From a communications standpoint: a look at how history suggests we might've expected Gervais to become the "champion of the people" all along.
It's been discussed to death. The night that shots taken by Ricky Gervais were heard round the world.
In particular, of course, the final portion of the instantly-famous Golden Globes speech, where Gervais took the most direct aim at topics like hypocrisy, superiority, and virtue signaling. While other portions of Ricky's speech could easily be classified as "just jokes," those final comments seemed to radiate authenticity. Not that Ricky has necessarily wanted to get that off his chest for years, but thousands of people did. And he knew it.
Time has indeed passed since the speech, but the video has earned over 300 million views (and counting), and Gervais has picked up about 700,000 new Twitter followers. You don't get that from delivering a joke. You get that from establishing a connection.
What makes Gervais the right messenger for this message?
Let's take "The Office" as our first example. As most people know, Gervais co-created the iconic sitcom with Stephen Merchant in the early 2000s, and went to become an Executive Producer of the American version a few years later. The reason I bring it up here is that one of the most captivating draws of the show for many of its fans (myself included) is its ability to make you feel like you're part of the experience. Contrary to other shows that perform for the audience at home, Ricky and Steve chose to break down the fourth wall and not only include the audience at home, but speak directly to them via the "documentary cameras."
The documentary vibe makes us feel as though we're watching actual life situations unfold before our eyes. It strives to feel more familiar and life-like than its joke-per-minute counterparts. Many of the camera shots are intentionally dry and dull (e.g. a phone ringing, papers being organized, a banal conversation), which serves as an homage to those who are acquainted with the ordinary and mundane on a daily basis.
This brings us to example number two. Gervais has had a unique relationship with fame, as he did not become famous until his late 30s. A much earlier attempt at a music career ultimately proved unsuccessful, and eventually resulted in a regular office job for several years (hello, sitcom inspiration). It wasn't until his job at a local radio station in the late 90s/early 2000s that he started to gain some local attention. Here, he met Stephen Merchant (and Karl Pilkington, for all you Karl fans). He and Steve eventually created a one-off, 7-minute humorous video that featured a character named David Brent. Then, once the BBC saw it, they ordered a pilot version of it, and the rest is history.
For the several-year period in between the music career and the sitcom pilot, I think it's safe to say that Gervais was not overly desperate or determined to become famous, as he did almost no work to achieve such a goal --- which is a journey that sets him apart from many in his esteemed community.
And then there's his upbringing. Gervais, by his own account, grew up on a very working-class estate, and his first real job was at his friend's dad's factory. Certainly, an upbringing like this is not uncommon in Hollywood, but it's a persona that has never seemed to escape him. I recall one particular episode of the XFM radio show in London where Stephen Merchant observed Ricky's ability to maintain a strong connection with strangers and more blue-collar folks, which was particularly apparent when the duo were walking through the streets of London. According to Merchant, Ricky took both insults and compliments in stride, and usually offered an amusing comment in return.
Another example is the sitcom "Extras," which followed soon after "The Office" chronologically. Ricky and Steve developed a show about the entertainment industry, but featured as its protagonist a full-time film extra. While the duo obviously saw endless comedic opportunity in this concept, it served as yet another example of acknowledging the unsung characters in our Western culture. David Brent and Andy Millman were hardly James Bond or Iron Man. They were the least of us, or perhaps just, in many ways, the rest of us.
Some final examples from "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." A few instances during Ricky's most recent appearances on the Netflix series in particular. One was his sympathy for a bakery attendant. Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky walk into a New York bakery (no, not a joke), but ultimately decide to go elsewhere. Ricky quickly feels bad, and laments to Jerry that they should go back because the guy behind the counter probably feels disappointed that he lost two big customers. So they decided to go back.
Another was Ricky's admission that he always makes a point to laugh whenever the average person tells him a joke. He feels bad not laughing. Jerry disagrees, saying that comedians should not give regular people the impression that they're as talented as successful comedians who put in the time and hard work, so there's no point in laughing unless it's truly funny. Ricky's argument was that it should be considered a compliment that these folks would be absolutely thrilled to impress an established comedian with humor.
And the final example from the Netflix series: Ricky's connection to the camera. Once again, nearly every other episode features Jerry and a fellow comedian presenting us with fascinating, intelligent, witty conversations about comedy and life. The Ricky episodes were no different, except for a couple of instances where Jerry would say or do something, and Ricky would look directly at the camera, in a manner reminiscent of "The Office." Here, we see another example of his desire to include the viewer in the experience, especially whenever he realizes the absurdity of a moment.
So what's the point?
If you haven't already concluded, my observation is that perhaps history suggests we could've expected Gervais to become quite the effective populist all along, based on many of his career choices. He has seemingly demonstrated an ongoing desire to include the people at home, i.e. the regular folks. Therefore, I don't see the Golden Globes speech, or even its appeal, as political (Gervais himself is a liberal). I see the speech as yet another tribute to everyday people --- an effort to include us in the experience. Remember, Ricky was one of the "regular folks" himself until he was nearly 40. And the continued popularity of the speech proves he's still able to read the public quite well.
But who are the "regular folks" in this case? Not Republicans. Not Democrats. Not Independents. Not "forgotten middle America" or those on the coasts. Not blue-collar workers or those in academia. Not Fox News viewers or CNN viewers. Rather, it's all of us. All of us who work hard during the week then enjoy our favorite entertainment in our brief moments of spare time. All of us, on both the right and the left, who seem to agree on the pointlessness of elitism. All of us who follow the news and take pride in thinking for ourselves. All of us who enjoy seeing art celebrated. All of us who are grateful for art because it allows us to escape the very topics that our artists preach about --- if only for a moment.
Sure, not everyone agrees...
It is indeed true that Gervais' constant lecturing on topics surrounding faith and spirituality does strangely conflict with his otherwise electric connection with the general public. So perhaps he's not a total populist. But I don't know that he cares. In an ironic twist, it's his "who cares what anybody thinks of me" attitude that also deserves partial credit for his appeal.
Others argue that Gervais is a hypocrite because he's a wealthy, famous celebrity lecturing other wealthy, famous celebrities. Obviously, that is the point. It is precisely because he's an insider that makes him an effective messenger for this particular message. Insiders (of any group) tend to hear insiders more clearly than they hear outsiders. It's also far more intriguing when an insider decides to challenge his own community right to their faces.
But it helps to have the rare combination of both insider credibility and outsider appeal to be a truly effective messenger on this topic.
So while figures like Robert DeNiro, who appeared to deliver a rebuttal to Gervais during his recent speech at the SAG Awards, continue to experience endless acceptance in their own communities. Gervais will enjoy a continued climb in views, fans, ticket sales, ratings, and popularity -- once again proving that an effective messenger is often more crucial than the message.
Jordan Schulz is a Communications Director, musician, and entertainment connoisseur.