The Tentative Apologist
1/19/11 at 09:51 AM 0 Comments

Reflections on Ricky Gervais, satire and sarcasm

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I am a Ricky Gervais fan. His work on the BBC series' "The Office" and "Extras" in particular was sharp, witty, and edgy. (Not that I recommend you show either series to your church youth group. They are also at times rather vulgar.) "Extras" in particular was an incisive critique of celebrity culture and the wider culture of droids that live vicariously through those celebrities (me included, I must admit. Now where's my latest copy of People Magazine?).So it is with interest that I rose Monday morning, bright-eyed and bush-tailed, to find out how Gervais' hosting of the Golden Globe Awards had gone. It didn't take long reading a few editorials and watching a few clips to find out. Whoa! He made quite a few ripples in that pond! There is no doubt that Gervais was effective at lampooning and alienating just about everyone gathered at the show, and a lot of other people besides. Check out his opening monologue. And look at the way he nails Bruce Willis and Steve Carell.

Some of these characters probably deserve a good roast. But here's the one I felt most badly about. (Or, rather, I felt most guilty about laughing.) It was the introduction of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Look at how Gervais completely humiliates Tim Allen. Now I don't know Tim Allen, but he doesn't seem to be one of those "bad boys" of Hollywood. Being an average talent and a nice guy may make him an easy target but does it make him a proper one?

A friend of mine, Bob, recently forwarded to me an interesting article by Jim R. Kittle called "Satire: The Tool of the Surgeon." (Vocabula, 2003) Kittle makes some excellent points, distinguishing sarcasm, parody and satire. Kittle writes:

In contrast to both parody and sarcasm, the intent behind satire is to make fun of people's follies and foibles in the hope of producing a change in their behavior. Its purpose is to produce better people — not simply to crack a joke or hurt a boor. The satirist trusts in the basic worth of his target and believes that with a little prodding that target can become a better person. If I may coin an expression, the "sarcasmist" believes his target is a bozo, that he has no worth, and that the sarcasmist's worth increases in the wounding and tearing down of his target.

Figuratively speaking, sarcasm is painful and bloody; satire, though it isn't always painless, is bloodless. Sarcasm tears apart with no intention of putting back together; satire cuts but does so carefully so that the parts may be reassembled after the corrections have been made. As Ed Nichols said back in 1964, sarcasm is butchery, while satire is surgery.

I don't see any concern to make Tim Allen (or the audience) better through those jokes. (Granted there were satirical moments, but often you had to look to find them. Or you could invent them. For instance, you could insist that the jab at Tim Allen was satirical. Here's a try: "By making that joke about Tim Allen Ricky meant to impugn the shallow penchant to assess the worth of a person by assessing their body of work, their oeuvre." Nah, it still just seems mean.)

If you watch "Extras" (particularly the series finale), you will find a masterful satire of contemporary society. And the great thing is that stars were invited on the show to satirize themselves and their industry. Everybody learned something, even if it was at times a bit painful. But try as I might, I couldn't find in digs against Bruce Willis or Tim Allen much more than base sarcasm perhaps aimed at building up Gervais' own career as the real bad boy of Hollywood (and thereby sending his already mythic status across the pond into the stratosphere).

After sending a link to my friend Stew, I commented "What will Ricky Gervais say the next time he ends up beside Johnny Depp at the urinals?" He replied in kind by sending me back the following clip from Craig Ferguson, host of "The Late Late Show". Ferguson begins by reflecting on how he ran into Kevin Costner a few months after lampooning him in his comedy act. Suddenly the joke didn't seem so funny. I commend to you Ferguson's monologue, self-reflective, honest, self-abasing, and exemplary of that element that seemed to be absent at the Golden Globes: grace.

www.randalrauser.com

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