“Any plans for the weekend?” asks a sweet elderly receptionist in the fourth episode of Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix show, After Life. Gervais’ character, Tony, a writer struggling to cope with losing his wife to cancer, replies, “I’m going to rape myself to death.”
This moment is at once shocking, hilarious and poignant. It is the perfect encapsulation of an almost perfect show. Gervais has never been funnier—and yet his humor drives one of the most moving pieces of entertainment of recent times.
That it is shocking needn’t come as a shock. Anybody who has watched Gervais’ prior Netflix-backed outing, Humanity—which includes a ten-minute segment on how it would be easier to transition to a chimpanzee than to a woman—has surely experienced the delight of witnessing Gervais relish his hard-won independence from traditional television producers. Such gags wouldn’t be quite proper on the BBC’s Live at the Apollo, nor is it likely that an elderly man with Alzheimer’s professing to want to do his nursing home cohabitants from behind on account of their ugliness would have made it into The Office.
That it is moving may come as more of a surprise. Gervais made his name with acerbic comedy in a variety of formats. His occasional forays into more serious territory, while still rooted in comedy, have never been outright panned, but have paled in comparison to The Office and Extras. But none have tackled as grand a topic as After Life does. From the banality of modern office life to the quirkiness of the acting world to the occasional off-key satire of religion, Gervais’ seriousness has always been in service to comedy. In After Life, comedy is in service to seriousness. After Life is, fittingly, transcendent, and the show tackles life itself.
Life can be hard, unfair and even cruel. We may vainly believe in the unconquerable greatness of the human spirit, but cancer can rid us of that belief in no time at all. And, for any one cancer, there may be more than one victim. As one particularly loveable character tells Tony, “bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people and sometimes it’s just no one’s fault.”
But life’s random cruelty is not worth succumbing to altogether, because we can always choose to make life less cruel for others. We needn’t each aim so high as to affect the great societal issues of the age. After all, if life is so cruel and we are so pathetic, what hope do we have anyway? We can still think globally, but we should act locally.
The easiest place to start is by telling a joke. What we tend to forget these days—when an ill-advised joke can go viral, be deliberately misunderstood and end a career—is that jokes are inherently local. They always have contexts, and they are always good faith attempts to connect to an intended audience. As Gervais explains in more detail in Humanity, that you find a joke about a topic funny does not mean you find that topic funny. Nor does it mean you find that joke funny no matter the context in which it might have been told. The only thing you can know for sure about somebody telling a joke is that they want to make their audience laugh – that specific audience at that specific time and place. Context is key. This is not to say that humour can’t be used to cause harm. It can, but in the scheme of all jokes ever told, this represents an exceedingly small proportion, and misrepresenting jokes outside the context in which they were actually told to try to find harm in them – and virtue in oneself – does nobody any good.
In one episode, Gervais addresses this point both selflessly and oddly profoundly by making his own character the lone jerk who doesn’t appreciate this. Not everything is about your pain, he is told, and realizing this is very likely the quickest way to start to overcome that pain. There is nothing wrong or shameful about suffering, but we all suffer. There is a responsibility to choose to shoulder the suffering of others before forcing others to shoulder yours.
In promoting Gervais’ personal brand of responsible and compassionate localism, After Life is in large part a manifesto against wokeness. We might define wokeness as a moral outlook characterized by seeking to be maximally observed performatively feigning concern for the cosmic injustice du jour, paired with complete inaction to right any wrongs in real life. The goal is to contrive one’s identity as being as removed as possible from one’s own behavior and instead as determined by membership in as many groups as possible, which are each victims of some cosmic injustice or other. There is a bonus element: the lustful trappings of vicious social exclusivity, as determined by the ability to keep absolutely up to date with the latest approved-of cosmic injustices. Naturally, jokes are prohibited because wokeness is a universalist attitude, not a localist one, and because the idea of an intended audience and a context implies group formation and identification, contrary to the partition provided by said cosmic injustice du jour. Wokeness is, of course, thoroughly immoral, and is better described not as a moral outlook but a moral fashion.
In an age in which such fashions are increasing in reach and fervor daily and producing an ever-growing list of what you can’t say, Gervais goes out of his way to have his characters say anything and everything. Perhaps the show’s only flaw is how far out of its way it will occasionally go to make an edgy joke that you feel is directed at those Gervais wants to trigger for the sheer fun of it by making the kind of joke that would get you screamed off a university stage for violating a safe space.
And yet this may constitute a kind of truly brilliant meta-commentary. Gervais is partial to such deep irony: the premise of Humanity is to complain to ten thousand people in the room and hundreds of millions on Netflix how awful people are, and to make them laugh at how miserable they seem. The moral of After Life is that humor—no matter how grim or brutal—is ultimately about connecting with people. The best way to make the world a better place is to connect with more people more often.
It is not to try to appear sensitive by censoring humor, or deciding for others what connections they should and shouldn’t make. It is not to try to appear righteous by whining about societal problems you have neither the competence nor the resolve to address. And it is not to try to appear victimized by whining about personal problems in the hope that somebody else will do the work to fix them. It is to have meaningful enough connections to be able to see the problems that people don’t whine about, help them anyway, and seek no reward beyond the inherent goodness of a strengthened connection.
Once the problem is fixed and passions have subsided, make fun of that person and her stupid problem for the rest of her life to celebrate your connection. The rest of her life, or yours, may not be as long you think. The grim and brutal exploration of this fundamental anti-wokeness is what makes After Life not just hilarious as comedy, heartbreaking as drama and brilliant as writing, but morally good as a work of art.