Ricky Gervais on ME, and other bad comedy

Yesterday I had a brief exchange of tweets with Organica, who told me of her enthusiasm for the British comedian, Ricky Gervais, best known for writing and starring in The Office, his stand-up shows, and most recently the critically very unacclaimed film titled The Invention of Lying. She was enjoying learning British English from him, including words like bloke, daft, quid and “going about”. There was a time, a few years ago, when the man could do no wrong and looked like the plucky outsider who won over America, but more recently his stand-up shows have given the impression that David Brent was only partially an act. (More on his nastiness to others with disabilities here.) What caused me to really lose respect for Ricky Gervais, however, was this:

Admittedly, I saw this video after I read in January all about Lynn Gilderdale’s dreadful struggle with the condition he is talking about (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or ME, otherwise mistakenly called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or CFS), but even before that, I did know that ME wasn’t a trivial illness that made you “tired all the time”, but something that at worst caused people to become paralysed, mute and bedbound in the space of a few months (in its more moderate forms, it causes people to have extremely low physical energy, impaired concentration and pain). You can read an account of a typical day by another severely affected sufferer, Jodi Bassett, here; she also has a website.

Organica told me that Ricky Gervais was an atheist; I replied that this was his business, and that what I objected to was him making cheap jokes at the expense of seriously ill people (this was her reply). He called Multiple Sclerosis a “crippling wasting disease” while trivialising ME as “the one where … ‘don’t feel like going to work today’”. If he could have been bothered to use the same computer he wrote his spiel on to find out some basic facts about what he was talking about, he would have found out that not only did ME have much in common with MS, but that, particularly for severe sufferers, it is far more debilitating on a day-to-day level than MS except at the final stages of degenerative MS, or the final stages of a number of other fatal illnesses. On top of this, MS is recognised as a real, neurological illness (or at least it is now) and sufferers are likely to receive sympathy and good care; ME is officially recognised but is the subject of medical turf wars and patients are highly likely to experience professional disbelief, counter-therapeutic medical treatment, downright abuse and prejudice.

Years ago, I told someone that I didn’t find Woody Allen all that funny and she asked me if that was because he was Jewish (this was after I became Muslim), something I didn’t know about him at the time. I just found that Woody Allen’s jokes went over my head. Honestly, I’ve found Jackie Mason funny and he is much more extreme. As long as he sticks to jokes about Jewish mamas in New York and doesn’t make racist jokes about Palestinians. I wouldn’t pay money to see him, but the fact that he’s an extremist Zionist doesn’t mean that some of his jokes are not funny. The same cannot be said for jokes which trivialise a seriously debilitating and distressing illness. Someone posted in the comments to that video above that Gervais has since apologised, but he should have checked his facts beforehand and he wouldn’t have looked like an ignorant, offensive jerk.

I don’t know if this is on the material that Organica bought recently (and I don’t intend any of this as an attack on her, by the way). The show went out in 2007 and some bloggers objected at the time, and Gervais responded to some of them personally. Gervais’s response was to compare “complaints” about ME to third-world situations where people are starving and, supposedly, where nobody complains about ME. It’s a common stereotype that you don’t get ME on council estates or in third-world countries, but it is simply not true. In any case, if you’re in a third-world country and you can’t swallow and need tube-feeding and can’t get access to it, you probably won’t be around for long enough to “complain” about it. Around the same time, he also managed to get a joke about killing prostitutes into his routine; this was shortly after the time of the Steve Wright murders in Ipswich.

Do people really think about whether the comedy they watch is really funny? I’m sure Ricky Gervais wouldn’t make the same ME jokes now that someone in the audience could call out “hey, what about that Gilderdale woman?”, but over the last few years there has been an increase in “comedy” about highly offensive subjects, which include racist and variously misogynistic material; I commented on this with some of my own experience here. Last October there was a huge stink about a comedian called Jimmy Carr making a joke, probably sourced from soldiers at a military rehabilitation centre, about limbless soldiers making for a great Paralympic team in 2012, but the same man fills his routine with jokes about rape (they give two examples and they are both pretty unpleasant), without any of the same uproar; note that the Daily Mail article didn’t mention this fact, referring only to his “deadpan style and crude material”. The observation that many men are somehow indifferent to rape and see women as sexual objects is increasingly common nowadays (see Natasha Walter’s recent book, Living Dolls, for the porn-obsessed culture which feeds into this); Kira Cochrane noted that the serial murderer and rapist, Levi Bellfield, was fairly open about his misogyny, and his history and those of two other murderers convicted the same week “paint a picture of a society in which misogyny is taken as a given, in which someone can crow to his friends, without fear of redress or chastisement, as Bellfield did, that he had shaved himself from top to toe to ensure he didn’t leave any DNA behind at a crime scene”. (Bellfield is suspected of being the murderer of Amanda “Milly” Dowler, who was abducted in Walton on Thames and murdered in March 2002.) While these cases may be extreme, and certainly not all men would fail to bat an eyelid when one of their friends bragged about such deeds to them, the fact that careers can be made on the back of such extremely hurtful material is disturbing to say the least. What’s so funny about a man harming a woman for its own sake? Why would anyone want to do that anyway?

As for Ricky Gervais, his stand-up routine included the line that “one false move and I’m Jim Davidson”, one of the “old-school” offensive comedians. The fact that Gervais’s crass ME jokes are out there and people will, no doubt, still be laughing at them reflects on how much ignorance there is about the condition. I was recently in contact with two women who had been friends online with Lynn Gilderdale, or Jessie as they called her, and one of them told me that “Lynn always wanted to raise as much awareness of M.E. as she possibly could; it was very important to her”. This lady was perturbed by the fact that, in the time since the end of Lynn’s mother’s trial, the debate had been all about assisted dying and not about the condition itself and what needs to be done for people who suffer from it. Although the media was largely sympathetic to Kay Gilderdale, there was a fair amount of nonsense in there as well, including Esther Rantzen promoting the so-called Lightning Process, supposedly a cure for pretty much every illness under the sun (it has been called the “Lightening Process”, after its effect on the client’s wallet), and there was also the grave-dancing of “Dr Crippen”, an anonymous GP fond of slagging off his patients, in the Guardian. One would like to think that, following the publicity of the appalling stories of Lynn and of Sophia Mirza back in 2006, someone who fell ill today would not suffer the same abysmal fate, but given the sneering scepticism and the ongoing problem of lack of funding for care of ME patients, along with the perception in some places that it’s all a big joke, one can’t really have such confidence.

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  • Thnak you thank you thank you thank you !!!

    I really fail to see what is so ‘hilarious’ about being unlucky enough to catch a nasty virus and having it make you bedbound and hoursebound and in agony for decades. So ill but also so abused (even unto death in soem cases) that you can only look at those with MS with ENVY, as you don’t get even 10% of the medical care…and ignorant jerks like Gervais think you are prime comedy material, somehow.

    I am alaso v upset at Stephen Fry in that show…Absolite POwer, he madr such a nasty comment about ME theer and I know he didnt write it, but I just felt he was smarter than that and should have known beter…very upsetting seeing that nasty comment out of the blue when having one part of day that doesnt suck, nightly comedy TV, nasty so and sos…or ignorant so and sos i should say.

    Thaks agaian, so much, for writing this.

    M.E. is NOT ‘CFS’ or fatigue or malingering. If you think ME is in the least funny, you have been misinformed about it entirely. Vested interest groups have made it their job to lie about the reality of M.E., please don’t fall for it, everyone….

    ps. Please excuse brevity and typos, illness makes typing difficult.

  • bea fawcett

    yes, thank you. and thnaks to Jodi. those of us with ME are so often grateful to her for all she does to keep the world informed about our illness.

    Clearly the message needs to be given over and over. Most of us live with daily struggle, isolation, medical abuse and neglect. And dream [with tears often] of being able just to go for a walk, or spend longer than a short time talking with a friend.

    We really don’t need to be made the subject of unfunny jokes. The kind of jokes people made about those with MS 40 years ago.

    If only we were not so ill. then maybe we could inform some of these ignorant comedians and they could start to mock those who hurt us instead.

  • Clytie Siddall

    I wonder if this comedian would find it funny to be completely bedridden for years, to be too sick to talk to friends or family, to forget their names no matter how much you long to remember them, to lie awake terrified you will choke on your own vomit again while you’re paralyzed… I can’t say I’ve found it very entertaining. Thankyou to Jodi for representing us, and to this blog writer for standing up for us.

  • Umm Abdullah

    I have M.E. and even though its nowhere near as bad as many have it; it still severely limits my movements and quality of life. My previous doctor used to think if I lost weight; it would just go away; ignoring the fact that I put on weight due to not being able to be active; and when I was at the ideal weight for my height; my M.E. was considerably worse back then. On one occasion in the past; one locum GP tried to convince me that my M.E. was actually a form of clinical depression where one lacks adrenaline; she put me on an SNRI (like an SSRI but increases noradrenaline); I ended up feeling just as exhausted but in a state of constant agitation and panic. Sadly aside from comedians; I find prejudice from other quarters as well; particularly the Muslim community. I feel incredibly isolated because, aside from a couple of lovely friends who have made the effort to visit me despite it being an extreme difficulty to do so; my sisters in Islam seem to see my illness as all in my head; or even laziness and don’t take the effort to come to visit me; despite visiting a sick person being not only rewardable in Islam; but according to some scholars; an obligation.

  • As-Salaamu ‘alaikum sister, it’s depressing that some of us Muslims are even further behind on this and would still treat someone with this condition as if they were just lazy or pretending. How long have you been ill?

  • Umm Abdullah

    Walaykum Asalaam

    I’ve had it since I was about 12 so about 16 years now, but with varying degrees of severity depending on certain factors such as stress, work/school/college and pregnancy. When I was a teenager my GP diagnosed me with it but said it was probably due to ‘growing pains’ and I would grow out of it, more recently it has been blamed on having young children to run around after, ‘probably not getting enough vitamins’ (though blood tests prove otherwise), and my weight. I’m looking forward to when they blame it on being middle-aged and elderly lol. I had to leave a school I really loved (after leaving the first one due to bullying) because I was falling asleep in lessons; and unable to complete any coursework whatsoever as I was so exhausted. It peaked after I had my second child; as I not only had chronic tiredness but chronic muscle and joint pain as well, as well as almost being bent double with back pain, I found glucosamine supplements helped with that immensely despite me being extremely sceptical that they would, and seemed to have put paid to that aspect of things for good InshaAllaah. Still the actual fatigue and flu-like symptoms side of thing is still bad enough to have forced a move from a house (not the stairs!) to a flat with a lift to practically outside my front door. My last GP was Muslim and she was actively involved in one of the local masjids but she was the least sympathetic of all, after many visits she prescribed me counselling (?!) in the end because 1, she believe it to all be in my mind or 2, at best due to being disorganised and poor time management which if it was that I’m not quite sure how conventional counselling would help anyway? I didn’t used to make a song and dance about my illness; and in the past very few people knew I had it but I didn’t need as much support then. I do often feel like I am being a moaner because I am made to feel that way SubhanAllaah.

  • I can’t stand comedy that is taking the piss out of people who are struggling! I have always liked Ricky Gervais, but I had never seen this routine before and I think you were right when you said he’s not that different to David Brent.

    One the of biggest problem sufferers of chronic diseases face is public awareness, even awareness within medical communities can be skewed and misinformed. Comedy that perpetuates stereotypes of illness makes me sick - I have written to Australian networks before regarding jokes made about people getting up out of wheelchairs to do things. Their ignorance simply perpetuated the myth that somebody in a wheelchair cannot walk at all - a lot of people can move but for whatever reason (mine is CRPS) cannot move far and require assistance, do we really deserve to be ridiculed for this?

    It is sad that comedians are still finding it necessary to pick on those less fortunate than them…even sadder when their audience doesn’t seem to realise…I am glad to read that at least Gervais apologised for this! .-= Rellacafa´s last blog ..Bumbling Through A Blob Day =-.

  • Hi Rellacafa,

    The problem is that offensive comedy generally has become very popular here of late - mocking people with disabilities, people at the bottom socially, racist jokes, misogynistic jokes and so on. Actually, there was a series called “Little Britain” in which a posh school product (male) played a “chav” character called Vicki Pollard and there was another routine in it about a man who pretended to be disabled, but got up and walked as soon as his carer’s back was turned. There’s this “lighten up cos it’s only a joke” culture. We also have a very vicious popular press here (particularly the Sun and the Daily Mail) which I believe encourages this kind of thing.

    Ricky Gervais’s apology didn’t cut it. In fact, it just showed that he didn’t get it, because it still indicates that he thinks ME is some sort of luxury westerners can afford and people in other countries can’t. If you get ill in a third world country, you or your family become even more impoverished, or you die. We don’t hear about it because ME itself is not as common as AIDS or malaria, but it does actually happen in Africa. (It occurs in outbreaks as well as in individual cases, and there have been reported outbreaks in South Africa and Nigeria.)

  • Hazel

    I kind of liked Ricky Gervais but never a huge fan. I was horrified by the content in his live show but also by the amount of people who laughed at that joke. Shame on you. I loved the trailer thought it was very thought provoking and moving. Hope to email it to my friends and family who don’t always understand my illness. I’m quite seveerly affected by M.E. I’ve had it for about 6 years now. Also another interesting point to bear in mind is that in the UK there are 250,000 people with M.E and about 90,000 people with MS. Guess which one of those illnesses has better awareness, funding, GP support etc. Yes the one with less sufferers. It’s about time this changed. Hugs to you all. Hazel xxx

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  • phylis marks

    I was shocked and angry when i watched Ricky Gervais on that video my Granson who is only seven has M E Ricky Gevais should be ashamed off himself and if that is the only way he can get his laughs he suouldent bother. He is just a sad person getting his kicks from other peoples sadness

  • Chris

    Alternative comedy began to avoid the old jokes that made victims of stereotypes. Now the victims have changed from mothers-in-law, Irish etc to ME and dyslexia sufferers, rape victims and other previously taboo subjects. Even God! On a tv show “comedy roasting” where comics make fun of the guest of honour, a female victim of child abuse was told she was so ugly she should be grateful that someone had sex with her. The audience was in hysterics.

    Ricky Gervaise is showing his true colours now. He loves “persuading” a friend to allow himself to be tied up with sellotape and laughing hysterically while doing it. He even uses his appearance on Comic Relief to ridicule the programme’s efforts and promote his latest dvd. People laugh because they think he’s joking.

    Sadly, so much tv now is devoted to ridiculing and humiliating the participants. Jerry Springer, Weakest Link, Big Brother etc. Let’s have a “secret camera” show where comics are hauled up before TV bosses and told they are being banned from TV because of their offensive humour.

    School bullies pick on students who are “different”. Others join in so as not to be associated with the victim. Do you remember the insulting words? Fatty, skinny, beanpole, short***, 4 eyes, pizzaface, braceface, badbreath and so on. Did you notice? We all fall in to one of those categories! So we may escape today but there’s always tomorrow.

    There’s an old quotation from Nazi Germany. “When they came for the Jews, I did nothing. When they came for the gypsies and the disabled, I did nothing. When they came for me, there was nobody left to help me.”

    It’s time to educate the masses that tomorrow they could be on the receiving end.

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  • Richard Baker

    Funny it is not Ricky!!! Come and see someone with ME struggling through each day. The video is very moving and says what needs to be said. This is a terrible disease that will one day be acknowledged by everyone for what it is devastating however, at the moment there are only a few that know and believe it, we will keep doing so. We will help and support and hug our loved one to keep them going.

  • Nerja Apartments

    Ricky Gervais’ brand of humour isn’t an obvious one, you have to think about it so therefore it is not suitable for everyone. I enjoyed “The Office” and the recent “An Idiot Abroad” where he played a cameo role but his latest stand up was poor in comparison. He should stick to what he is best at satirical sitcoms in my opinion.

  • Hannah Sykes

    I am 18 and have suffered from ME for four years and use a wheelchair and i found his stand up hilarious. What you fail to mention is that he said after these jokes that he knows that it is a horrible illness that thousands suffer from. It is just a joke it wasn’t a personal slate and he didn’t call us liars just a gag. I find it ridiculous how people find this stand up was so awful, i’ve missed out on education, being able to work and often have to have just getting washed and dressed but it was just a funny joke he is after all a comedian and extremely successful, i have every DVD and seen him live after this joke and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest!

  • ATB

    Comedians have a serious function. Not just to make people laugh, but to spark awareness of social ills, of something that is wrong, but that we acccept as normal. The “king’s fool” that could get away with saying anything to the king, even conveying some unpleasant truths, because he made the king laugh.

    It is a crying shame that Ricky Gervais was shouted down rather than opening the debate on the abuse of people’s trust and compassion and, frequently, elderly people who can ill afford it by people pretending to have ME.

    Why do heart or cancer patients or sufferers of severe depression not go ballistic whenever it becomes known that some hypochondriac had falsely claimed to suffer a heart attack, depression or some form of cancer? This behaviour of ME patients seems to be unique to their condition.

    Usually we have little compassion for the victims of fraud, because usually they were expecting to get something out of it, drawn into the scam through some flaw of their own, whether greed or acute stupidity.

    However, the victims of people who falsely claim to have ME, were duped because they were compassionate and trusting: elderly parents, caring friends, whose every last drop of sympathy and compassion is squeezed out over years to offer free accommodation and a free pass in everything because oh-oh, stress worsens the condition. The patient must be relieved of all stress: no work, no normal interaction with people (which would involve telling someone when he’s behaved badly) to avoid stress. Lets get some awareness and education going to prevent/reduce this kind of abuse of parents, family and friends. All the ME awareness campaigns enjoin people to “believe them, support them”. Pity Ricky Gervais was shouted down.

  • To ATB:

    I can’t think of any incident in which an “ME sufferer” is known to have taken their family for a ride by pretending to be ill. Not one. In fact, people who pretend to be ill usually do so for money, or they seek sympathy from real sufferers by pretending in online forums (as noted in http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/feb/26/faking-illness-online-munchausen">http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/feb/26/faking-illness-online-munchausen“>a recent story in the Guardian). On the other hand, I know of quite a number of people who have been seriously ill with ME for years, often since childhood or early adolescence, and in most cases they had no reason to prefer being ill to their former (often very happy and active) lives. You would think that someone would get bored with this after a while, wouldn’t you?

    The reason cancer or heart disease patients do not “go ballistic” is because nobody claims that cancer or heart disease are not real illnesses. People with ME often find that doctors disbelieve them even when they are very obviously very ill. This is why they are sensitive about it. As for the comment about the “king’s jester”, there is a big difference between jokes at the expense of the rich and powerful and those at the expense of the poor and the sick.

  • Perhaps ATB would care to share with us the details of the medical qualifications he/she has and the scientific study they have carried out to ascertain that ME sufferers are “falsely claiming” to have the condition? I would be interested in the specific tests carried out and the number of people involved in the study.

  • Jadan

    A horribly irritating video.. ‘It’s no laughing matter’, then presumably you’ve never laughed at anything involving illness, war, race, addiction, or any other subject that has damaged people? Because obviously if you have that would make you painfully hypocritical. 

    I am an ME sufferer and have been for 3 years and people like you do us no favours at all, this type of blinkered self indulgent bullshit is exactly the manner in which we’re portrayed in the media. If someone can come over and make me laugh, even if it is about my illness, I’d take that any day of the week over your embarrassing, patronising ‘give them a hug’ ideas.

    Were Ricky Gervais’s jokes cheap? Yes. Is this video any better? No.

  • It’s not “my video”, it seems to be by the son or daughter of someone with ME, hence the “get well soon Mum” bit at the end.

  • oopsilaffatatory

    I have had ME for 17 years TBH I am sick of the negativity about ME The reason why we get so pissed off is because, despite the fact that we have had our lives taken away from us, despite the severity of suffering in the worst cases, there is a deep distrust and misrepresentation of the illness.

    Ill judged “comedy” does us no favours. It does NOT open debate and dialogue. It confirms prejudice and even outright hostility.

    Underlying this is the constant battle to have the illness recognised as a biomedical condition, and get research into a cure. Thanks to the fraudulent claims by psychiatrists sponsored by the American medical insurance company, there is a powerful lobby group determined to classify and “treat” ME as psychosomatic. The reason being that it means insurance companies will not have to pay out for treatment, and governments can class sufferers as fit for work.

    Gervais’ “observations” are cruel and unwarranted. I don’t normally wish anyone harm, but I sincerely wish for the likes of Gervais to have a real hard taste of ME

    It’s so very hard to laugh when you can’t move.

  • Red

    I have me I have had it very bad to the point that I 26 year old man will start crying in pain. What Ricky Gervais said in his stand up act was hilarious because I have a sense of humor. Lol that was exactly how I feel, Great Job Ricky Gervais.

  • Jimmy Oddfonix Barnes

    I fear you have completely misunderstood Ricky’s intentions. He was quite clearly making a point that ME and similar illnesses like Chronic Fatigue are not taken seriously and by making a joke about it he is making people question the seriousness of these illnesses, the fact that he has got you to write a whole article based around questioning what he said means he did exactly what he set out to do.

  • I’ve seen the ME sketch all the way through and the punchline is where “Suki” cannot go to the well (when her dad, in a fake African accent asks her) to get water because of ME. The whole point of it is that ME is a European indulgence which nobody gets in developing countries. He mentions that “ME is physiological” at some point (clearly in regard to people who’ve seen earlier versions of the same sketch and objected), but then carries on with his joke regardless. I don’t believe he was joking about the lack of recognition at all.