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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