“Thank you to God — for making me an atheist!”
— Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, 2011
Despite boasting a CV that shows him to be the writer-director-producer-lead actor of various TV situation comedies, movies, and stand-up shows, Ricky Gervais is as much known today for being one of the more prominent public faces of atheism. He seemingly never tires of telling journalists of the day in his eighth year when he found the path to godless enlightenment. The media, in turn, never tire of asking him about it.
It’s via these interactions with the media, as well as through his own status updates and tweets on social media, that one of the most accomplished and revered comedic minds of this century has jettisoned himself onto the frontlines of the culture wars where he wittily battles regularly on behalf of humanism, reason, and secularism.
Like Bill Maher and George Carlin before him, Gervais recounts a personal life testimony of a Christian upbringing thwarted in childhood by a moment of epiphany. Unlike Maher and Carlin, Gervais’ was assisted by an older brother who ridiculed young Ricky for his worship of Jesus (his “hero”). Feeling under attack, Ricky looked to his mother for support, only to see her sheepishly telling his brother to cease and desist. He knew then, he recalls, that something was not right.
Decades later he told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, “My Mum only lied to me once when she told me there was a god”. Carlin and Maher tell similar stories, ones familiar to many, of how religion was initially indoctrinated into them by a parent. Gervais is forgiving of his mother, though, explaining the functional role that religion and Sunday school often play for parents attempting to raise children in a poor environment. “When you’re working class, God is like an unpaid babysitter,” he quips.
At school the young Gervais became particularly interested in nature and the sciences, his educational and evidentiary findings further validating his new-found path. On reaching university he intended to study Biology but admits that he opted instead for Philosophy because less study hours were required. It would be 20 more years before the comedian would establish his stand-up career, but anyone who has seen his “Animals”, “Science” or “Politics” tours will surely perceive a rhetorical application of humor firmly rooted in a passion for both philosophy and science.
As a member of the British Humanist Association and an ardent campaigner on behalf of animal, human, and secularist rights today, Gervais further shows the lineage of interests that have inspired him throughout his life. His advocacy of atheism is even apparent in his personal life, as shown when he jokes about why he has never married his long-term partner, Jane Fallon: “There’s no point in us having an actual ceremony before the eyes of God because there is no God.” (e).
Such candid atheism is still a rarity within predominantly religious countries like the US, but it’s quite common today in the UK, where a recent Gallop poll showed it to be the 6th least religious nation in the world, with only 30 percent of the population subscribing to a particular faith. Some might argue that this makes the irreligious comedy of Gervais less bold
than that of his US comedic peers, but, lest we forget, it was less than 40 years ago that the Monty Python team were on the brink of being prosecuted for blasphemy after they released the irreverent (if somewhat tame by today’s standards) film, The Life of Brian (1979). Although rarely acted upon these days, restrictive speech laws are still on the books in Britain, even those applying to religious sensibilities.
Gervais has admitted that it was not until he started spending more time in the US that he became more outspoken about religion. This post-Office era has been one in which his public image has morphed from the king of cringe comedy to the satirical spokesperson for Enlightenment values. Much of this transition has come courtesy of his almost constant engagement with the media and his own use of social media, particularly Twitter.
Recognized for a verbose and often meandering style that verges on lecturing while performing stand-up, Gervais has become adept at the art of succinct sarcastic sound-bites through his popular Twitter account. While the 140 character limit is a constraint for some, Gervais uses it artfully and ironically, pithily posting one-liners for both self-promotion and issue advocacy. A provocative humorist, Gervais uses tweets like arrows: to penetrate his adversaries with incision and precision. Never one to compromise or contain his idealism, Twitter serves his comedic mission to deliver short, sharp, and snappy shock-attacks.
Twitter is tailor-made for an assertive wit like Gervais, a form where insults are best served in small doses, controversy can be courted in the moment, and immediate publication elicits timely responses. With no gatekeepers, intermediaries, or journalists to misquote him, in Twitter Gervais has found the ideal outlet to speak his mind. Explaining why he prefers to expand his brand through Twitter rather than via the traditional media interview, Gervais explains, “With Twitter I’m more laid back because my side of the story is out there in black and white.”
For some, such lean comedy is both delimiting and hazardous, as arguments are simplified to “chuckle-bites” that are often misconstrued or misinterpreted. Moreover, Twitter’s spirit of immediacy can sometimes encourage hasty postings that have not been fully thought through, resulting in offense and/or angry backlash. One would imagine that a serial tweeter like Gervais would fall foul of the forum’s potential traps; yet, while there is no shortage of harsh responses to his controversial tweets, the comedian doesn’t appear particularly bothered by either the perils or the fallout.
Maybe 140 characters are insufficient to adequately articulate an argument, but comedy can thrive under such limitations. Brevity, exaggeration, and incongruity are the very core ingredients of most jokes, as they are of many successful comic tweets. Furthermore, although Gervais admits to taking a couple of years off Twitter (2010-2012), conceding that he found some of the exchanges undignified, he has since returned to the form with renewed enthusiasm and a devil-may-care attitude. While realizing that his provocative tweets can lead to some ugly on-line showdowns, the comedian claims to use Twitter nowadays as a place to “Play the fool. Goad. Shock. Laugh.”
Predictably, not everyone is amused by his incessant stream of anti-religious tweets; this maybe accounts for why a recent British poll found Gervais to be the second most hated personality on Twitter—after Piers Morgan. Conversely, his seven million “twonk” followers feel otherwise. Indeed, one ardent fan even set up a web site dedicated solely to sharing Gervais’ “funniest” tweets about religion. Among the sample are:
“Everyone has the right to believe anything they want. And everyone else has the right to find it fucking ridiculous.” (7/6/2012)
“God doesn’t prevent terrible things because: A. He can’t. B. He doesn’t want to. C. He causes them. D. He doesn’t exist. Please vote now.” (5/23/2013)
“Imagine if you carried on believing in Santa and the tooth fairy into adulthood. And even killed and started wars over it. Haha. Imagine that.” (24/3/2013)
“Praying is hilarious. Surely he knows what you want already. ‘I just want to hear you say it! Beg! That’s better. I’ll think about it.’”
“I’ve never been insulted by hateful Satanists for not believing in their devil. Only by loving Christians for not believing in their God.”
“‘@MTVnews: Beyonce, Rihanna & Katy Perry send prayers to #Oklahoma #PrayForOklahoma’. I feel like an idiot now… I only sent money” (5/21/2013).
Despite his inclination to network through social media rather than the traditional media, Gervais’ aforementioned reservations about being misquoted in interviews have not prevented him from being one of the most coveted and covered comedians of his era. It’s through interviews that we have learned most about his attitudes towards religion, if only because journalists are almost certain to ask him about them. Bemused by a media that concentrates so much upon his atheism, Gervais is hardly reticent in responding and in using newspapers and magazines to share his minority perspectives with major audiences.
A common line of questioning concerns the offense he periodically causes through his Twitter posts. Here, Gervais tends to assume a defense-into-offense position, claiming that he never intends to offend but neither will he self-censor his thoughts and opinions. He loves to evoke the word “kindness”, simultaneously co-opting and calling attention to a word the religious right are sometimes more fond of using than acting upon.
“I don’t believe in your God but I believe in your kindness”, he teases via the Daily Mail; “You don’t need whatever religion gives you. Just be kind”, he suggests via the British Humanist Association. Such “kill them with kindness” jibes also speak implicitly (and ironically) to the familiar criticism leveled at atheists that they are somehow incapable of moral conduct without a guiding god in their hearts. At this stage such critics invariably cite Hitler and Stalin as illustrations. They both had moustaches, too, Gervais rebuts, adding that no atheist does [bad] things in the “name of atheism”
When afforded the opportunity, Gervais steers journalists towards his comfort zones of philosophy and science. He brings up, for example, those “moronic” tweeters that always ask him, “Doesn’t denying God prove his existence?” to which he exasperatedly responds that the burden of proof is not on him to prove that God does not exist. Science, too, offers the road to reason and rationality for the comedian. In a 2010 guest column for the Wall Street Journal he argues that unlike religion, “science is humble… It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along.” And yes, religious tradition may provide us with a rich cultural heritage, but holding onto its literal dictates can lead to dire consequences.
Science, conversely, “doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leech down your trousers and pray.” On the question of the “truth” of any give faith, Gervais again strikes a pointed contrast, stating that if we were to live human life over again, all religions would be different but the scientific laws of the universe would not be.
As for most provocateur humorists, critical backlash is an integral component of Gervais’ comedic arsenal. Upsetting, disturbing, offending, and shocking require negative blowback in order to stir the conversation to a sufficient boiling point where the satire bites and, ideally, takes some effect. “I always expect some people to be offended. I know I ruffle feathers but some people’s feathers need a little ruffling,” he asserts, adding, “You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you. But no one has the right to never be offended.”
Dealing with a subject matter like religion, where the attendant humor, however innocuous, is guaranteed to offend (some), Gervais has become inoculated to criticism and to those who demand that religion be off-limits. “There’s no line to be drawn in comedy in the sense there are things you should never joke about,” he proclaims emphatically.
Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, and Penn Jillette have shown us that humility and restraint are not always celebrated attributes for the new atheists. Like these wits, Gervais is an arrogant right-fighter; he always gives as good — and better — than he gets and is seemingly incapable of resisting any opportunity to provoke the powerful. Not many hosts would spend the whole night of the Golden Globes (for three consecutive years) mercilessly ridiculing his industry’s celebrities (sitting in the audience) and then end the proceedings with this closing ritualistic inversion: “Thank you to God — for making me an atheist.”
The relentless need to “ruffle feathers” can be exhausting to the uninitiated or overly sensitive, leading to some observers and critics,perhaps lazily, dismissing rather than considering his more challenging messages and/or methods. Erik Hedegaard echoes many such commentators when he says of Gervais, “He’s kind of arrogant, kind of smug, kind of judgmental.”
Now that Gervais has command of the spotlight and commandeered the microphone, he sometimes seems to be on a rampage of revenge against all the elitism and institutional exploitation he witnessed and/or experienced on his way up. The resulting bitter pill of his comedy provides an uncomfortable edge that is sadly rare in this era of restraint and compromise, where acts of self-preservation are often prioritized by entertainers as the most prudent career moves.
As he busily navigates a course that has him bouncing between making films, TV comedies, and stand-up routines, while simultaneously being a ubiquitous presence on social media, one can only hope that Gervais can carve out sufficient time to complete a TV project he promised was forthcoming in 2010, Afterlife, in which he was set to play God as an arrogant wise-cracker who is fond of atheists. No one could possibly be upset by that premise.