That daft Limey git (and I say that with the greatest affection), Ricky Gervais, has done it again. I’m really not too interested in the goings-on in an office. It’s an environment I’ve managed to avoid all my life, and I’m thankful for it. I don’t get the jokes in Dilbert, that’s how far removed I am from places like that. But in “The Office,” Gervais managed to both make me laugh hysterically, and confirmed once and for all that I made the right life decision in staying away from white collar work. I wouldn’t last an afternoon in a place like that. (Blue collar work is bad enough, but I managed to tolerate it for a summer.) (What sort of collar do I wear? I guess it would be a Hawaiian shirt collar and blue jeans. I don’t own a suit or a pair of dress shoes.) Each half-hour episode—and there are only 12, plus two specials—is a perfect little gem. And it does what so many of the better British sitcoms do so well, and American sitcoms never do: It knows when to get off the stage! (Did you know there were only 12 episodes of “Fawlty Towers”? Four sets of 6 episodes of the “Blackadder” series?) I watched one episode of the American rip-off of “The Office,” and it was funny, here and there, and Steve Carell worked very hard. (You might say too hard; you never saw Ricky Gervais working, it all looked exactly like what it was supposed to be, a camera crew filming an awful jerk who had no idea he was a jerk.) The American version is now into its fifth season. That’s 71 episodes, with 7 still to air. I don’t know if it’s been renewed; I don’t care. That’s too many episodes. By the third season of a sitcom the characters are getting tired, and the writers are getting more and more desperate for ideas, and thus resort to desperate measures. Don’t get me started on sitcoms. Other than British examples, I haven’t watched a single sitcom since Mary Tyler Moore packed it in. \
For his second foray into sitcomland, Gervais picked a subject and an environment I am much more interested in: Those people the stars pass while walking down the street or through the airport (many of them desperately trying not to wave and shout “Hi Mom!”), or who open doors for the stars, or are sitting in the background chattering silently in the restaurant scene. The extras. They’re all getting paid, you know, except in rare street scenes where the camera is very far off using a long lens. They’re not getting paid much, it’s true, but there is a free lunch.
During the making of Millennium we had some scenes where we used several hundred extras. Some of them had to sit for hours while makeup was applied. I was rather interested in them … but we “creative” people were not encouraged to mix. They were treated pretty much like cattle, these folks. When they’re not needed they are herded into a holding area. While the rest of us are eating a catered lunch (and it was pretty good stuff!), they are handed a paper sack with a sandwich and an apple.
Like most things, there is a hierarchy. Some of the people in a big scene will be there purely as a lark, so when the movie comes out they can bore all their friends for years by pointing at their two seconds on the screen and shouting “There I am! That’s me!” Few of those will try to make a career of extra work, because they quickly discover that making movies is mostly standing around, bored out of your skull. But there are professional extras—more or less. I don’t think many people make a good living at it, but some squeak by. Many of these are aspiring actors. They are the ones chosen for the backgrounds of restaurants and such, where they’ll be on camera for quite a while, because, believe it or not, it does take some skill to pretend like you’re talking and having a good time. These people are desperately pursuing the Holy Grail of the extra: A line. Just a line, any line. I once had a friend, an actor named Peter Brocco, who had made a living in Hollywood for 60 years—247 screen credits at the IMDb!—and never sank to the level of “background performer,” (the technical term for an extra). He always had to have a line, so he could qualify as a “principal performer.”
This is where Ricky Gervais comes in. His character, Andy Millman, has been at this for 7 years, and though he says he’s had lines, it seems obvious that he’s having us on. Like all aspiring actors, he’s got a script he’d love for somebody—anybody!—to read. He has an agent who has never made so much as one phone call in his behalf, and has written a c.v. for him that describes him as the epitome of mediocrity, and desperate into the bargain!
The schtick is that each episode features one or more real movie or TV stars, who are willing to play “themselves” as monumental assholes. This is a very funny concept, and it works like a charm. Let’s hope enough Americans see this series on DVD that no one will think it necessary to make an American version, starring Justin Timberlake. Andy and his rather ditsy friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen, who is very good) interact with these stars. (In actual fact, of course, the chances of them even being in the vicinity of a star except when the cameras are rolling are very slim. But that’s okay, it makes for good comedy.)
EPISODE ONE: Kate Winslet. Who knew? Kate Winslet has done voices for animation, and a few lighter movies like The Holiday and Finding Neverland, but mostly she’s done dead serious drama. Who knew she could do comedy? Well, folks, she can. Here she is a rather strange lady with an Oscar obsession. She tells anybody who will listen that she’s been nominated four times, lost every time, and she simply must win one. (Ironically, we saw this only a few weeks after the Oscar Fairy finally smiled on her for The Reader.) She’s making a Holocaust picture simply because Holocaust pictures win a lot of Oscars, and she is thinking about doing a cripple, because the Academy loves cripples. (Rain Man, My Left Foot, etc.) Also, Maggie’s new boyfriend wants her to talk dirty over the phone, and Maggie is shy and not very inventive, so Kate suggests some rather astonishing things to say.
EPISODE TWO: Ben Stiller. This one is not quite as shocking as a foul-mouthed Kate Winslet. Stiller plays a part he’s done well in the past, as an egotistical, self-involved prick, “lowering” himself to direct a small film set in the Bosnian War. He is continually spouting the box office grosses of his real films, which he seems to know down to the last nickel.
EPISODE THREE: Ross Kemp and Vinnie Jones. A few episodes involve famous people not so well known on this side of the pond, or at least not well known to me. Kemp is an actor and journalist, best known for the series “Eastenders,” which I’ve heard about but never seen. Jones is an ex-footballer (the kind where they actually kick the ball with their feet) turned tough-guy actor. Kemp is making a period movie, wigs and powder and footmen (Andy) and all that, and compulsively brags about what a tough guy he is, eager to kill someone with the martial art skills he learned in the SAS … though he doesn’t even know what SAS stands for, until his trash-talking brings him face-to-face with Jones, who threatens to beat the crap out of him. Surprise! It was all bluster.
EPISODE FOUR: Samuel L. Jackson. This is the first one where the guest star doesn’t come off looking like a jerk. In fact, Jackson is not there for most of the episode. Naturally it all revolves around racism, with poor Maggie just digging herself deeper and deeper in an attempt to proved that she’s not a racist. Andy isn’t much help. The thing is, you start explaining how you’re not racist and you have to come off racist, i.e., the classic statement “Some of my best friends are Negroes.”
EPISODE FIVE: Les Dennis. Is a comedian and the longtime host of “Family Fortunes,” the British version of “Family Feud.” He’s starring in a godawful panto (a form of theater we don’t have here in the States) of “Aladdin,” with Andy poncing about as a dreadfully swish genie. The schtick here is that Les is a has-been, on his way down, and terribly depressed about it. As in all Ricky Gervais writing, there is a certain cringe factor, where a reasonably sensitive person can’t help placing himself or herself in the situations where someone is making a terrible fool of himself, and can’t seem to stop his mouth, and you sit there feeling your toes curl up in your shoes and your rectum pucker self-protectively, even as you laugh. Or maybe you don’t laugh. They went a bit far in this one, in a subplot involving a mysteriously and totally gay father, the director of this disaster, and his daughter, who he has been training for the stage since she was two, and verbally and emotionally abusing her all the while. That bit actually hurt to watch.
EPISODE SIX: Patrick Stewart. This one was maybe the most hilarious so far. “Captain Picard” is doing The Tempest, and Andy barges into his Winnie (or whatever they call a Winnebago at Pinewood Studios) wanting to show the star the script he’s written. Turns out Stewart has written one, too, and wants to share his ideas with a fellow author. “You know how, in X-Men, I have the power to mentally make people do what I want them to do? What if it was like that in real life?” And he goes on to describe the most puerile adolescent fantasies, involving some woman being forced to take off all her clothes … “And you can see everything!” There is no story, just a series of episodes where some woman ends up naked, “And you can see everything!” He sounds like a horny fifth-grader who never has seen everything. It is brutally funny. And, amazingly, the BBC is interested in Andy’s script, which is being developed by two gay men, one of them very effeminate, and Andy finds himself in much the same situation as in the “racism” episode, having to prove to these two deeply offended guys that he’s not homophobic.
FOOTNOTE: I’ve had many chances to appreciate the wonders of DVD subtitles. Sometimes it’s because the characters whisper and mumble too much, like Nicole Kidman, sometimes it’s accents. Seldom have subtitles been needed more than here. Kate Winslet spoke upper-class English English and is intelligible, but most of the other players speak a variety of working-class and regional dialects that might as well be Swahili, to my ears. Somebody will say what sounds like “Unh arrr’aw yobbos ‘nit?” and the subtitles will say “Right, then. See you blokes later for tea and scones over at the Piccadilly. Ta.” Simply couldn’t do without the subtitles.