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The Odd Couple: Why Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant Need Each Other

October 7, 2013  |  11:44am
The Odd Couple: Why Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant Need Each Other

In “Training,” the fourth episode of The Office’s (British) first season, the insecurities of David Brent (Ricky Gervais) come to the fore when the Wernham-Hogg staff attends a mandatory seminar run by an outside instructor. The theme is “customer care,” and Brent won’t stop interrupting to offer idiotic bits of advice that reveal his extreme discomfort with giving up control. Finally, he breaks out a guitar and starts singing “Freelove Freeway”—a painfully awful song about the narrator’s sexual encounters on the open road—as the seminar leader looks on in frustrated disbelief. Like many David Brent moments, it goes beyond cringe-inducing and lands somewhere around excruciating. It’s also, of course, really, really funny.

In the same episode, Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) realizes he’s throwing his life away working at a dead-end job with a paper company, and he quits in what has to be the most dramatic moment of his life. In the process, he asks the office secretary Dawn out for a drink, knowing she’s just had a split with her boyfriend. But she quietly tells him they’ve made amends, and in front of everyone else at the office, he has to pretend he was only asking as a friend. The emotional momentum shifts from inspiring to hopeful to devastating in a matter of seconds; as writers, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant inflated Tim, and then popped him with a needle for everyone to see.

In that half hour, the duo struck a delicate balance with each character. With Brent, we saw a fool with an enormous ego demonstrate just enough obliviousness to milk the comedy out of an awkward scene. With Tim, we saw a good person suffer the worst kind of humiliation in what might have been his proudest moment. The delicate contrasts are painted perfectly to wring out every bit of laughter and empathy, as they are throughout the series, and again in Extras, the follow-up BBC comedy where the sentiment, ego, and forced humility are wrapped up in the single character of Andy Millman.

Unfortunately, this difficult balance was predicated on the partnership. Gervais and Merchant are now separated (amicably), and each has his own half-hour comedy. Derek, a Channel 4 production shot in mockumentary style which is now available in America on Netflix, sees Gervais divorced from the harsher aspects of The Office and exploring sentimental terrain through the eyes of the title character, a nursing home helper who is naive (to the point that reviewers speculated about a learning disability) but kind. Hello Ladies, Merchant’s star vehicle that premiered last month on HBO, takes a very different tack. Here, Merchant explores his bad luck with women in the superficial surroundings of Los Angeles, and attacks himself and everyone else with a remorseless brand of undercutting humor that leaves very little room for humanity.

It turns out that Gervais is a softie while Merchant is a cynic, but the truth is that neither succeeds quite as well without a foil. Put simply, Derek is a tender show without an edge, and Hello Ladies is a funny show without a heart.

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The strange thing for me to admit about Derek is that all six episodes of the first season made me cry. Say one thing for Gervais; he knows how to tug the heartstrings. His Derek is a kind of living saint, a soft, smiling middle-aged man who wears sweaters and isn’t very smart, but who places empathy and kindness above everything else. He works for Hannah (Kerry Godliman), another faultless martyr who devotes herself to the dying men and women in the home despite wondering if she made the right choices in her life. Karl Pilkington, who Gervais and Merchant discovered when he produced their XFM radio show, plays Dougie the caretaker without deviating one iota from his own personality, and is nevertheless the highlight of the show. It’s hard to describe Pilkington, with his mix of practical cynicism and downtrodden wisdom, and I don’t believe for a second that he could play any character but himself. In Derek, though, he’s superb, unleashing gems about the home’s patrons like, “When you’re their age, are you really gonna start reading books? They might not get through it.”

Gervais can also be credited for creating a somber atmosphere around the home, full of dark sets and drab furniture and the various trinkets of the elderly. Many members of his own family work in nursing homes, and he honors the source material. As I said, the melancholy surroundings and the constant proximity to death, heightened by photo montages of the residents as young men and women set to music, was enough to break down my emotional defenses. The problem here is two-fold. First, tears be damned, it ends up feeling contrived. The show is full of bromides like, “kindness is magic,” and “I’m not clever or good-looking, but I’m kind.” Every character has at least one cut-away scene where he utters some version of the following platitude: “Derek is the best person I know.” The writers hit you over the head with his goodness, even scripting in a reunion with his long-lost father in the finale. And look, I fucking cried, okay? But when the tears dried, it felt more like I’d been fooled than truly affected.

The second problem is a bit more critical: It’s just not that funny. Pilkington’s monologues are the only real comic relief, and I recognized at least a few of his quotes from his riffs on Gervais’ podcast, so they weren’t even original. A fourth main character, Kevin (David Earl), is a disgusting creep obsessed with sex whose motivations are puzzling and who has basically no redeeming qualities until Gervais realized his mistake and attempted a last-second sympathy play in the finale. It failed, and the attempt at gross-out humor Kev represents falls very, very flat. Another plot, featuring a sullen rapper who does his community service at the home, is so predictable (the old-timers win him over!) and schmaltzy that it doesn’t feel very different than Gervais’ heavy-handed music video for Equality Street. The difference is that in Derek, Gervais wants you to embrace the mawkish scene.

Somehow, the man who invented David Brent became sentimental, and it’s impossible to make that transition without losing the comedy.

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Another confession, and you see where this is going: Hello Ladies makes me laugh. Merchant, a 6-foot-7 “goggle-eyed freak” (David Brent’s words, not mine) who moves among L.A.’s beautiful people in awkward fits and starts, can sell a punch line. He’s got the dry, self-deprecating British delivery down pat, and the best scenes in his new show come when he’s making fun of himself. I saw his stand-up act of the same name when it debuted in America in late December, and the story was the same; the uneven performance only managed to land when he committed to his own embarrassment.

”“To me, there’s two positions you can take as a stand-up comedian,” he told me at the time. “You can either have high status or low status with regard to the audience.” He pointed to Jerry Seinfeld as someone who speaks from a superior position and analyzes the world as if he’s distant from it. “Then there’s someone like Woody Allen in his stand-up years, where he tries to present himself as a winner, but he’s constantly revealing himself to be a loser.”

Two episodes into Hello Ladies, though, the problem is clear: While he evokes a laugh or two from his romantic struggles, his “Stuart Pritchard” is entirely unsympathetic as a character. In the pilot, he portrays himself as a cheapskate who will abandon his friends the moment a promising woman comes along, and last night, in “The Limo,” he cruelly rejects a tourist from the Midwest when his roommate’s superficial (but super attractive) friends come on the scene. He gets his comeuppance when he fails miserably, but it’s not enough for redemption. Not even close, really.

That would be fine, of course, if Merchant didn’t try so hard to earn our sympathy. This isn’t Seinfeld, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the credo of selfishness works so perfectly precisely because there’s nothing redeeming to be found. Larry David and George Constanza are boldly content to exist as soulless men, motivated by their own self interests. You’re supposed to laugh at them, but the writers don’t care if you like them. They’re purposefully horrifying, and they’re hysterical.

Merchant, unfortunately, wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to wring the laughter from the same cringe-inducing scenarios we saw in The Office, but then he wants to play sad music at the end of the episode, stare off into the distance, and make you feel his pain. He doesn’t seem to realize the difficulty inherent in trying to force David Brent and Tim Canterbury into the same person; you’re either an asshole, or you’ve got a soul. It’s the same reason why Parks & Recreation had to beat a hasty retreat from the Leslie-Knopes-as-Michael-Scott approach of the rough first season. As the driving force of the show (and without a Jim & Pam dynamic to offset her), Leslie needed a dose of sincerity. You can only wince so many times before you start getting tired, and it doesn’t take long for Hello Ladies to enter this realm of diminishing returns.

Merchant understands the concept just enough to give lip service to his Stuart’s humanity. It’s a completely ill-advised move, because it shies away from a Larry David-esque commitment to comedic amorality, and panders to our need for goodness in a very shallow manner. It’s the equivalent of someone saying something really cruel to you, and then adding “no offense” as he walks away.

Then, of course, there’s the same problem Derek faces: Hello Ladies isn’t as funny as it thinks. The arrogance of Merchant’s intelligence is coupled with a surprising descent into mediocre comedy, as when the big punch line of the first episode consists of him crashing into a table full of drinks. It reminded me of watching his stand-up set, when he delved into the hassles of airplane travel or the uselessness of grade school math. For someone so smart, it’s a little shocking to watch him resort to hackneyed material. And the supporting cast, unlike Derek, is an afterthought; this is Merchant’s show, and aside from Kevin Weisman’s excellent turn as Kives, Stuart’s disabled friend/rival, there’s not much help to be found.

And Merchant needs it; he’s not a natural in front of the camera like Gervais. The moments of superficial laughter barely keep Hello Ladies floating along, but they can’t hide Merchant’s total isolation in a show that feels desperate and misguided.

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Derek has been renewed for a second season in the U.K., and despite its weaknesses, it’s the better of the two shows. At the very least, it does sentiment and story well, whereas Hello Ladies has an identity problem that will likely limit it to a single run. (In the race between soulless and saccharine, the latter always wins.) No matter how long they last, though, both shows will be stuck in the long shadow of what came before. The products are diluted, the balance is gone, and it’s hard not to miss the days of heart and humor, when Gervais and Merchant combined to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

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