Wherever Ricky Gervais goes, howls of outrage follow. Before it even aired, his new U.K. show, Derek, in which he plays a sweet, mentally challenged autograph hound named Derek Noakes, earned him criticism for “lazy cruelty,” among other perceived offenses. Those charges echoed the response to both his previous show, Life’s Too Short, whose central character was a clumsy dwarf with delusions of grandeur, and to his repeated tweeting of the word mong (the British “retard”). A consensus has been reached: The erstwhile “little fat bloke” from Reading has officially become an asshole.
The fact is Gervais has always been an asshole. What his critics are failing to consider is something we’ll call the Law of Comic Proportionality. Basically, it holds that the bigger you are, the less society will tolerate you picking on people who are perceived to be small. Or are small. In comedy, as in politics, as in life, you never shoot down. Thus, Gervais smiting the gods of Hollywood at the Golden Globes is considered inbounds (except by the gods themselves), but mining laughs from Derek, a bulge-eyed, jut-jawed simpleton with a Hitler haircut, is not.
Illustrations abound. Borat was never less funny than when Sacha Baron Cohen, by then rich and famous, went after a nice southern family who welcomed him into their home. Joel McHale made his name getting mean on The Soup, but as he approaches mainstream success with Community, so too does the point where savage jokes about the misshapen denizens of reality TV become unseemly. (Success isn’t the only determining variable: The reason Don Rickles was able to make a great living insulting old ladies is because he’s four feet tall and looks like a toe knuckle. Nowhere to shoot from there but up.)
When Gervais debuted the Derek character in 2001, it didn’t come off as egregious because he himself was little known; when he did the British Office, his mean streak was evident, but it worked because he played the clueless middle manager, a hated creature under whom much suffering occurs. But as Gervais’s star has risen, the law started working against his humor—and he’s responded with a campaign flack’s facility for dissembling. Life’s Too Short, he said, addressed an unspecified dwarf taboo by showing that little people can be bastards too (bastards who fall down and can’t reach doorbells). And Derek’s critics are just wrong, he argued last week, because “Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don’t mean him to be disabled, then that’s it.” Okay, then.
Those sorts of contortions are ultimately unnecessary, as the one loophole in the Law of Comic Proportionality holds that funny trumps all, always (call it the Daniel Tosh Rule), and Gervais is unfailingly on the good side of that one. Which is perhaps why, when Derek ired, the response was a light bafflement. Gervais played Derek straight, went for heartstrings over laughs. “Derek was, at its heart, nothing if not kind,” wrote one critic. Yet, for all its heart, something was missing. As another critic said: “The relief that Gervais hasn’t chosen to go headfirst down an unfortunate alleyway of nasty humor can’t disguise the fact that there aren’t actually that many laughs in the show.” Sometimes a jerk just can’t win.