I’ve got to hand it to Ricky Gervais: Despite having undergone a rare experimental procedure that made his already thin skin almost transparent, he looks great. In Humanity, his first stand-up special in seven years, Gervais is in high spirits as he elucidates a list of grievances against people who he’s never met and who don’t have a thousandth of his influence, joining his Netflix stablemate Dave Chappelle in lashing out against nonfans who, in the greater scheme of things, have no power over him.
After an opening 20 minutes of transphobic material directed mainly at Caitlyn Jenner (which, of course, Gervais takes great pains to insist is not transphobic at all, even as he imagines Jenner asking a doctor to remove her external genitalia) and at trans people generally (who he gleefully likens to humans wishing to be transformed into chimpanzees), he settles into a solid groove, in which he defends the decision to not have children. In so doing, he simultaneously makes both himself and the world into the butt of the joke, transforming himself into a Jack Benny–like caricature of pure, miserly selfishness — a junior Scrooge so cruel that he kicks a baby that he let die of neglect. (This is how Gervais seems to think the world sees him, but it might also be a comic’s exaggeration.) After that, there’s a solid stretch about fear of aging, where he mocks his own sagging physique, slowing metabolism, and distended testicles.
But here, as in the opening section, Gervais can’t make himself the butt of humor for long. He keeps drifting back toward personal grievances against unnamed, non-famous, non-powerful people who criticize his choice of targets or the quality of his jokes. He invariably shifts from outrageous, corrosive, and self-critical back to peevish and petty, compulsively looking for new ways to climb up on the giant cross he’s built in his mind and nail himself to it. It is, as they say, not a good look. It’s downright Trumpian.
The Jenner stuff is sparked by Gervais recalling the press and the public’s reaction to his 2016 stint hosting the Golden Globes, in which he referred to her as “Bruce,” and said that while she’d become “a role model for trans people everywhere … she didn’t do a lot for women drivers,” referencing Jenner’s 2015 car crash. Somebody on social media criticized Gervais then for “deadnaming” Jenner — i.e., using the name she went by before her transition — and Gervais makes a big show, in Humanity, of having learned something he didn’t know and feeling bad about acting from ignorance. But a few minutes later, he’s envisioning Jenner’s gender-reassignment surgery (which he imagines as just lopping it all off, as if with a hatchet), calling her “Bruce” and “him,” and doing that chimpanzee routine: “I’ll be legally a chimp,” he says. “I’ll be be properly chimped-up! I’ll be able to use chimp toilets!”
If Humanity is any indicator, Gervais has spent the last seven years hanging out on Twitter, baiting people and recoiling whenever they snap back, or even when they mildly reprimand or question him for having baited them. He tweeted and tweeted and tweeted, all while insisting that he didn’t care what anyone thought of his tweets, even as he made mental notes of specific people who quarreled with him online so he could single them out years later. He does this more than once in Humanity, building three whole bits around arguments he had with people who criticized him for making, respectively, a joke about rape, a joke about food allergies, and a joke about a “fundamentalist, creationist Christian” who reacted to his tweets about “science facts” with, “Your science won’t help you when Satan is raping your British ass.”
The routine that Gervais builds out of that last bit — envisioning himself in a South Park–ish scenario alongside a self-righteous Christian who’d have to be in Hell himself in order to witness Satan’s violation of Gervais — is superb, deriving all of its force from his decision to take the tweeter at his word and construct a ridiculous tableau. But the fact that the bit is inspired by his interaction with somebody who probably has a dozen followers, compared to Gervais’s 13 million, gives the whole thing a rather sour quality. The sourness intensifies when he laughs about how his Twitter followers dog-piled the man after he retweeted his remark: “Watch the fun, people piling on: ‘Ah, loser!’ And he’s fighting back, really witlessly, saying things like, ‘Go fuck your sister, you English faggot!’” It’s unseemly to be so thrilled by a victory that required no effort whatsoever. It’s like bragging that you beat a 5-year-old at basketball.