Due to Covid-19 cinema going was forbidden. The search went elsewhere for entertainment.
It was Mel Brooks who said “There are only five gags in the world” and comedy writing is just working these gags differently into a comedy routine or script.
He may not have said “five” but it was a small number.
Many comedians only have one gag and they continue it successfully throughout their careers.
Ricky Gervais is just such a comedian. His co-creation with Stephen Merchant, David Brent, star of the semi-documentary style UK sitcom The Office (2001-03), is his one gag. It is comic greatness.
The Office was so good it even translated well into a US version starring Steve Carrell which became as successful. Like many things American they consumed more of it than the UK and this series ran from 2005-13.
But the gag – short, tubby, unsuccessful man with snub nose and quick sotto voce wit – doesn’t work translated to cinema and The Invention of Lying (2009) is at least one bit of proof.
In The Invention of Lying, (2009), Gervais plays Mark, a soon-to-be-sacked screenwriter at a very unusual film company. He’s about to have his first date with the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner) and both know “he’s out of her league.”
The two know it because they live in a parallel universe where everybody tells the truth. In this wonderful US world, what’s in your mind gets said.
Early scenes were reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998), where Jim Carrey’s Truman is the only person unaware of his being filmed as part of a reality television series.
Mark tells a lie and it works to his advantage. It makes him rich but it doesn’t get him the girl he wants because, for all his success, he remains the man with genes that will not provide the kind of perfectly beautiful children required by Anna. (I didn’t watch the second half of the film so if they ended up happily ever after then hip-hip hooray).
Louis C.K, Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor and Rob Lowe play support roles to Gervais and Garner and a host of cameo appearances include Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Jonah Hill and Merchant.
Some of the truth lines are quite funny but I couldn’t agree with the respected reviewer who found hilarious the scene where Mark explains God and His functions while reading the “tablets” on the shamelessly product-placement Pizza Hut boxes.
Indeed, this explanation to a crowd wanting to know more is the most pointed part of the plot. Is Gervais telling Americans who believe in God and paradise at the end of life they are delusional? Is he telling Islamists they don’t end up with virgins and a mansion when their life ends? Or is he telling Hollywood its studio system sucks by representing it as producing historic rubbish read by a man in a smoking jacket sitting in an armchair?
I don’t know and the fact I turned it off after an hour underlines my care factor.
Before making Lying, Gervais and Merchant created another Brent-like character in the British TV series Extras (2005-07). Playing an actor who most often only gets parts as an extra, this was very, very funny.
It’s been 11 years since Lying and its co-writer/co-director Matthew Robinson has hardly had any credits since. Gervais has moved onto different TV material.
Perhaps even Hollywood can tell when something isn’t funny?
Nothing against Gervais in general but his American films – Lying and the equally poor Ghost Town (2008), which he didn’t write or direct – were stinkers.