It takes more than a dwarf to make a show funny

Life’s Too Short, the latest mockumentary from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, goes for easy laughs.

David Bowden

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When it comes to comedy, disabilities are far from equal. ‘Deafness is comic, as blindness is tragic’, is the conceit that David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sentence hinges on. It seems unlikely that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex would have the cultural significance it does had our hero popped his ear drums at the end.

What of height? Excessive tallness and shortness is almost always, without fail, funny. Even the thought that you could be ‘excessive’ when it comes to something as uncontrollable as height is funny. It’s even funny, as Charlie Chaplin demonstrated, when applied to dictators; although the thought that Chaplin was later accused of ‘premature anti-fascism’ by the House Un-American Activities Committee somehow contrives to be both funny and tragic.

On paper, then, the new comedy Life’s Too Short should have a lot going for it. The latest creation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – the latter’s new stand-up tour deals with the problems of his own tallness – the show takes the form of mockumentary. It focuses on the travails of Warwick Davis, British TV and film’s ‘go-to dwarf’ as he negotiates life as a small man in a big world.

Naturally, since Gervais has spent the decade following the runaway success of The Office celebrating the influence of critic-friendly cult US comedies such as Seinfield and The Larry Sanders Show, Life’s Too Short is aiming to do something more sophisticated than merely laugh at short people. Davis, like The Office‘s David Brent and Extras‘ Andy Millman, is a man dwarfed by ambition and self-delusion. While he seeks to affect the lifestyle of successful movie star, in reality he’s skint with a broken marriage and only memories of what could’ve been.

The reaction to the show has been mixed. There is not much new here, except that Gervais and Merchant now play celebrity cameos of themselves. Davis is simply an inversion of both Gervais’ and Merchant’s egos and insecurities, bringing to mind Woody Allen’s fondness for casting younger, better-looking actors in the role of ‘Woody Allen’. His films have gotten significantly better since he worked out that it’s more interesting to imagine how Woody Allen would be if he looked like Javier Bardem or Owen Wilson.

Is anyone particularly interested in discovering what Gervais’ or Merchant’s life would look like if they were dwarfs? Clever metaphors are pretty lazy, if their only interest is being a clever metaphor. Allen was always smart enough to realise that he looked and sounded like an intellectual – which is useful for weedy and neurotic Jews looking to pick up hot girls – while never mistaking himself for one. The long-acknowledged problem with Gervais is that he’s worked out that pushing the boundaries of political correctness is funny, but he isn’t smart enough to work out that he doesn’t know why.

Some have taken the bait. Fuelled by a tedious Twitter-storm over Gervais’ deliberately provocative use of the word ‘mong’, there have been accusations that Life’s Too Short is simply mocking the afflicted. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t do so enough. Apart from a couple of classic slapstick gags – Davis falling out of his 4×4 or sitting in a toilet at the behest of a crazed Johnny Depp – there really aren’t many laughs to be had from his height. The centrepiece of the second episode featured Davis, having been invited to a paid gig at a Star Wars nerd’s wedding as guest of honour (Davis played an ewok in The Return of the Jedi), pompously refusing to play to type and then insisting on giving an ill-judged wedding speech where – guess what? – he makes inappropriate sex gags! About the bride! In front of her mother!

This most hackneyed of gags isn’t funny just because a dwarf is doing it, although it could be if we acknowledged he was a dwarf. This is a very politically correct form of edginess where we can only laugh at Davis because he’s one of us, prone to exactly the same social faux pas and awkwardness. Except, of course, nobody apart from a complete arsehole would actually gatecrash a best man’s speech when they’re toasting a dead relative, would they? The sad thing about Life’s Too Short is that Gervais – who spent his famous wilderness, pre-fame years working on hit TV series like This Life – can only seek to humanise by pointing out that we’re all ‘the little people.’ Celebrities laughing at failed celebrity hardly falls under Henri Bergson’s humanist defence of comedy’s cruelty as being ‘a momentary anaesthesia of the heart’.

That said, it isn’t a complete disaster. Liam Neeson’s cameo – attempting an heroically deadpan comedy routine about AIDS – is one of the funniest clips you’ll see all year. The brilliantly gifted comic actress Rosamund Hanson (Smell from This Is England) is deservedly given a stage here beyond gritty council-estate dramas. There are some genuine pearls in the dialogue, too. But, paired with the magnificent Rev in the schedules, Davis isn’t the only one being towered over here.

That said, it is a colossus compared to BBC3’s repellent Him & Her. It’s a bedsit sitcom about two loved-up twentysomethings who never go out because they prefer having sex with each other, and cheerfully interact with their wacky cast of oddball friends and family. It’s sort of Two Pints of Lager but without the laughter track – or, incomprehensibly, the laughs. Hilariously, it hinges on the comedic conceit that fat, ugly and thick people have sex with each other, and is possibly making a point about the aimlessness of Generation Y. It is social satire written by middle-class drama students for middle-class students who watch Jeremy Kyle ‘ironically’ and are ‘really into the comedy of social awkwardness, yeah?’. Yet they will also stare at you unblinkingly if you ask them to make you laugh.

Him & Her is, inexplicably, into its second series and despite numerous attempts I have yet to make it through a full episode. Think Life’s Too Short is offensive? Bear in mind, dear licence-fee payer, that it was BBC4 they were planning to axe, to help save this kind of horseshit.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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