The Gervais Delusion

As part of my ongoing examination of Australian comedy online (see my last blog) I’ve been working my way through every Australian comedy podcast I can find. I’ll write more fully about more of them in the future, but one thing I’ve been struck by is how few of them contain scripted material.

I suppose that’s not much of a surprise, such is the dominance of the yammer-fest on radio and the panel show on TV that scripted comedy is getting rarer and rarer these days – meaning it inspires less imitators. Similarly, in the world of podcasting, the “small number of people having a chat” model is the one that dominates. Why? Probably because while a microphone/webcam, some software and a decent enough computer are within the budget of the average aspiring content producer, sitting down for ages and writing a sitcom or some sketches, and then spending hours and hours recording and editing it/them, isn’t something most people have the time, inclination or skills to do – it’s far easier to just hit record and have a chat. So, it was refreshing to see Josh Thomas ditch the chat-based format of his previous podcasts and upload a sketch he’d made on video last week.

”I haven’t heard a new or exciting idea on the radio in this country, ever” said Thomas in a recent interview, which covered his podcast, Josh Thomas & Friend, in a reasonable amount of detail. Thomas’ statement is pretty hard to disagree with, for it’s the failure of commercial radio stations to divert from their yammer-fest format and do something different – like produce sketches – that makes them so dull. But while I admire Thomas for making the effort to produce a sketch, with it, it seems, he’s swapped one exhausted style of comedy for another – that of Ricky Gervais.

As Thomas says in the same interview, he’s become obsessed with Gervais’ work recently, because he’s working on his own sitcom (part of the ABC’s STITCH initiative) and has been seeking inspiration. Thomas isn’t the first comedian in Australia, or indeed the rest of the world, to look to the highly successful Ricky Gervais for inspiration, and as such the Gervais style had become pretty tedious. If there’s anything worse than the humour of Gervais – stuffed as at is with jokes at the expense of the victim rather the perpetrator (or as my colleague 13 schoolyards described it in his last blog, “bullying”), jokes about women/gays/the disabled which are supposed to be ironic but in fact aren’t, naturalism that’s nothing of the sort, endless poorly-written lines performed tediously slowly and cringey moments which are supposed to be hilarious but actually just make you physically uncomfortable – it’s the humour of people trying to be him.

In Thomas’ sketch his friend Tom Ward has been taken on to help him market his Comedy Festival show. Thomas’ idea is for the pair to sit down and create some decoupage posters, hand-made things being hip in comedy right now (for which you can thank UK stand-up Josie Long, among others). Ward’s not very keen on the idea, but as the hired help has little choice but to do as Thomas wishes, and starts labouring away, cutting out parts of Thomas’ old promotional material to form the words “Josh is funny” in decoupage on a poster. Thomas, meanwhile, impatiently supervises, ripping up some of Ward’s work because it’s not good enough, and whiling away the time eating rose pannacotta, which he doesn’t share. Eventually he helps a bit, creating a decoupage penis poster, while Ward completes his work. The final scene shows Ward reluctantly wearing the “Josh is funny” poster in the street as a sandwich board, turning ’round at the end to reveal that he’s wearing Thomas’ penis poster on his back.

This isn’t full-on Gervais-style humour – it’s nowhere near as mean-spirited or cringe-making, indeed Thomas’ personality, and the fact that Ward’s laughing along at some of it, enables him to get away with some of his behaviour far more easily than the acerbic Gervais – but it does suffer from being a bit slow, as well as light on laughs. And the fact that the punchline of Ward turning around to reveal that he’s wearing the penis poster was given away several scenes beforehand is a big problem, as is the fact that most of the humour’s derived from Thomas bullying Ward, although, at least with the rose pannacotta, Thomas is made to look like a bit of a git.

So far Josh Thomas hasn’t shown himself to be the greatest comedian in the world, indeed he often comes across as dumb, self-centred and annoying – like a real life Chris Lilley character, in fact – but occasionally he shows some promise (check out his Twitter, every so often he’ll post a surprisingly sharp one-liner). However, adopting the style of Ricky Gervais isn’t going to help him – The Office may be considered a classic by many, but besides its many flaws, it’s been copied so often it’s rapidly getting boring. Thomas needs to combine his endearing innocence with his pithy sharpness, and ditch the Gervais-aping and the Chris Lilley-style self indulgence. If he does, who knows, he might start to be really funny.

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7 Comments

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    I’m a little surprised that Thomas is going down the Gervais route, as I was under the impression that the school of whimsy he’s a part of was pretty much a reaction to the nastiness and abuse of Gervais et al. Not that I’m a fan of whimsy, but this feels like a step backwards for him.

  • Simon says:

    What are the many “flaws” in The Office?

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    Simon, quite a few of the flaws in The Office are detailed in the post: “stuffed as at is with jokes at the expense of the victim rather the perpetrator (or as my colleague 13 schoolyards described it in his last blog, “bullying”), jokes about women/gays/the disabled which are supposed to be ironic but in fact aren’t, naturalism that’s nothing of the sort, endless poorly-written lines performed tediously slowly and cringey moments which are supposed to be hilarious but actually just make you physically uncomfortable”. Hope that helps.

  • some other vegetable says:

    I agree with your assessment of Gervais. He is intrinsically unlikeable, and it’s difficult to enjoy anything he does, while all the while you’re aware that you’re supposed to be enjoying it because everyone, including himself, regards him as a genius. Interesting to contrast the entirely loveable Steve Carell and what he has done with the American version of The Office, giving it a vastly extended life by allowing us to warm to the characters, flawed though they are. And it is still totally piss-your-pants funny.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    For more on this topic, check out Blog O’ Leaps: http://leapster.cust.nearlyfreespeech.net/?p=170

  • Jason says:

    The reason Aussies are doing the whole Gervais thing is that this is the freshest most contemporary comedy most of them have bothered seeing. Australian comedy still thinks it’s 10 years ago and as a result the comedy reflects that. Most Australian comedians are still blathering on about Seinfeld, for God’s sakes.
    Who knows, perhaps in another 10 years Australians will start copying Tim and Eric or something.