I'll start this post by saying that I like Ricky Gervais. I'll also say that the point of this post isn't to debate whether or not I'm right to. That's tedious. Because comedy is a matter of taste. Besides, this post really isn't about him. It's about another comic creation. One called @MaximumGervais.
I didn't realise it was a comedy character at first. But it's always worth looking at the details... and I'm genuinely convinced that it is now. I'm not being obtuse or playful when I say that. I'm convinced.
So... I'll tell you how I first encountered @MaximumGervais. It starts with this tweet from Ricky.
For those unfamiliar with the grammar of Twitter, the abusive 'who-told-him-he-was-funny' post came from someone else (I've filtered their username because I don't want to encourage any pitchfork wielding mobs) and Ricky has retweeted it - ie sent it out to all his followers - with the added retort, Bafta.
So that's what Ricky tweeted... and I saw it because someone I know, retweeted that. Now, I don't have a lot of time for the person who sent the original, abusive tweet... because actually, no matter what you think of any comedian, the answer to who-told-them-they're-funny? is always the same: audiences. There's no empirical evidence of funny/unfunny. Every comedian that you think is unfunny makes other people laugh. (And every comedian that you think is hilarious leaves other people cold). And whatever you think of Ricky, there is plenty of evidence that lots of people think he's funny. Including some evidence from Bafta. Fine.
Now one of the things about social media is that it is what you make of it. You can lurk and read. You can participate. You can troll. You can use it in myriad ways. And some people think that their way is right and that other people's way is wrong. Personally, I have a policy of not retweeting praise. Or criticism. It wasn't ever thus for me... but it's where I've ended up. It's what makes me feel comfortable. But I don't think everyone should do the same. There are people I admire a great deal who do both. If it offended me so much I'd unfollow them. (I don't see unfollowing someone as an aggressive act - it's like changing seat on a bus to sit away from the passenger with the loud headphones... it's just making your own journey a little nicer, that's all.)
But the thing that struck me as odd about Ricky's tweet was that the abuse he was rebutting wasn't actually sent to him. It didn't contain his twitter name. It didn't refer to him as @RickyGervais... but as Ricky Gervais. So the only way he could have seen it was by searching for his name. Which seemed to me to be a surprising thing for him to do. Because it's not possible to appear on TV without being hated by someone somewhere. Every time anyone appears on TV someone somewhere is watching and saying, "Oh no... not that twat... I hate them...". (Okay, maybe it doesn't happen with David Attenborough. But it happens with everyone else.) And that's fine. Someone thinking that - someone saying it to their friends - is fine. You don't like to think about it obviously, but it's fine. It's the people who say it to you that are being anti-social. And on twitter that means it's the people who include your username - ensuring that you'll see the comment - that are the problem.
Now I'll reiterate that I like Ricky. And I was surprised to see that he was searching for criticism and taking the time to rebut it... but I'll also reiterate that social networking sites are what you make of them - and for each individual that can - and will - be different. Nobody's right, nobody's wrong.
But I registered my surprise by sending a tweet to the person who'd retweeted Ricky's post:
(again, I've filtered out their username)
And this is where MaximumGervais tipped up. They too must have been searching for comments relating to Ricky - and they must have been following all sorts of threads because my tweet doesn't even mention any obviously searchable terms - but they tweeted me the following:
Which made me laugh as an approach, so I replied...
To which they then replied:
Which again made me laugh. I didn't know that the person who'd been on Letterman most was the best (but it must be nice for David Letterman to know that he's several thousand times better than everyone else on earth, except Paul Shaffer) and comforting in a small way to confirm that both I and David not-the-magician Copperfield are significantly better than MaximumGervais.
Now at this stage I just thought they were a genuine Ricky Gervais superfan. I thought they really were patrolling the internet and defending their hero against any slight, however small. But I was also genuinely curious as to why they thought my initial tweet was deemed critical. I wouldn't expect the word 'Criminy' to inspire such vitriol. Surely, you'd only see that tweet as being critical if you thought that searching for your own name and wading in was wrong. If you think it's okay then... well... it's just 'criminy'.
So I asked. And they didn't answer. They told me I'd slagged off Ricky and that I was motivated by jealousy... but when I asked them in what way it was a slagging off they sent more abuse but no context. So in my head I dismissed them as a troll and decided not to feed them.
But then I saw another of their exchanges... and this is when I started to suspect that maybe they weren't just a slightly unhinged, OTT Gervais fan at all and that this was actually someone creating a comedy of their own. It was this:
So... a fan posts a link to a clip featuring Liam Neeson and Ricky Gervais. (It's from Ricky's new sitcom and it is indeed brilliant.) And the comment seems to be par for the course for that kind of thing. It seems to me to be written from the point of view of a fan who expects Ricky to be funny - it's in his show after all - but is surprised by how good the serious-actor-stepping-out-of-his-comfort-zone is.
In fact it's exactly the sort of thing a Ricky Gervais superfan would tweet. Except that MaximumGervais replied saying:
Because in their headspace it's disrespectful to point out that Neeson is brilliant and not mention that Ricky is too. The idiot! Duh! etc. etc.
All of a sudden that doesn't ring true. That seems like someone playing a character. So I started looking through their other posts too. Here's another where a fan of the show is told they're not a real fan because they only mentioned the one scene that had them crying with laughter:
I know there are all sorts of unhinged people out there - and that the internet is particularly good at incubating them - but after that I can't see how MaximumGervais is anything other than a situationist prank.
Especially when they also tweet:which came at the end of several tweets to their hero explaining why he should cut loose from his long term collaborator, Stephen Merchant. Compare and contrast it with the tweet from before about how every scene should make you cry with laughter. Unconditionally. Because that's what being a fan is. And anything else is not good enough.
By this stage I was starting to suspect that this was so much more than a spoof. This was high comic writing in its own right. Because it involves idolising someone/something while at the same time completely failing to get what it is that makes it work.
In fact, I suspect that they're really rather anti-Ricky. A lot of what Ricky does is about ego. And when people don't like him it's often because they're unsure where the line is between the performance and the reality. Some people think he's really just an overblown ego. Others think he's doing it for comic effect. Some like it either way. Some hate it either way.
But I think MaximumGervais is someone who hates it - and has created a character that is meant to be Ricky's ego broken free and wandering loose as an uncontrollable monster. I think it's a satire on Ricky's comic persona from the point of view of someone who doesn't buy it as a comic persona.
Do an image search for Ricky and tell me you think this is really the picture a genuine superfan would use to illustrate their account:
See that Ricky has apologised for his use of the word mong having accepted that - while it wasn't his intention to use it that way - he understood that the word is still used to denigrate disabled people and then see that MaximumGervais has a twitter biography that still says, "no mongs allowed."
Then see the various posts in which he tells Ricky he's wrong to apologise for it:
There were lots of others. And then finally, the tweet where he inexplicably decides that Ricky's apology wasn't sincere and was just an in-joke:
Can you imagine anything more calculated to annoy Ricky? A superfan who completely misses the point of him? A representation of an ego gone mad designed to tell someone he doesn't like that their ego's gone mad.
I like Ricky. And now I'm convinced that MaximumGervais is a character-act, I kind of like them too. And I think Ricky probably would do too. It's a parody of a parody that he doesn't think is a parody. It's the most meta- of meta-jokes. What could be more Gervaisian than that?