Today (June 25th) is the 52nd birthday of Ricky Gervais. Today is also the birthday of George Orwell (1903-1950). In his 1945 essay, “Funny, but not Vulgar,” Orwell discussed the meaning of humor and the state of humor in England, and his insights might shed some light on Gervais. He wrote:
We do not know with certainty how laughter originated or what biological purpose it serves, but we do know, in broad terms, what causes laughter.
A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny. And the bigger they fall, the bigger the joke. It would be better fun to throw a custard pie at a bishop than at a curate. With this general principle in mind, one can, I think, begin to see what has been wrong with English comic writing during the present century.
To Orwell’s mind, English humorists in the 20th century had grown too genteel, too “aimed at prosperous stockbrokers whiling away an odd half hour in the lounge of some suburban golf course.” Gervais clearly avoids the charge of gentility, and I would think that Orwell would approve of the spirit of much of Gervais’s work. Judge for yourself:
From: “Out of England” (2010)–while the bit about spiders seems a bit random, it transitions into a fun reading of “The Book of Noah” that certainly attempts to “upset the established order.”
According to his website, he has a lot of projects going on, including his podcast, animated show, a new TV show called “Derek,” and a new stand-up tour. I’ll give him some birthday self-promotion:
The 25th of June is my birthday. And on that momentous date I start pre-production on Derek
and release the second series of The Ricky Gervais Show on DVD.
This is better than the jubilee right?
* More on Orwell’s definition of humor:
“All this is not to say that humour is, of its nature, immoral or antisocial. A joke is a temporary rebellion against virtue, and its aim is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that is already degraded. A willingness to make extremely obscene jokes can co-exist with very strict moral standards, as in Shakespeare. Some comic writers, like Dickens, have a direct political purpose, others, like Chaucer or Rabelais, accept the corruption of society as something inevitable; but no comic writer of any stature has ever suggested that society is good.
Humour is the debunking of humanity, and nothing is funny except in relation to human beings. Animals, for instance, are only funny because they are caricatures of ourselves. A lump of stone could not of itself be funny; but it can become funny if it hits a human being in the eye, or if it is carved into human likeness.
It would seem that you cannot be funny without being vulgar — that is vulgar by the standards of the people at whom English humorous writing in our own day seems mostly to be aimed. For it is not only sex that is ‘vulgar’. So are death, childbirth and poverty, the other three subjects upon which the best music-hall humour turns. And respect for the intellect and strong political feeling, if not actually vulgar, are looked upon as being in doubtful taste. You cannot be really funny if your main aim is to flatter the comfortable classes: it means leaving out too much.”