The only news source I ever pay any attention to is The Guardian Online. Admittedly I only ever give it a cursory glance over my morning coffee, because world news tends to depress me, but occasionally a story catches my eye and I postpone my morning dump long enough to read the whole thing. On Tuesday I shat with an alarming velocity, which could be attributed to Monday night’s indulgence on Guinness and mixed pickles, or to my bowel’s venomous response to this article by Tanya Gold, about Ricky Gervais’s new comedy-drama Derek, which aired last night on Channel 4. It seems every time Ricky blows his nose The Guardian has some fucking hack freelancer on the case, spouting off an opinion piece which never amounts to anything more than a load of bitching about what a horrible person he is, this time under the guise of intelligent discourse on the treatment of disability in modern television. Well I, too, am a hack freelancer, and I won’t stand idly around having my chosen profession besmirched by these goddamn humourless dickheads.
Jesus, maybe I should slow down on the whiskey until I finish this thing…
I remember hearing a story about Warren Mitchell, who played Alf Garnett in the show Till Death Do Us Part. It would help my point considerably if I could reference this thing, but fuck it, this is the internet. The story goes that Warren was approached by some pig-faced racist sonofabitch who told him how much he loved watching him make fun of [choose your own minority]. Warren responded by telling him he wasn’t making fun of [chosen minority], he was making fun of racist people like him, who really think like that, and walked away.
Of course we can always rely on the ignorant to not only blindly hate anyone whose skin is not the same colour as their own, but to be so enveloped in that hatred that basic tenets of irony are lost on them. What we should not do, though, is try to sanitise the media for fear of those it might infect.
Ricky Gervais is not a bigot. I have had the displeasure of seeing actually bigotry and prejudice in action. I’m sure almost everyone has. It takes the form of everything from hushed comments and sniggering behind covered mouths to outright verbal and physical abuse. Whatever the form, it is fucking horrible. It is the sort of incomprehensible bile that provokes an almost physical revulsion. It is a level of hatred and wickedness so deeply ingrained that it dehumanises entire groups of people, based on race, sexuality, disability, or any number of other arbitrary things. And that is exactly how I know Ricky is not one of them. In creating the character Derek he does the very opposite of what real bigots do: he humanises him. He gives Derek feelings, desires, and a personality that is in direct contrast to the ridiculous haircut and overbite Ricky affects in his appearance. The people who think the mong-face (yeah, I said it) is the source of the comedy are either missing the point, or the sort of bigoted fucks who think that sort of thing is funny anyway. Either way, Ricky is not generating prejudice.
Is his handling of controversial material sometimes insensitive? Probably. But only because so many people are too sensitive about this sort of thing. People believe the issue is just so serious, there is no comedy to be found in it. Well, George Carlin maintained that anything can be funny. Anything. Even rape – check it out. What Ricky Gervais has the balls to do is portray disabled people as having – get this – actual lives outside of their disabilities. Well god fucking forbid these people do anything but cry in their beer about what a shitty hand they have been dealt in life. God forbid they find themselves in the same awkward social situations as the rest of us. God forbid they ever fuck anything up or act like a tit. Because they’re disabled. It’s just insensitive. If you think like that then fuck you. And fuck Tanya Gold for missing the point of not only Derek, but also the fantastic Channel 4 show The Undateables.
‘Is this what passes for disability rights campaigning today? In a culture currently watching the reality show on Channel 4 in which disabled people go on dates, promoted by a sign screaming “Undateable”, perhaps it is.’
Does a show called The Undateables seem, on the surface, like a big manipulative gimmick? Yes, frankly, I think it does. But that is nothing more than the heavy-handedness of television producers. Actually watching the show proves that it is much more. Ignoring for a second the ubiquitous drama-creating narration, which does everything but have Davina McCall say, ‘after the break…’ the program shows a number of people with disabilities experiencing actual human emotions. Loneliness, sexual attraction, insecurity, shyness, love. Other than a cursory summary of the person’s condition, very little is made of their disability. It is an incredibly touching show precisely because it is not full of the overwrought heart-strings imagery we have come to associate with TV shows about disability. And the film makers do not shy away from the obviously hilarious scenes out of a misdirected attempt at sensitivity. It is funny. Not because ‘haha, look at this goofy bastard’, but because I can fucking relate. Disabled people are not some other type of creature, whose entire existences are dominated by their physical or psychological conditions. They are human, and are as susceptible to the human condition as anyone else. And though his characters are fictional, that is what Ricky Gervais does so well.
The same criticisms were levelled at him when he released Life’s Too Short. I have to admit, I didn’t much care for Life’s Too Short. It felt like re-hashing too much of the material already covered in The Office. A mockumentary about an arrogant, self-deluding man who ultimately inspires empathy in spite of his shortcomings (shit, that’s the first time I really made a pun that wasn’t intended… I didn’t know that actually happened) because the writing and the performance is full of humanity. It is not a caricature. Sure, there are too many dwarf-falling-over jokes in Life’s Too Short, but the point Tanya Gold misses (among many) is that Warwick Davis does not climb a bookshelf or fall out of his car because he is a dwarf. He does those things because he is an arrogant prick – too prideful to ask for help and so given to overcompensating that he chooses the most impractical car possible. Warwick’s failing is NOT that he is a dwarf, and Derek’s failing is NOT whatever mental disability he is supposed to have, since that is never even made explicit. If Derek has a failing, it is in stark contrast to any of Gervais’s previous characters, as pride and conceit simply are not factors in his life. He is open and honest about all of his feelings, from his ‘love’ for care worker Hannah to his jealousy at her attraction to another man. Ultimately he is so committed to the concept that kindness is the most important thing of all that he is indiscriminately kind – even to those who don’t probably deserve it – and so in spite of his selflessness he is perceived as a nuisance, or a ‘mental’. Crucially, though, at no point does Gervais ever point a finger and say, ‘haha, look at this silly wanker!’ The comedy is derived from situations we can all relate to on some level, and the same goes for the dramatic scenes, which I actually felt were stronger than the funny ones. How anyone could watch Derek’s openly emotional response to the news that an elderly friend had died and suggest that this character is nothing more than a tasteless disability joke is beyond me. The problem is that too many people can’t get past the disability, just like they can’t get past swear words, or sex scenes or violence. They don’t care what is actually being said because something has offended their delicate sensibilities and they would rather stick their fingers in their ears and say ‘la la la la la…’, than actually engage with the material.
It is frustrating for me that I felt compelled to write this article. The idea that we haven’t, as a society, gotten past this bullshit is ridiculous to me. The people we need to worry about are not the people writing fictional comedy-dramas in which the protagonist is a man with a mental disability. The ones we need to worry about are those who don’t get it. The problem is, it seems that there are an awful lot more of those than I first realised, apparently on both sides of the argument. Prejudice against disabled people is a serious issue, but nothing is so serious that it becomes untouchable by literature or film or even that most underrated or art forms, comedy. These overly liberal, politically correct social commentators probably don’t realise the harm they are doing in pointing their fingers at the wrong people, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call them on their bullshit. If you are offended, it’s your fucking problem. Being offended does not afford you any special rights. And your knee-jerk outrage at anything with an edgy or controversial subject is such a gross oversight that I suggest you re-evaluate some of your sensibilities. It’s lovely that you are against prejudice, but in directing your criticism at any film maker who dares to tackle the subject, you are not only missing the point, but diluting the real argument we should be having. Why is it that disability is something that must be swept under a rug, or placed on a pedestal? Why is there no room for it somewhere in between?