Channel Four’s late night comedy series The 11 O’Clock Show may only have run for three years, and may never have overly troubled the ratings, but it somehow proved a test bed for two of the biggest British comedy phenomena of the last decade. Launched in 1998 and hosted by Iain Lee (now best known as a radio presenter) and Daisy Donovan, the comedy elements of the show were always a bit hit and miss – which may have been why two characters in particular stood out so clearly above the rest. The first was the wannabe gangsta rapper Ali G, infamous for his idiotic yet somehow seemingly convincing interview techniques with the rich and powerful. The second was always Ricky Gervais – a truly obnoxious, foul-mouthed, politically-incorrect and thoroughly unpleasant correspondent who often took things so close to the bone as to visibly make his co-stars decidedly uncomfortable.
At the time, had anyone said that Ali G’s creator Sacha Baron Cohen would go on to great things, viewers of The 11 O’Clock Show would not have been too surprised. Had you predicted global superstardom for Ricky Gervais, however, they’d have laughed in your face. His whole persona was, after all, that of the obnoxious, overly-opinionated man in the pub who everyone hoped would just shut up. Yes, it was funny in small doses, but excruciatingly so.
Yet somehow comedy revolving around embarrassment has become immensely popular. Jerry Seinfeld arguably kicked off its revival with his insanely popular eponymous sitcom in the US, a trend that’s continued with the semi-spin-off Curb Your Enthusiasm. Yet the trend goes back further than that – be it Basil Fawlty’s cringe-making attempts to run his hotel in Fawlty Towers, Frank Spencer’s utter incompetence in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, or even the tribulations of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp way back in the silent early Golden Age of Hollywood.
Even so, Gervais’ follow-up to his 11 O’Clock Show outing managed to break new ground in the genre. The Office was so true to life we could all identify, yet at the same time took things to such genuinely awful extremes of embarrassment that we couldn’t look away. It became such a success that it has spawned new versions in several countries, with the US take – which Gervais continues to write – has run for nearly five times as many episodes as the original, and has begun to spawn its own stars, just as the UK version launched the careers of Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and more.
Now, after yet more success with his follow-up sitcom Extras, a rabid radio and podcast fanbase, bestselling books and DVDs, sell-out stand-up tours and cameos in everything from The Simpsons to hit computer game Grand Theft Auto (both as himself), Gervais is taking on his first starring role on the big screen. And, surprise, surprise, he again plays a grumpy, unpleasant and completely self-deluded middle-aged man who nobody much likes – pretty much the character that made him a star.
If you don’t like Gervais, you won’t even have read this far. If you do, however, rest assured that although he may not have written this tale of a dentist who has a near-death experience that leaves him able to see – and talk to – dead people, it is classic, spot-on Gervais material. If that sort of thing is for you, you won’t be disappointed – though you may be disappointed to learn that Gervais has said he’s unlikely to ever accept a starring role in a film again – so catch it now while you still can.