenaline. It also took the entire 13 episodes prior to set up.
The payoff seems amazingly efficient, yet, the amount of groundwork that was deliberately and precisely laid for that moment to work as it does shouldn't be underestimated.
In any other story, that moment might have been a 25 minute kung fu fight.
The late great Garry Shandling, another auteur and comedic genius, said it best:
Gervais is one of the few writer/directors who I still connect with on a personal level. I can enjoy a Christopher Nolan, or a Spielberg high concept fantasy or sci-fi epic, but those guys deliver their art from a place I know I'll never go. They are like Gods dictating their stories perched on a gold-plated, throne-shaped cloud, while us mere mortals can only absorb in wonder and awe.
While the big Hollywood directors give us stories about magical creatures, super-heroes and far off lands, Gervais tells us the story of some guy you spotted down at the pub crying in his beer and never had the courage to ask him how he got there. His world is real, his characters are authentic and his messages are ones you can apply to your own life.
I see myself in all his characters. I'm a bit of Brent, a bit of Tim, and every other character he's ever put on the screen. He understands human need, emotion and insecurity, but not from a cynical perspective. He sits in the dark with his audience as we watch his characters together and by doing so, recognize the very flaws and behaviours we see in ourselves.
But I also feel like I am Gervais. When I watch his films, I feel inspired to be more like him, on a creative level.
Why am I trying all these fancy tricks to entertain people, when I KNOW in my heart that storytelling isn't just about the big, exaggerated and obvious moments you see in most Hollywood films -- people shooting, fist fighting, flying or fucking -- it's about the minutiae, the small gestures, the tiny moments.
It is, simply, about telling the truth.
In Life on the Road, Ricky does all of these things, as well as he's ever done them in his entire career. In fact, he imbues the film with so much emotional tension that he could have paid it off in dozens of different ways to satisfy me.
Brent could have eaten crow and dropped his facade to win over his aloof band and make some true friends.
The record scouts could have mistaken his music as comedy and liked it, forcing Brent to either accept he's a joke, or stay true to himself.
Dom could have rewritten all of Brent's misguided lyrics and made him a success, leving Brent to accept his weaknesses and work with Dom in a musician / lyricist team.
No matter which path the movie took, I knew I was going to be choked up at the end, and I was. Fucking Gervais always manages to choke me up.
Gervais ends Life on the Road with a single moment... in fact, it is a single frame.
Brent and his female office co-worker walk down the hallway together after agreeing to grab a coffee. Brent has gone through hell, failed at almost everything and, perhaps fleetingly, found his modesty (and authenticity) once again. Just before it cuts to black, their hands touch.
It was a tiny moment, a single frame that happened in the blink of an eye -- but I don't even need to go back and check that what I saw really happened. Because, even if it didn't, it's a testament to the film that I was enthralled enough to believe I saw it anyway.
So when people say Gervais a one-trick pony, it's like saying "story" is a trick. Or "authenticity" is a trick. Call it a trick if you like, but to me these are essential ingredients in the art of storytelling. Because they are essential ingredients in life itself.
While the world gets more and more detached and cynical, Gervais reconnects us with what it means to be human once again. And I think there's no more important function of art in society today.
So one trick pony? Sure, absolutely, ok. But it's a trick I want to see happen again and again and again -- and Gervais is the only one around these days who seems to remember how to pull it off.
And just in case Ricky ever reads this, please register my desperate but emphatic vote for a Brent sequel.