Comedy review: Ricky Gervais's 'Armageddon' warm-up gig.
My thoughts on Ricky's latest stand-up, live from Manchester, 28th November.
Reviewing live comedy is an odd task. Not only is comedy an entirely subjective art form, but in recent years it seems many reviewers have decided their job is to be accountants for the “correct” opinions. We rarely read insightful commentary about craft, timing, subtext, subversion, execution and whether the jokes landed with their audience—instead we are told which jokes we should be outraged about.
Ricky Gervais is currently playing a number of live warm-up gigs for his new show titled ‘Armageddon’—one of which I got to see in Manchester on Monday. The temptation is just to tell you what all my favourite jokes were—but I won’t. Firstly, I don’t want to spoil them for you. Secondly, I couldn’t do them justice.
Also, nothing strips away vital context from a comedy routine like isolating sections of it in the written form. Void of all nuance, body language, facial expressions and gesticulation—a perfectly decent joke can be made to appear malicious. What is obviously faux outrage or ironic ignorance when delivered to a live audience can read as the ramblings of a psychopath when isolated in text form. And I suspect that reporting on comedy in a way that creates this perception is sometimes the actual goal of certain outlets. We saw this with Gervais’s previous Netflix special ‘SuperNature’, where many of the headlines and much of the social media hysteria relied on completely missing the point or misrepresenting it.
So, what can I tell you about Armageddon? Is it any good? Yes, of course it is. In fact—even though the show is described as a “work in progress”, the material felt tight and fully realised. If dropped on Netflix in this state tomorrow, I suspect it would still be celebrated as Ricky's best special to date.
The “backlash” to SuperNature is gleefully mined for laughs in the opening moments of Armageddon. There’s something incredibly reassuring (and rare) about a comedian that annoys people of all political persuasions and refuses to be cowed by any sort of “backlash”. This isn’t a man that ignores the ‘backlash’ because he doesn’t care about it. This is a man that is all too aware of the backlash—yet still doesn’t care.
If you thought there may be a temptation to play it safe this time around, you are deeply mistaken. There’s nothing safe about some of the unpleasant subject matter in Armageddon—from AIDS, famine, paedophilia, infant mortality, Hitler and James Corden to name just a sample.
On occasion, Ricky ventures into especially tricky territory —which in less capable hands could have gone very, very wrong. For instance, he has a devastating bit targeting the misogynistic oppression of women and girls. Safe enough, surely? Except he’s talking about these things in the context of Pakistan. Ah. Suddenly not so safe, for some reason.
Ricky points at the audience and says “nervous” mid-way through this particular bit—immediately turning the tension into laughter. But the fact that making jokes at the expense of misogynistic oppressors of women and girls can make one “nervous”—depending on where the oppressors are located—tells you precisely why it’s essential to make jokes at their expense. We appear to have found ourselves a taboo—and for me, taboo is the most thrilling area to interrogate with comedy—albeit the most difficult. There is no margin for error and it’s ripe for misrepresentation. But you know what is as risky as it is funny ? Cultural relativism. Ricky takes the difficult route here instead—and succeeds.
Keeping with tricky territory, we also get to hear a glorious bit about the “n-word” which is as clever as it is hilarious. “That’s the one” Ricky remarks after the laughter finally calms down—a nod to the likelihood that this is the joke that will cause the next inevitable “backlash”.
And here I think is how we can best understand why Ricky Gervais annoys so many ideologues on the left and the right. These polarising tribes like to think they are in favour of liberal, enlightenment principles. That is until Ricky utilises those very principles to stomp all over their particular dogmas and sensitivities. One minute he will be tearing apart the progressive left, moments later he will be obliterating the religious right.
It’s a show that cannot be pigeonholed. This is a comedian that can be talking about humanity’s destruction of the environment and and the benefits of reducing meat consumption one moment then mocking the woke’s uncritical attitude to illegal immigration the next. Which, if makes the final Netflix recording, will no doubt be falsely reported on as some sort of “anti-immigrant” hatred. This is both the consequence of producing smart comedy and lampooning ideologues at the same time. The idiots will miss the point and the ideologues will pretend to do so in order to protect their tribe and narrative.
None of this should be confused with Ricky intentionally pushing things too far like some sort of provocative, boorish shock merchant. We aren’t witnessing an escalation here, but rather a display of consistency. His material changes with every new show of course, but his principles and targets remain fixed.
In between trips to darker, trickier territories, we can hear equally hilarious bits about space travel, weddings, movies and evolution. A wide-eyed fascination with science, nature and animals runs throughout Armageddon—as is a feature of previous specials. Slugs, snails and goldfish are the beneficiaries of some excellent pieces of personification this time. To my mind, Ricky also takes a rare journey into the meta when outlining a multi-layered scenario that deals with offense, cultural sensitivity and the fictional subjects of jokes. It got some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Ricky is never better than when it is just him and microphone. I hope he keeps producing stand-up specials with the frequency and quality he is somehow managing right now.
The overarching theme of Armageddon is the idea that you cannot choose your thoughts—and what might happen if you decide to say them out loud? Well, if you are Ricky Gervais then it’s the best stand-up show since SuperNature.