"The Ricky Gervais Show": Here's to the soft, the dumb, the lazy

Olympic athletes are insensitive to the lumpy masses, but on "The Ricky Gervais Show," stupidity wins the day

Published February 21, 2010 2:01AM (EST)

I'm enjoying the festivities in Vancouver as much as the next person, but aren't the Olympic athletes being a little bit insensitive to the rest of us?

First of all, I have a serious problem with Shaun White. He flies through the air like a superhero on my TV screen, then when he's done, he's all funny and charming and sweet in interviews. As if that weren't enough, the announcers go on to tell us all about how he has tons of money and his very own halfpipe in Colorado plus he's friends with Tony Hawk and his life is totally awesome. Does NBC really want to send the message that likable athletes who are pioneers in their sport are better than those of us who haven't done shit with our lives? I doubt it.

I also have a major beef with Lindsey Vonn, who insisted on making a huge spectacle of how fast she was going down that steep hill on her skis without falling once. How ridiculously insensitive was that to the woman who had a terrible wipeout on that exact same hill just minutes later?

But that wasn't enough for Vonn. Next, she had the audacity to shout happily and take off her helmet and unleash this torrent of long, blond hair, and reveal her beautiful face, which seemed to sneer directly at the rest of us at home, presumably for not being a sexy elite athlete like she is. This is exactly the sort of thing that fosters a climate of intolerance for sedentary people with bad hair.

And what's with Johnny Weir, all plucky and delightful and clever? Did you see how he just relished rubbing our gracelessness and lack of flair in our faces the other night during the free skate program? How dare he make us feel like the lumpy, useless heterosexuals that we are? What kind of message does this send to young people who can't ice skate and aren't attractive and don't have an original thought in their heads?

I hereby officially call on the IOC and NBC and the Olympic athletes themselves to refuse to perform sports or engage in interviews that in any way promote or endorse the kind of strength and determination and courage that could end up making talentless, clumsy kids and awkward, unlikable scaredy-cats and chubby old people feel bad about themselves. We need to send a very clear message that we are not going to tolerate the glorification of hard work and excellent coordination and charisma and intelligence, because such glorification inevitably incites low self-esteem and frustration among the lazy, the soft, and the deeply mediocre.

Damaged goods

If only my call to arms could end there, but alas, the world is positively filthy with hateful misconceptions and insulting messages, and someone needs to stand up to the bullies out there, mostly by sending out press releases and holding press conferences and staging lavish promotional events.

Naturally FX's "Damages" (10 p.m. Mondays) has been treading on thin ice for quite some time now, with its irresponsible depiction of the most vaunted corridors of legal power. The drama, which is really heating up lately and never fails to draw me in with its twists and turns, nonetheless does the working public a huge disservice by implying that those of us who aren't beautiful, powerful, menacing lawyers might as well just sit around eating mini ravioli out of a can and feeling sorry for ourselves for the rest of our lives, because we'll never live such glamorous lives – or amount to anything, really. Maybe we were going to do that anyway ...  but still.

The show's flagrant disregard for the very real challenges faced by people in crappy outdated clothes with mundane, tedious jobs, people who don't have the luxury of throwing their weight around every time something doesn't go their way, really sets my teeth on edge. No, not all of us can threaten or harass or murder people whenever we feel like it. Go ahead and rub it in our faces, why don't you?

If the rest of us could just make a phone call to a discreet, high-priced thug who could quickly and efficiently bust in the kneecaps of that really irritating co-worker who always steals the best doughnuts on Doughnut Fridays, do you really think we'd feel half as powerless and defeated as we do? Do you really think that, if we could just pick up the phone and say "Code red" or "Do it" or "Project smash-knee is in effect," we would slouch and mumble like this?

How dare they taunt us with the flash forwards to Tom Shayes' (Tate Donovan) body in the dumpster and Patty's (Glenn Close) panicked, regretful phone calls to some unseen shadowy right-hand man, hinting at the kind of terrible power that will never be ours! As usual, white-collar criminals and the people who write about them for television don't give a second thought to how cruel and unjust it is that the rest of us can only dream of using brute force to bend our enemies to our will.

Furthermore, this depiction of regular, everyday people as "fearful" of lawyers or "confused" about the law or "paralyzed by terror" over how much they're being charged every second they're in a lawyer's company is simply offensive in its accuracy. Likewise, Ellen (Rose Byrne) and Patty's recent talk over tumblers of fine liquor once again suggests that rich lawyer types can blithely sup at the finest restaurants in town or traipse off to day spas or lounge about sipping on pricey cognac. That's just irresponsible, and undermines those of us who spend most of our time in our dirty sweats, boiling water for mac and cheese.

I've loved this season of "Damages" so far in spite of my constant outrage over it, mind you, but I really found the discovery of meth and a pipe in Ellen's sister's bag pointlessly soapy and sensationalistic, even for this show – and that’s not to mention what an insult that scene was to the many, many meth addicts out there who don't currently have young infants in their care, believe it or not. It's not like a little baby is endangered every single time someone decides to smoke a little drugs, and to insinuate as much sends a message not just that drug addicts are bad, irresponsible people -- which most drug addicts would agree with -- but that they're the sorts of bad, irresponsible people who would refuse to call their rich lawyer sisters and say, "I'm getting high while raising my baby alone. Maybe you should get off your skinny ass, take care of this kid and send me to rehab instead of waiting for tragedy to strike, which it so often does on this soapy, sensationalistic show." That, sir, is going just a step too far.

I also have a bone to pick about the portrayal of Louis Tobin (Len Cariou). Who would ever believe that a wealthy financier with all of the advantages in life that Tobin enjoyed could be evil and crafty enough to set up a Ponzi scheme, pull the wool over everyone's eyes, and get away with it for decades? Furthermore, implying that investors are uninformed, money-grubbing sheep who would follow patently ridiculous returns to their own financial ruin is insulting and unfair. People just aren't that greedy or that ignorant!

What's more, suggesting that this nation's regulatory institutions would ever fail to prevent such an elaborate and wholesale assault on the investing public's trust from occurring is deeply deceptive to the American people. The smart and thorough human beings who work hard for our country's fine government institutions are far more careful and unselfish than to neglect to investigate the kind of crime that could ruin so many people's lives!

Podcast away

Luckily, there are some wonderful television writers and entertainers out there who are finding tasteful ways to rally around those with less talent and less brains in their heads than the average bear.

For example, remember that guy in college who never shut up about his big, crazy theories? Remember how he would always pull you into the most rambling, preposterous debates imaginable, because his lack of basic logic paired with his belief in the most absurd and patently impossible things created a gigantic conversational black hole from which there was no easy escape, particularly while stoned?

Well, there's no need to fret any longer about how that guy probably ended up on food stamps or in some homeless shelter somewhere, babbling endlessly about how Belize has the atom bomb or old pillows are made primarily of dead skin or daycare workers in Minnesota were caught feeding crack-laced brownies to infants. Thanks to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, co-creators of "The Office" and "Extras," that guy and those of his ilk are finally being celebrated for the demented idiot savants that they are.

You see, that guy, whose name in this case is Karl Pilkington, was assigned to be Merchant and Gervais' producer at XFM. Once they got to know Pilkington, though, they realized that they had to share him with the world, so they molded their entire podcast around him in 2005 for the Guardian. Now that podcast has been animated and transformed into HBO's "The Ricky Gervais Show" (9 p.m. Fridays).

Yes, it's called "The Ricky Gervais Show," but the real star is that guy, Karl Pilkington. Billed as "a series of pointless conversations," the show mostly features the animated faces of Gervais, Merchant and Pilkington talking into microphones. Occasionally, as the three hosts discuss monkeys flying to the moon or history or Pilkington's strange stories, those things are animated, too.

"And you're thinking, well, why are we doing a podcast?" asks Gervais during the first episode. "It's because I'd like to be in a room with Karl Pilkington. You know how people go and help chimps? Karl Pilkington is an ongoing experiment for me, because I've seen him sort of blossom from an idiot to an imbecile."

The madness always begins with a classic That Guy statement from Pilkington. For example: "We're in that era where we've invented most of the stuff we need, and now we're just messing about."

What about airplanes, says Gervais. "Yeah, but, is that a good thing, planes and that?" Pilkington replies. "Do you need a plane, really?" Planes only allow you to fly to places that you need an injection just to visit, he explains. What's the use of that? He wants to know. If we're going to invent something, he says, we should invent a way that people could live to the age of 78, die, and when they die, there's a little baby inside to take their place. Um, right.

In another episode, Gervais brings up Benjamin Franklin, and the fact that he coined the phrase "Waste not, want not." Pilkington doesn't know who Franklin is, and when Gervais tells him and explains the meaning of that phrase, Pilkington replies, "So, he was a bit of a hoarder, then."

While countless sensitive readers will probably leap to the conclusion that this is yet another British comedy with a hopelessly abusive slant and a disastrously unkind central goal of shaming Pilkington over his lack of intelligence, think again, friends. Pilkington rather enjoys the hullabaloo and also, he's as dismissive of what other people think of him as he is of facts and science and history. You cannot hurt this man with words, because he doesn't believe anything you say. In other words, Karl Pilkington is a hero to confused but outspoken amateur theorists -- and all dumb people, for that matter -- everywhere!

Take the conversation in which Merchant and Gervais discover that Pilkington believes that humans and dinosaurs were "knocking about" at the same time:

Merchant: You know that "The Flintstones" is only partly based on fact? Dinosaurs and man did not coexist. Dinosaurs had long gone before man arrived. Extinct, kaput. What, you don't believe us?

Pilkington: Why couldn't that have happened? But why weren't there dinosaurs back then just like we have dogs now?

Gervais: He's watching "The Flintstones."

Pilkington: I just think that there must've been a crossover point.

Gervais: Exactly. Why didn't Hitler meet Nero? There's must've been ... they must've met somewhere!

In addition to giving ignorant weirdos a long-delayed chance to bask in the spotlight, Merchant and Gervais send a clear message to the heretofore scorned bullies and well-educated antagonizers of the world: Let your bully flag fly at last! "The Ricky Gervais Show" demonstrates that feeling superior doesn't have to be quite so isolating, or induce quite so much self-hatred. Remember: You are not alone in your knee-jerk snobbery and loathing for the common man. You can even make a career out of it!

Conclusiastical remarks

Hopefully, some of the high-profile athletes in Vancouver will do a similar service to the old, the squishy and the dimwitted by adjusting their current campaign of shame against the unexceptional. Until they learn to play down their physical fitness and warmth and charm, though, they're going to do enormous damage to the morale of millions of regular, ugly, unfunny, stupid Americans. It needs to stop. Today, we draw a line in the snow and say: No more!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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