At about noon on Tuesday there was a fresh, lunchtime TV-related topic trending on several social-media platforms. Hours earlier, Netflix had released the new standup special from Ricky Gervais called SuperNature and there was a backlash against it from people who viewed it as anti-trans. Many of them had not actually viewed it yet, mind you, it was just released, and they were relying on a small number of online reviews that asserted Gervais mocked trans people.
We have a social responsibility to acknowledge and accommodate transgender people. We all know that. And we know that transgender people have a perfect right to complain if they feel they are treated unfairly.
We should know other things, too: There are three interesting aspects to the furor about the Gervais special on Netflix. One is that there is a campaign to shame both Gervais and Netflix. The second is that the campaign is sometimes carried out by people who haven’t even seen the special, and they’re proud of that. The third is we must view it all in the context of the traditional belief that it is the job of comedy to challenge the pieties of the day.
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Other, terrible, soul-destroying events unfolded on Tuesday. Yet by Wednesday morning the outrage about the Gervais special was firing up again, in reviews and on social media. Reading it all, you couldn’t help but marvel at how the raging fury of indignation about a one-hour Netflix special was outperforming, in lividity, the outrage and distress about those heart-scalding events. It felt unsettling.
The organization GLAAD, devoted to countering discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals, issued a statement about the Netflix special. “We watched the Ricky Gervais ‘comedy’ special on Netflix so you don’t have to. It’s full of graphic, dangerous, anti-trans rants masquerading as jokes. He also spouts anti-gay rhetoric & spreads inaccurate information about HIV.”
Well, that’s one interpretation but leaves out a good deal of what Gervais actually says, including his assertion more than once that he’s parodying intolerance in order to highlight the dangers and sheer dumbness of being intolerant. “That was irony,” he literally says, after one joke early in the special. “That’s when I say something I don’t really mean for comic effect, and you as an audience, you laugh at the wrong thing, because you know what the right thing is. It’s a way of satirizing attitudes.”
It is notable that GLAAD asserts people don’t have to watch the Gervais special and can be fully informed about it by the organization’s remarks on Twitter. The impulse to not look, but decide on the meaning of what you’re not seeing, is precisely how right-wing politicians in the United States want people to approach the terrible flaws in the US culture.
By all means condemn Gervais, even when he clearly says, and you will know if you watch the special, “Full disclosure! In real life, of course, I support trans rights. I support all human rights, and trans rights are human rights. Live your best life. Use your preferred pronouns. Be the gender that you feel that you are.” Then he undercuts that with a joke designed to test your tolerance. And by all means try to put that against the backdrop of the idea that, again, the job of comedy is to challenge the pieties of the day.
Not all anger is moral, not all provocative comedians are evil, in need of shaming. Gervais will ignore all condemnation and stick to his point about the need to tackle taboo subjects in order to highlight bigotry. There is evil in the world. To see evil, we must look at it, and it’s there on the TV news, happening in real life, maybe not so much on Netflix comedy specials. It’s up to people to decide to look, but not looking is dangerous and this is a dangerous time for comedy.
With that I leave you for a 10-day break. Be good to each other.
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