Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ricky Gervais and ignorance

Dear Readers, I need you tonight, to vent my frustrations to. I am just back from the Ricky Gervais stand up show where he has a routine that suggests having ME is a work-shy indulgence as opposed to a serious illness. We will come to that shortly. First I shall say that I had read a preview of the show (briefly mentioning ME as one of his controversial topics) and I was in a two day long dilemma as to whether to go or not. In that time I wrote Ricky Gervais a letter telling of the severities of ME. Nice Man also wrote and thought we should sell the tickets. However, some of my family members and pals said it was hard to judge from a review and I might as well go and then defend or criticise. I considered it might be defeatist to avoid going. I reasoned I should face the supposed attack and then be in a position to give a report or opinion. So report I shall...
Firstly can I say that Gervais chose to be risky about illness and disability in general. There is a sketch about taking a neighbour's autistic kid to the casino instead of the zoo (a la Rain Man). Controversial, yes, but we all know that autism is 100% real and can be life-wrecking. Next Gervais was making gags about how he believed all obesity was self inflicted and not an illness. Then - my stomach tightened - he said how he'd seen someone collecting for ME recently. Quote -ME? Not MS - not the crippling wasting disease. No, the thing that makes you say 'I dont wanna go to work today' (here he adopted a self-pitying tone and mock lethargy). The audience guffawed and broke into spontaneous applause. He said that Africans wouldn't get ME because they have more serious concerns like getting food and water. Cue his sketch about one African asking another weakling ME African to go and get water from the well. More huge laughter. At one point Gervais did conceed that it was a 'cheap gag' but that a person with ME couldn't run after him and fight him.
I usually pride myself on being able to take a joke in any circumstances, but the horribleness of this is that Gervais is perpetuating the myth that ME is a choice. This man has sold five million DVDs worldwide. He will do this routine to thousands of people every night. He may sell another million of the follow-up DVD. I call on the ME charities to do something drastic, something effective. This disbelief has been going on for decades. There is hard scientific evidence out there that ME can be every bit as severe as MS. Where is the missing link? How can Ricky Gervais get an audience to support him in implying we're molly-coddled fakes?
I came out feeling like I'd been bullied in the playground. I loved The Office but I don't feel I can ever warm to Gervais again. Maybe Nice Man was right and we shouldn't have gone. Maybe it is important I was there to highlight how misinformed and harmful to the cause the routine was. I welcome anyone who wishes to write to Gervais c/o his company. I don't think there is any point in writing viscious and critical letters - just a short letter telling how your life has been affected by ME would do. If you were the African with ME and couldn't walk to get water from the well, you'd die, let's face it. Oh what a cheery night of comedy!
PS. Permission to repost this anywhere.
PPS. I am told Ricky's agent is D Hayes , I don't want to harrass anyone - that would be counter productive, but there it is, if you feel strongly and want to send a short and civil email.


kathhazel said...

The man is an arse.

I never liked The Office, it highlights all that is nasty about working/living in the SE and tries to brush it off as a joke.

I haven't seen any of his live stuf, and when he was interviewed on Jonathon Ross's show my opinion of him only worsened.

There are some comedians who CAN get away with taking the mick out of illness and disability, because they approach it in a compassionate way, but he doesn't seem to have any compassion in his soul.

Writing to him may or may not help.....but don't be surprised if you find he is using it in a stand up show in the future :(

boolybooly said...

But looking at the other side of the coin, he is really taking the mick out of the people who think that about ME, isn't he ?

In 'Animals' for example he took the mick out of zoologists, (which as it happens was my degree subject), with the "chubby bat" skit, and that was hilarious. Noone in their right mind thinks zoologists are getting kickbacks for making up new species, or are they !? People do cast aspersions on scientist's ulterior motives, just enough to ignore anyone who says they shouldn't drive a big fast car, funnily enough.

Likewise its true there is a government bias in the treatment of ME which seems to be based on the presumption that voters think PWME use ME as an excuse. The long standing denial of ME, recent campaign of illegitimate benefits disqualifications and attempts to recruit GPs to act as health police are all facets of a policy which abuses and humiliates teh sick, in the presumption that all sickies are skivers and must be persecuted to convince the British public the government are doing their job. The joke is that prejudice is real. The joke Ricky made, about ME in Africa, shows up our the evil attitudes we have towards both Africa and ME.

We know all too well what he is driving at, people with ME might not even be noticed out there, we have a hard enough time in the UK. ME cases would not be noticed among the AIDS, famine & war victims who the developed nations complacently allow to die every day when they could, should, intervene and help. Ricky piles sin on sin, that is how his humour works.

Gervais is not stupid, he knows about Africa and ME and he has to have faith that other people do too, deep down. His humour works because people know what a bunch of blaggers we are and he helps us face ourselves, he caricatures our ignorance in his own stage presence. He always has, since the office, been the voice of what we despise about ourselves.

IMHO we (the ME community) should trust him and try to understand how this can change the perception of public opinion of both issues for the better. Maybe even see the funny side though I fully agree, having had ME for 20 years and as it happens having worked for OXFAM for a couple of those, it is very dark humour indeed!


Vics said...

Have posted about this, I wish I could say I can' believe it - but it's kind of typical really, the name changes but the attitude remains.

nmj said...

I didn't see the show, but I would like to think that boolybooly is right & gervais was really satirising those who don't believe in ME rather than those who have it - he has, after all, mercilessly sent up 'the office' producer, ash atalla, who uses a wheelchair cos of polio, & that satire must've come from love and respect, not nastiness - but then maybe gervais is just lazy and using lame material that we used to see 20 years ago... but a real shame if the audience actually still thinks it's not a real illness, but am sure some of the people watching show (as well as you & Nice Man) were peeved as hell. If I'd seen it, I would of course have been enraged.

CatherineNiven said...

I'm surprised a widely loved comedian would use an old joke in his new stand-up show. C'mon - I've heard it before...about 8 years ago. And it wasn't funny then. Perhaps Ricky could take some tips from Steve Coogan in the guise of Alan Partridge and his hilarious ME jokes. At least they are original. Oh and funny too

Digitalesse said...

I'm so sorry that you had to sit through this crap. An evening out should be something to look forward to, something that lifts the spirits. You shouldn't have to endure this sort of insulting, prejudiced rubbish.

I didn't like The Office, I didn't find it funny, so it's not as if I am all that disappointed.

I live in London and through my local ME group, I have met people of various ethnicities who have had ME, including people of African origin, as well as people from the Carribean, Vietnam and different parts of Asia. If ME is a disease of the pampered, affluent and white, he can think again.

I know a little story-ette about Ricky Gervais, before he was famous. He used to manage a band, and by all accounts, he was a self-serving bastard, and not very nice.

Obviously I didn't see the show and I have no way of knowing whether what he said was satirical and more aimed at the people who don't believe in ME. He may have been using satire, but then again, he may have been mocking people with ME and peddling the notion that we are lazy, feeling sorry for ourselves and can't cope with the real world. LIke it or not, that is a stereotype of a PWME.

'ME awareness' seems to be one step forward and two steps backward as far as educating the public is concerned.

The Lightning Process has been in the Daily Mail this week, more zippity-doo-dah stories of miracle cures. When I read that load of old tosh, it's basically what's in Trudie Chalder's book - CBT old stylee, that assumed we were inactive because we were anxious about symptoms and it was the anxiety that was stopping us from being active and well - plus a bit of hopping about on idiot cards with a few trite new age slogans written on them, I just think to myself, the public are going to be reading this and thinking that ME is 'all in the mind'.

I won't be writing to Ricky Gervais. It's not worth the energy expenditure. Victor Lewis-Smith has said pretty much the same thing, that ME is a nonsense illness invented by lazy self-pitying types, and that poor Africans don't get ME. He does receive letters from PWME and he responds by saying that these people are too ill to lift their head off the pillow but have the energy to type letters pages and pages long. It's like scoring an own goal, really.

I can't say that Ricky Gervais is the "voice of what we despise about ourselves", not being the self-loathing type, so maybe that's why I didn't like The Office and I've never found him all that funny. As I said, I've heard some unpleasant things about him, so my reckoning is that he's just an arrogant, ignorant ******.

Anonymous said...

I agree with boolybooly that Ricky Gervais is probably taking the piss out of peoples bad attitudes towards ME (and Africa).

Unfortunately the joke is too subtle and RG might be overestimating the intelligence of some people in the audience. I personally think its ok to make jokes about controversial subjects, however I think RG may have inadvertently encouraged incorrect and negative stereotypes about ME. It would have been better if RG had used the David Brent character to expose this prejudice as we all know the character is an idiot.

Ciara noted that he has a large audience and even if a small percentage of them don't get the joke then PWME will be on the receiving end for some time to come.

Catherine has heard this joke used before by another comedian, and I have also heard it before. My uncle, my brother, my best-friend and someone I had just met, all on separate occasions told me that ME is bulls**t because people in Africa don't get it and therefore I’m lazy, lying, cheating, mentally ill or playing the sick role. I think I along with many others have already suffered enough from this joke being misunderstood. RG can walk away from this but PWME will probably suffer as a result of his routine.

I hope I’m wrong about this and instead it will raise the profile of ME and make people question their attitudes.

By the way there have been a few recorded epidemics of ME occurring in Africa (South Africa and Sierra Leone). I looked this up to counter that stupid f**king joke. I know it's defensive and I shouldn't have to do this but it quickly shuts some idiots up (handy when you feel too ill to reason with people!). You know what they say you can choose your friends but not your family.


Ciara said...

Thanks for the discussion people.

I am posting all comments received. Just one thing - I don't want to attack Ricky Gervais as a person. I disagree with his routine on ME, not who he is. I feel very strongy about this. IMHO, I don't believe we gain anything by saying he is a 'blank' or 'I never found him funny anyway'.


Mike said...

People in Africa tend not to get multiple sclerosis either, hmm, I guess that must be a fake disease too. Thing is if he wanted to send up ignorance of ME, rather than ME itself, surely it would have been all the stronger, to have set the joke where the problem is, in the UK, without this additional confusing layer.

"...or 'I never found him funny anyway".

What's wrong with that if it's the truth (which it is for me BTW)?. Surely we've lost already if we have to be so PC we can't even have an opinion on someone who is after, all, a public figure and who lives or dies, so to speak, according to his audience. I realise it's not what fans want to hear and I'm sure there are comedians I find funny that others may disagree with. Of course it *may* help as far as Gervais is concerned if it's umbraged loyal fans rather than those he'd view as critics, but given what I've seen of him I get the feeling he wouldn't care. But this is a blog and I think everyone is entitled to a view (even if I didn't see this act but I do trust other MEites).

Boolybooly's minority view comes across as really trying too hard to rationalise what seems to be a cheap slagging. I don't really see Gervais' comedy as being that sophisticated and don't think a pro-ME joke requires such legerdemain. The bit about sufferers being too sick to run after him is the only thing that gives a faint glimmer but on the other hand could just be a representaion of the sadistic streak a lot of contemporary humour has, masquerading behind "dark". You might say the same about the ME reference on the League of Gentlemen. Surely an attack on ME cynics would have left the cynics rather than the sufferers looking more ridiculous?

The kind of humour that's mostly in fashion these days is phatic. Remember what Griff Rhys said (with a smirk) about the Little Britain Lou and Andy sketches -- that it voices the audience's thoughts disabled people are "putting it on a bit" (not a verbatim quote but pretty close).

Gervais' web site, unsurprisingly at, reads like a string of adverts with no forum or contact info I can see. Perhaps if RG gets enough feedback we will get a statement from him, but no statement is usually as bad a sign as one telling the correspondents where to go.

BTW Ciara if you don't like this post you don't have to use it. ;-)

Ciara said...

Hi Mike,

thanks for this.

I only meant that I think someone saying they never liked RG anyway, is a side issue in our main argument against his ME routine. If a person gets their leg broken after being knocked down by a car, we can all agree it's awful but saying 'I never liked cars anyway' isn't going to advance the case.

Maybe not a great analogy...but perhaps you see what I mean. No offence meant. This may all come to nothing and we can 'enjoy' wathing Ricky's ME routine on You Tube and TV in the months ahead...


Reading the Signs said...

The situation, with the kind of attitude that RG seems to have been reflecting, is not helped by people who, feeling a bit under the weather, begin to put it about that they have M.E. Or, feeling a bit low on energy, say something like, "now I know how it feels" - which of course they don't. Unless a person has the wretched illness, or is close to someone who has, my experience is that it's still perceived as being something that just makes you tired a lot. People have no idea. There needs to be more awareness - everywhere. Good luck - and nice to come across your blog.

Kurt said...

Comedians are often simply reflecting things that people are thinking and just not telling to others. So more than being a specific incident that should be condemned, I believe this is a heads-up reminder that ME (or CFS) is 'still' largely unknown and misunderstood by the public at large. This is slowly changing in the US with the CDC finally acknowledging a biological basis for the illness in 2006 (genetic correlations). The CDC is even sponsoring public service announcements on TV now in the US to explain the illness. Hopefully the same can happen in the UK.

The problem is not with RG, the problem is that ME advocates have failed to make much of a difference yet in public opinion. His routine draws attention to this fact.

Anonymous said...

Ricky Gervais is a funny man.
Don't act the victim and like he's out to insult people with illnesses for crying out loud. He ridicules people's opinions; open your eyes. He's an incredibly clever man, and so individual.
Stop taking everything so seriously, for crying out loud. It'll get you nowhere in life.

Ciara said...

Hey anonymous,

I'm back on side with Ricky now - see later posts for details of his correspondence.


Anonymous said...

your too lazy to go to work yet you can be bothered to go to a Gervais gig so you've got something to moan about. Honestly. Its like you dont want to be happy.

mat said...

I have ME.

And I think that your feelings about RG's piece on the illness is because you feel what I feel and what many sufferers feel; the illness isn't taken seriously. It isn't trendy enough. It is a "modern" illness, and and such, lacks credibility. It drives me mad.

However, I think you are being a bit hypocritical. Look back at any of the stand up RG has done. He delights from being near to the knuckle, and that is why people flock to see him.

He has joked about issues far more contentious than ME - child labour is one example I can think of immediately, and how we all laughed.

Before he really gets going, he explains that it is a real illness. And then he goes on to take the piss out of it. Which is what he does.

ME has ruined my life, yet the piece still made me laugh.

Ciara said...

Thanks Matt,

It actually seems ages since the RG episode and i have full 'closure' now :-) Nice Man corresponded with RG. RG couldn't have been nicer and I think he says in routine on the final DVD that ME is *more* misunderstood (but no less real) than cancer or any of the other maladies he jokes about. And he's still funny, which is fine by me.

All the best,


Cj said...

Ironic that... I am south AFRICAN and I have M.E.....wonder where that leaves me?...better start crawling to the water well now...

Steve Carey said...

You have "closure"? It's a bad idea to have your sense of balance and happiness at risk of being dislodged just because someone else says something you don't like.

Whatever Gervais was getting at (and I find his stuff very funny and unsettling at the same time), one thing he is certainly doing is voicing what many people feel about ME.

Even if you could shut him up, there would still be people around too ignorant or unfeeling and capable of saying cruel, hurtful things. If, as I say, you are going to leave yourself open to being hurt by them, that is...

I like the story of the Rabbi who was shouted and insulted in the street. "You've offered me an insult," he said, "and I thank you but choose not to accept it." What power does that leave those who would cause hurt? None, that's where.

Cheers all,

Steve Carey
Melbourne, Australia

Anonymous said...

It IS a comedy routine and they are called jokes for a reason...

He's made horrible jokes about a serious illness I have, and though they do take me aback, they are jokes after all.

Michelle Wyatt said...

Well done for writing the words he said...all the videos of it have been removed to protect his behaviour from being fully exposed. Your post is the only clear explanation online of what he did that I could find. If the video is removed everywhere we can write the sketch out as a script until he makes a proper effort to reverse by a true demonstration of encouraging others to follow him in correcting their disrespect and misconception.