Some people might think that it is strange that I am posting a review of a comedy programme the day after the second London attack. That is their right. For me, I was born, bred and live in London, and these cowardly attacks on this wonderful city anger me beyond belief. But I will not change my routine because of them. I will not let them dictate my life. Yes, I had to get the train because the tubes are disrupted but I’m a Londoner; I’m used to it. It meant that I had to go on a ‘bendy bus‘ for the first time, even though they were taken out of service for a while because they caught on fire, but I’m still going to work, still getting on with life, and still want to post to my blog about the new comedy from Ricky Gervais because that’s the kind of stubborn pillock I am.
What better way to diminish the impact of terrorists than comedy? Laughter will make the world seem better. Not forever, but it does help. Which was a theme touched on in the programme itself. Extras is about Andy Millman (Gervais), a man who gave up a good job in a bank to become an actor. Except that, in the five years he’s been trying, he hasn’t had a single line and gets work as an extra. His friend in this venture is Maggie (newcomer Ashley Jensen), and we find them for the first time on the set of a film about the Balkan conflict, directed by Ben Stiller, playing an over-the-top version of himself.
It is in his speech explaining why they are making the film that mentions comedy and world issues. After reeling off some of the weekend and world grosses of his films, he asks what can he do if he were to find an orphan in a war zone? Put on a DVD of Dodgeball? Well, yes, he’ll laugh for and hour and 32 minutes but what then? He’s still an orphan. Well, he could watch it again, and he’d laugh again because he’d find things he hadn’t seen the first time, it’s layered, we made it like that, but what next? After the fifth, six, seventh viewing, he’d still be laughing but, you know … This is very funny and dark as well, which is what Gervais and Merchant do so well, and Stiller is very game for undermining his public persona.
The rest of the programme is taken up with Andy trying to get a line in the film by whatever means possible, including pretending to befriend the author of the screenplay, who has written about his experiences of the war, including the death of his wife and child, and even stooping as low as to bribe him. This is dark stuff, examining the vacuous and unthinking nature of people who will do anything to be famous and it’s a little strange seeing it in a more ‘normal’ television style than the hyper-realism of The Office, which created the space in which this more cringing comedy could work more naturally.
This is kept up in a later section at a party where Maggie is completely flustered upon discovering that the object of her affections has to wear an orthopaedic shoe due to having one leg shorter than the other, ejaculating ‘clumpy’ and ‘Herman Munster’ without even realising it. This scene reminds you of the scenes in The Office where you would be hiding behind your hands because you couldn’t believe what you were seeing at the same time as laughing. Maggie seems to be even more stupid and socially-inept than David Brent, if that’s possible, whereas Andy is more worldly wise than Brent, and with a better sense of humour, even if they have a similar sense of self-delusion.
The funniest part comes at the end. After Stiller has said the most unbelievable line to the writer in front of the cast and crew (‘Stop going on about your fucking dead wife!’), Maggie and Andy try to say something, only for Stiller’s ego to kick in. The dialogue:
Stiller to Andy: Who are you?
Stiller: Do you know who I am?
Andy: Starsky or Hutch, I can never remember.
Stiller: Is that supposed to be funny?
Andy: You were in it, you tell me.
This is very dark and very funny. It occupies a different territory to The Office, but on similar grounds, and I hope that people give it a chance and not just expect a sequel to The Office. It is intelligent and daring (the Balkan conflict as a source of comedy, anyone?) and for that we must applaud Gervais and Merchant for doing something they believe in, instead of going for an easy option. I eagerly await future episodes.