This weekend the fortunes of two of the country’s biggest comedians felt very different. As Russell Brand faced allegations of sexual assault, which he has denied, Ricky Gervais continued a sell-out run at the Palladium. Life looks good for Gervais. Last week he received official confirmation that his Armageddon show at the Hollywood Bowl in May broke the record for a single stand-up performance, grossing over £1.4 million.
The lengthy world tour has now reached London. It is certainly no major gear change for the co-creator of The Office. Instead it is Gervais gleefully circling around familiar taboos. The nature of offence, religion, the holocaust. There are lines that make you gasp at their darkness (paedophilia, lots of it), lines that make you guffaw at their childishness (the difference between snails and slugs). It’s the ultimate mixed bag.
Gervais manages to have it both ways, making pertinent points through puerile jokes. We sometimes have bad thoughts, he says, and we can’t stop them leaking out, so get over it. You certainly need that attitude to appreciate Armageddon.
His big bugbear here is the way language has evolved. The world might not end because of climate change or war, he suggests, it might end because of words. The black-clad 62-year-old suggests we are in danger of losing the power of free speech because of people getting upset by language. He is particularly funny on the way the definition of the word fascist has changed in this polarised with-us-or-against-us age. Like a tweet by the wrong comic and you are on Mussolini’s side.
He claims mock-grandly that he is now a woke comedian, but this is clearly a Gervaisian take on woke. He still says things that provoke and blatantly enjoys the response. When a punchline elicits an intake of breath he chuckles before muttering “that’s not going in the special,” referring to the upcoming Netflix version.
The laughs flow thick and fast and the show is pithy, pacey and performed with casual aplomb. His Stewart Lee-ish creation riff, imagining God coming up with the design for male genitals is a delight. His dissection of a famous scene from The Exorcist is headspinningly humorous.
“There’s nothing wrong with laughter, it makes everyone feel better,” he says. Armageddon is not for everyone, but for the open-minded there is both food for thought and lashings of cheap laughs.
London Palladium, September 28-30, October 12-14; lwtheatres.co.uk