Life’s Too Short (BBC2)
Rachel Cooke is neither offended nor amused by Ricky Gervais’s new show.
Life's Too Short
I have interviewed Ricky Gervais twice and one thing I can tell you for sure is that he laughs at his own jokes. A lot. No one thinks Ricky Gervais is funnier than Ricky Gervais, and perhaps this is why he keeps repeating himself: he is easy to please and his producers, thanks to his great fame, are pleased when he is pleased. Life's Too Short, a comedy starring Warwick Davis, an actor who is a dwarf, is basically just The Office and Extras reworked - and none too subtly combined. It's done fly-on-the-wall-style, like The Office, and Davis's monologues to camera sound oddly like David Brent's - which they would, given that Brent is just Gervais by any other name and Gervais co-wrote the script. But it is also, like Extras, about fame: the desperate self-importance it stirs, its fickle nature.
It goes like this. Davis once starred in some big films: The Return of the Jedi and, erm, Willow, with Val Kilmer, which, as he pointed out in the first episode of Life's Too Short, has made quite a lot of its £40m budget back over the years. But now the phone is not exactly ringing off the hook. Life's Too Short is about the gap between his idea of himself - "I'm the UK's go-to dwarf," he says, from the crummy office where he runs a talent agency for dwarves - and the reality, which is altogether sadder. He is not half so famous as Verne Troyer, Austin Powers's Mini-Me. When he goes to see his so-called friends Ricky and Stephen (Merchant, Gervais's writing partner), with whom he worked on Extras, they seem awkward, embarrassed. How on earth, they wonder, did he reach the doorbell? Oh, well. That he did - he asked, ha ha, a stranger to press it for him - means that he can return to their office again and again where (surprise) various amazing guest stars will also be visiting their mega-famous friend, Ricky, in search of his advice.
Among them will be Johnny Depp, Sting, Helena Bonham Carter and, just to make things properly self-referential, Steve Carell, star of the American Office. Plus "Barry from EastEnders" - the actor Shaun Williamson, another Extras alumnus - who will be fetching Ricky's dry-cleaning. (Man, these in-jokes are tiring.)
So, two questions. First, is it funny? Second, is it, in the light of Gervais's "mong" jokes on Twitter the other week - honestly, he can't still believe people would use this word in connection with people with Down's syndrome and other disabilities - offensive? No, and no. Are you surprised? I'm not.
So far as offence goes, it's on BBC2. The BBC has an entire department devoted to making sure that licence-fee payers are not offended. Gervais, meanwhile, is on a downward trajectory, joke-wise, a product both of the aforementioned repetition and his nauseating decision to make his own fame and all-round brilliance part of the central conceit of this series.
I tittered a little when Liam Neeson arrived at the office, announced he wanted to do improvisational comedy, and proceeded to say things like: "I've got Aids. I'm riddled with it." But then, I'm an easy sell when it comes to dumb actors and their lack of a sense of humour, what with having interviewed so many. (If only Gervais could get Richard Gere to appear; he was the worst.) But the trouble was that Gervais, what with being so unfunny lately, couldn't pull off the role of foil, however hard he stared sardonically at the camera.
Davis is doing little more than channelling Brent/Gervais - "She's not going to win any rear of the year competitions," he says of the pretty, regular-sized wife who has recently thrown him out - though he is perfectly good at this, every bit as boorish, in fact, as the prototype. In interviews, he has said that, in making the series, he had "total trust in Ricky and Stephen, having looked at their track record of dealing with people with disabilities and people who are different".
Hmm. Presumably he dished out that grateful quotation before the Twitter storm. But still, when push comes to shove, I suppose I do think this series is doing fine work for short people - assuming we agree that it's important to grasp that they can be as vain, pompous, insecure and stupid as anyone else.