Ricky Gervais has never shied away from controversial topics for his comedy. Even before The Office, when he worked on The 11 O’Clock Show and his own chat show Meet Ricky Gervais, he was always happy to make jokes about things people could find offensive.
That style of humour was always there in The Office and Extras, but in his new sitcom, Life’s Too Short, it seems to be more offensive now, because the star of the show is a dwarf. Criticism of the show tends to focus on the idea that Gervais is somehow taking advantage of Warwick Davis, that he is laughing at him and making him do funny things for his own pleasure. This is to spectacularly miss the point of the show. In the three episodes so far, Davis’ character has been almost entirely unsympathetic. He makes crass comments and bad decisions, and then blames other people for his mistakes. In this week’s episode, he gets work on a Helena Bonham-Carter movie. He thinks he’s going to have a starring role, but ends up standing in for a child actor, and having to act from inside a bin, because Bonham-Carter can’t act when she’s looking at ‘it’.
While it may sound like the audience should have sympathy for Davis, the reality is that he’s taken the job instead of offering it to his unhappy clients at his talent agency, just hours after they’ve met with him to complain that he takes all the best jobs for himself. Where David Brent and Andy Millman would make mistakes but learn a lesson from it, the show’s version of Davis is always blaming other people and never realising that he’s done wrong.
Elsewhere in this week’s episode, Warwick starts his own website, and has a meeting with The Society Of People With Short Stature, of which he is vice-chairman. Warwick wants to be chairman, and manages to get himself involved in an interview with the BBC, originally intended to be with the chairman alone. Here he compares dwarves struggles for equality to the civil rights movement in America, with himself as a Martin Luther King figure. When the interview is aired, he discovers that he has been cut from the interview entirely.
But perhaps the show’s most controversial scene comes as Warwick travels to a school to ‘destroy’ a pupil who has been sending him abusive messages on his website. The pupils in the class at first laugh at Warwick, but he turns it around and has them laughing with him as the wonders if the pupil in question has a ‘gay dwarf fetish’. What Warwick doesn’t realise until it’s too late is that the pupil is wheelchair bound. It seems to me that it was a joke too far. It’s there for shock value, and to again stress that Warwick creates his own messes for himself (afterwards he plays down what has happened). But it feels unnecessary, as the pupil then starts to get bullied himself. It’s a joke that will almost certainly get a lot of (mostly bad) publicity for the show.
Life’s Too Short is a funny show, but it seems certain that it will offend more people than anything Gervais has done before, something which may ultimately hurt its chances of returning for a second series in the future.