Ricky Gervais and the Loveable Asshole

by Ned Johnstone

Following his controversial fifth year as host of the Golden Globes and in anticipation of the second season of his beautifully written dark comedy, ‘After Life’, I felt obliged to pay homage to the comedic genius that is Ricky Gervais through an exploration of his trademark character development technique.

Watching ‘The Office’, ‘Extras’ or ‘The Invention of Lying’, one feels an immediate sense of familiarity. It may be Gervais’ tendency to write himself in the leading role, however, the similarities in his writing do not stop there. It is the heartwarming, life-affirming character development of each script’s asshole protagonist that I believe is the key element to Ricky’s success.

This pattern is present from some of his earliest work (such as relatable dickhead Andy Millman in ‘Extras’) all the way through to his most recent in ‘After Life’ (the heartbroken and pessimistic Tony Johnson). The constant misfortune and emotional adversity of Gervais’ characters combined with their horrid personalities make watching his work a draining experience (‘After Life’ is not the kind of show you can simply binge and expect to walk away mentally unharmed). However, this makes the watch all the more rewarding as Ricky commences the slow unveiling of these misunderstood characters’ true deep-seated decency and kind natures. The result is always an absolute fucking tearjerker.

‘The Office’s David Brent is a prime example of a genuinely awful and vulgar human being. However, as we sit there squirming in disgust at his constant mishaps and general inappropriateness we cannot help but sympathise with Brent. Despite all his ignorance, there is both a clear kindness and sadness within David Brent as Ricky illustrates parts within him that each of us see in ourselves and thus concreting the emotional with the viewer.

In an interview with Fast Company, Gervais stated the “single biggest influence” on his creative process was his old English teacher telling him to “write about what you know”. With this in mind, particularly following his brutal sledging at the recent Global Globes, it is no surprise Gervais tends to stick to the mould of the loveable asshole, as he is exactly that.