It’s a common problem. You’re a world renowned star, you’ve done the sitcoms, you’ve done the stand-up tours and you’ve done the Hollywood movies. Where to next? Well apparently you should set yourself up a Twitter account and use it to call anyone who’ll listen, a ‘mong’. As in, the word you might use to mock someone with Down Syndrome, yeah.
Because if you’re Ricky Gervais that’s something that definitely needed doing. Gervais has recently re-opened a long dormant Twitter account to predominantly post pictures of himself pulling faces and ‘reclaiming’ the word ‘mong’, using it to describe anyone he sees as an idiot. Understandably people have got a little upset by this, given it’s the type of derogatory schoolyard-bully term that people shouldn’t be be bandying about, not least someone with his level of fame, wealth and influence.
No doubt he loves the hand-wringing it’s causing, after all it can’t be long before his new project Life’s Too Short hits the screens. And hey, maybe this is all just some brave comedic attempt to provide the word with some alternate meaning and show up the ‘PC Brigade’. But unfortunately his attempts to justify it have been utterly cack handed and pathetic.
His first point is that ‘mong’ is an outdated word, its meaning has changed, like ‘gay’ meaning ‘happy’. I’m afraid that’s not true. In some corners perhaps the definition is changing but the words base meaning will always remain. As someone who was in education a lot more recently than Gervais and happens to do a lot of work in schools and colleges, unfortunately you can still hear it used to mock. He completely undoes this argument by the very fact that he’s posting pictures of himself pulling a stereotypical, (for want of a better expression) ‘Down Syndrome face’, suggesting he’s quite happy to reinforce its meaning.
Then things really get strange. Gervais claims that the ‘haters’ are ‘offended by my success’. Are you serious? You sound like every has-been comedian you’ve made your career out of sniping at (it’s the classic Jim Davidson/ Ben Elton defence). How many years do we give it before your shouting at the BBC for not letting you joke about Muslims?
What’s worse is that he’s even taken his campaign to the point where he suggests his followers should tweet the word ‘mong’ at anyone who has the audacity to call him up on the issue. So the answer to dealing with those who don’t like bullying is to bully them some more? What kind of idiotic mentality is this? Sorry, should that be ‘mong’ mentality?
There are acts who can, and do, address ‘offensiveness’. The words we use, how we use them. Carlin and Hicks are classic examples and more recently acts like Glenn Wool have tackled offensive comedy with aplomb and intelligence. Gervais sadly possesses none of these faculties. This whole thing highlights him being nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. This is just a multimillionaire sneering.
There’s often been an argument that ‘they’ don’t mind, ‘oh, I said this to a guy with Down Syndrome and he was fine about it’. It’s been trotted out several times by Jim Jeffries to support his use of words like ‘mong’ and ‘retard’. Maybe that is the case, Jeffries has performed gigs for several disability charities in the past and of course the offensive nature of a word is ultimately in the eye/ear of the beholder. But could Jim Jeffries honestly say everyone in those audiences took it well? What kind of reaction would he get performing that material in front of a crowd at a boozy comedy club on a Friday night? I imagine he’d still get the laughs but probably for very different reasons.
Therein lays the real problem. Is Gervais really in a position to ‘reclaim’ this word? Would he honestly try and reclaim the N-word (a point alluded to by Richard Herring in his excellent blog on the subject)? The answer is no. We know what happens when white comedians do this, the answer is ‘Michael Richards’. But hey, a little fun at the expense of Down Syndrome? Well, that’s OK.
The whole thing leaves a pretty unpleasant taste in the mouth. Here’s one of the UK’s, nay the world’s, most successful comedians and he’s decided to use his power and influence to bring back the word ‘mong’. While some comics like Josie Long and even Ricky’s old touring buddy Robin Ince are using Twitter, blogs and social media (as well as their stage performances) to critique and slam political wrongs and social hardships, we’ve got a global superstar who’d rather grab some attention with some snide backbiting and offensiveness. It suggests a man tragically out of touch with reality.
No doubt the blog postings of some whingeing liberal comedy nerd won’t bother Ricky Gervais in the slightest. But like Ricky I just had to get this bugbear off my chest. For me it’s another indication of a man who long ago lost sight of what was funny and what wasn’t. I was, like many, a huge fan but the simple, heartfelt, everyday appeal of The Office has progressively given way to writing that relies increasingly on his celebrity mates turning up and saying something funny about tits or ‘the Jews’, rolling out some fairly lazy stand-up shows and it turns out, having some, at best ill-informed, at worst plain nasty, personal opinions to spread across the Internet.
So Ricky, in future if you’re looking for another term to describe an idiot, how about we just call them a ‘Gervais’?