Comedy usually has a target. Satire points out the flaws of it’s subject. Sitcom also puts characters through the wringer, even in the mildest gentlest episode of As Time Goes By. With the possible exception of silly wordplay, there is a butt for most jokes out there.
Not all of this is “nasty” – much of it is friendly gentle mockery, almost a tribute. Other times it is a vicious demolition of a person or a stereotype. (Remember all comedy writers are drawing from a limitless pit of rage. That’s what makes the funny.)
Which brings us to Derek, Ricky Gervais’s latest creation. Who is the target? Is it OK?
To declare an interest I am a massive fan of Gervais’s work, particularly The Office and Extras. Never met him of course. Although I do live in his old hometown of Reading. So you’d think the least he could do was pop in for tea one day before catapulting me to megastardom… but I digress.
Broadly there are three possible targets for comedy:
1. Those above you – most satire aims here, punching upwards at the rich and powerful, the movers and shakers, celebs and politicians.
2. Yourself. Or people like you. A lot of observational humour is aimed at “me” or “us” pointing out our foibles and laughing at all the silly little things we do.
2a. The audience. A lot of knowing, ironic comedy, or comedy about comedy is really targeting the audience. I include this as part of point 2. because it is about “us”: the audience and the performer colluding: not the “them” above us – the elite; or the “them” below” us – the weak.
3. Those below you. The weak, minorities or vulnerable groups, either in general or in particular. Think Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning. You might guess I’m not a fan.
Don’t think surrealists don’t fit any of these. Generally the target of a surrealist is either themselves (showing people the odd ways that they think) or the audience (shaking up their way of thinking and showing them the world in a different way).
So is it ever OK to “punch downwards” at the unfortunate or discriminated against? I don’t think it is. I can’t see how it can be. Especially when the joke is pointing out their supposed flaws or “our” supposed superiority.
Claiming anything goes so long as “it’s a laugh” is the weaseliest excuse. You wouldn’t accept that if somebody found punching you in the face or stealing your lunch money funny, that somehow made it all OK. And I can remember kids in school who used to find that sort of thing hilarious (when they and their mates were doing it at least).
But is that what Gervais and co are doing in Derek?
Having watched it I don’t think they are trying to “punch downwards”. I don’t think that Gervais and co want to pick on Derek in the show. They go out of their way to make Derek “a nice guy”, if eccentric. Derek is meant to be a sympathetic character. But a lot of the laughs are meant to come from Derek being clumsy or failing to understand things. It may be that these laughs are supposed to be about us recognising that we could be like that too. But I’m not sure. I don’t think most of us would strip naked immediately because we fell in a pond. I don’t think the writers are being intentionally nasty. But it didn’t come across well.
And given the mockumentary style, I think Gervais is kidding himself and us if he thinks Derek is not learning disabled. Father Dougal from Father Ted is an exaggerated character in a stylised show, so we don’t think about the question. And yes Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em also presents as learning disabled.
I don’t think making Derek was wrong. I don’t think Gervais and co aimed to mock disability. But I think the portrayal of Derek is very clearly of a man with a mild learning disability. There is nothing wrong with that as such but, given how people with learning disabilities are treated in our culture, most of us would be uncomfortable making such a character a lead in a comedy program.
There is a seperate question of whether this works comedically. (I think not – generally great comic characters have delusions of some kind, or flaws that exposed. Derek is unfortunate rather than comedically flawed.) I found it quite moving in places. Not very funny. I think it could have been an interesting drama with the odd comic moment and would have been better without some of the obvious comic business. Derek could have been an interesting drama about a man with learning disabilities. There would be nothing wrong with that. But we expect comedy from Ricky Gervais.
But there is danger that in labelling it a comedy, people may think the main character is being mocked. I’m sure that’s not the intention of the program makers – as the scene in the pub (and the headbutt) shows. And you can’t legislate for idiots (like the girls in the pub) watching your programs and willfully misunderstanding them. And maybe that’s the point Ricky is trying to make.