Nothing Is Sacred for Ricky Gervais in Netflix Special ‘Humanity’

Some humor is like an uncomfortable nudge or a kick in the shin. Such is the style of Ricky Gervais in his new Netflix special, “Humanity.” Infamous for his acidic humor, which brought him particular attention after twice hosting the Golden Globes with the spirit of an arsonist, Gervais now joins the chorus of stand-up comedians targeting the political correctness of the times. “If you can laugh in the face of adversity then you’re bulletproof,” says Gervais at one point during the performance, and he surely means it. Nothing is sacred to Gervais’s routine. Children, cancer, and of course Caitlyn Jenner, are all prey in his joke safari. Gervais walks quite the tightrope here, some sections work, some lag, but he’s never absolutely unsavory. Gervais’s trick is to let you know that he really is just kidding.

Like other major comedians who have recently launched specials, Gervais seems emboldened by the over-sensitive culture now dominating the mainstream. With a kind of cringe comedy slapstick approach, he immediately takes aim at trans culture. “I’m playing with the notion of stereotypes,” says Gervais, adding that he makes sure his “targets are fair.” The way he tends to segue into a joke is by bringing up how many of his most insulting moments tend to generate out of Twitter brawls. Gervais can’t help but add a small punch in seemingly casual sentences. When he recalls Jenner responding to his Golden Globe jokes about her, he says it this way: “she was launching some new show…now cancelled.” Gervais then starts skirting the line of comfort by going on to say that he would like to transition into a chimp, because we, and he means men, already share so many traits with the creature. Of course there’s always a sly catch, here it being that if a bigot drove by shouting an insult Gervais the chimp would throw some excrement at the heckler. “And that is why this joke is not transphobic,” Gervais adds at the end, lest anyone be mistaken.

Yet the act itself doesn’t come across as discriminative, Gervais is instead making comedy out of button-pushing. He’s not exactly provocative, what he’s doing is exploring the idea that anything can be made fun of, whether you’re trying to make a political point or not. What matters is the context and nature of the joke itself. For example, in a particularly challenging moment, Gervais discusses a woman on Twitter who tells him the word “rape” should be unacceptable in any joke. But Gervais challenges her (and the audience) with the notion that of course rape itself is not funny, but maybe the word itself can be used in a work of humor, it just depends how and why.

One of the best sections deals with his infamous stint hosting the Golden Globes, where Gervais gleefully roasted everyone from Madonna to Mel Gibson. The jokes center on what wasn’t said on the air as Gervais recalls jokes he penned and tried on his girlfriend Jane Fallon. Apparently Bill Cosby was in for a real roast as Gervais shared a joke in the style of, “not even Bill Cosby has enough tranquilizer to bring down this beast…Jenny McCarthy.” Lucky for most of the celebrity audience Gervais reveals it is Fallon who lets him know when he’s going too far, of course that doesn’t stop him from reassuring her it won’t be so bad.

Gervais casually makes fun of his own privileged status as a successful entertainer. “Of course I don’t know how much a pint of milk costs, here’s a couple of thousand, go buy me one,” he says with the glint in his eye of someone not expecting you to take that so literally. A section on parenthood is particularly acidic as Gervais makes it clear kids are consumers, and considering the fact that he’s rich, his own children would grow up to be little monsters. Some of the jokes can fall flat or come across as just sticking to a shtick. For example in one joke is about how babies are so fragile they’re a nuisance. What if it dies on you, then you need to text your wife, “forget the diapers LOL.” Another bit about flying private and dealing with the safety measures given by airliners is hollow and just not very funny.

Yet the best section of the special is when Gervais begins to discuss more socially conscious issues with his jabs at PC mentalities. One hilarious joke involves backlash he received over poking fun at food allergies. Gervais blames such social media eruptions on a culture where technology now turns everyone into a self-centered narcissist. He calls people in a video skinning a dog alive “c—nts” and immediately receives a message from someone saying “I don’t like the C word.” Gervais blisteringly questions the notion of popular consultation regarding politics. “Stop seeking the perspective of the average person…the average person is pretty stupid,” Gervais warns when bringing up Brexit. His prime example of the ways of the average human is a Tweet he received from a religious fundamentalist hoping he will be raped by the Devil, while he watches.

“Humanity” is the appropriate name for this special, because Gervais’s brand of cynical, shin-kicking comedy is precisely a mockery of how we are. There’s a reason why he calls himself an “observational comedian.”  He has his positions, but what he wants you to know is that it’s ok to laugh at yours, or his.

Ricky Gervais: Humanity” premieres March 13 on Netflix.