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The Coming Conversion of Ricky Gervais

The Coming Conversion of Ricky Gervais

I finally composed myself. It was quite a ride. Rough in parts. But it made me think, laugh, and shed a tear. 

I’m talking about the Netflix series After Life, created, directed, written, and starring Ricky Gervais, the hugely popular British actor, comedian, raconteur, and winner of seven BAFTA Awards, five British Comedy Awards, two Emmys, three Golden Globe Awards, and the 2006 Rose d’Or. 

And, amateur atheist.

It’s like the hobby he’s eager to share with people. He brings it up in interviews, it’s a main theme of his stand up act, and his atheist TV characters seem like proxy stand-ins for…Ricky Gervais.

This is what I want to address through the lens of After Life, but perhaps especially his Derek series (2012-2013). I will say out right that this blog post is also a shameless invitation for him to come on my podcast, The Patrick Coffin Show (weekly viewers in 100+ countries, yadda blah.)

So Mr. Gervais, if you’re reading this…

There are many reasons why this orthodox Catholic revert from agnostic hedonism should not have found After Life so affecting. I dumped Netflix long ago for spewing all manner of evil content, including the pedophile grooming flick Cuties. (That Netflix carries After Life is, in my view, a strike against it; for the record, a friend lent me his creds to access the series.)

The last scene of the last episode of the last season is one of the most moving endings I’ve ever seen on television. Many threads come together in an exquisite coda after an intense 18 episodes, in a way that’s as haunting as it is emotional. I confess to being a sucker for Joni Mitchell’s dusky later-in-life rendition of Both Sides Now, which wells up in that final scene like honey mixed with gall.

Apart from, say, the gnarly Flannery O’Connor,  self-identifying Christian storytellers who explores stark evils such as slow death and grief death as fearlessly are hard to find.

In After Life, Gervais plays atheist anti-hero Tony Johnson, who opines throughout that religion is a crock, Jesus is an asshole, and life ain’t worth living. He threatens a middle schooler with death by hammer, and recommends anatomically impossible things to those around him on a daily basis. 

The foul language is grating, although it helps to be based, not conservative; potty words and profanity in the service of art shouldn’t offend too much. (Blasphemy is different, but that gets us off topic.)

Before I get into Mr. Gervais’ atheism, a word about his impressive rise to the top. He began as a performer in the 80s with a group called Seona Dancing, he managed a band, did some radio, worked in an office (see below) before shifting to television as the host of the talk show Meet Ricky Gervais.

Click. He found his stride.

My first introduction to him was the 2001-2003 BBC mockumentary series The Office. Filled with painfully awkward moments owing to the main character David Brent’s hilariously un-self aware faux pas habit, the whole series meanders toward an unexpectedly more earnest destination. The resolution of the Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) subtext romance story line in the two-episode Christmas Special reaches a level of poignancy the American remake starring the talented Steve Carell never tries to match.

Apart from the Christmas Special, only two seasons of The Office were made. Same with Extras (2005-2007), another popular series created and starring Mr. Gervais with his writing partner Stephen Merchant, in which celebrities play slightly twisted versions of themselves. So good. 

Then came the two-seasoned Derek (2012-2013) in which Gervais plays the eponymous shortbus-riding Derek Noakes, a 50-year-old helper at a nursing care facility. Ricky Gervais is not playing a charming retarded guy we’re meant to pity. Rather, three-dimensional Derek can be said to pity us. (Derek as Christ figure holds the key to the fissures in the comedian’s atheism. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Less than two percent of actors can immerse themselves in a character so off their typical beam, as Gervais does with Derek in this extraordinary SCENE  in which Derek spends his last moments with Iva, his “favouritist dog,” who is being put down at the vet’s office.

Watch it, it’s short. Then ask yourself how many contemporary actors can “go there.” There is more to say about why Derek is key that unlocks the uneasy atheism of his creator.

But back to After Life, Gervais’ only triple-season production. The series follows Tony Johnson around the fictional hamlet of Tambury as he copes (or rather refuses to cope) with the loss of his beloved late wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman, also seen in Derek). Cancer has killed her body, but local newspaper writer Tony is not merely haunted by his memories of her. He tortures himself with them by watching what seems like hours of video footage of her, secretly filmed by her from her death bed as a video diary for him to watch when she’s gone.

 

We wince as he watches his late wife with her bald head and brave face offering him affirmation and advice about getting on with life without her. The footage—the two of them clowning around, dancing at wedding receptions, rowing on a lake, chilling on the sofa with their female German Shepherd, Brandy—is the closest Tony can get to communing with her soul, which, on the atheist view, doesn’t exist. 

No wonder he wallows—nay exults—in his nihilistic depression. For Lisa is gone forever, existing only as a screenful of pixilated light dots and a sound recording on his laptop. He lashes out at friends and co-workers, toys with sleeping pills with which to end it all, gives cash to a heroin addict and recommends he (the addict) go out in style with an overdose—all the while barely able to ward off suicidal temptations of his own. 

To say Tony’s a misanthrope is like saying Bill Cosby hasn’t mastered chastity. 

From a visual point of view, dark After Life is oddly suffused with sunlight. Unlike The Office, Derek, and Extras, with their more fixed indoor locations, After Life has an open, Merchant/Ivory movie feel, with at least half the scenes filmed outdoors. The shooting locations in and around East Sussex, UK, get plenty of rainfall and overcast weather, but it’s always sunny in Tambury.

Unlike the pulse-pounding editing of American shows, these scenes take their time; nothing is rushed. Tony’s funk seems to gradually fade as we see him walking Brandy, visiting Lisa’s grave where he chats with an older widow (Penelope Wilton, from Downton Abbey) at the bench facing their respective deceased spouses gravestones. The camera follows Tony ambling around Tambury, covering a zany local story, taking a troubled coworker for a coffee, or visiting his father Ray (who is also lost in his own way, with Alzheimers) in the nursing home. 

It’s in the nursing home where he encounters the first challenge to his cynicism, Nurse Emma (the Scottish-born Ashley Jensen, from Extras and Ugly Betty) who might, we intuit, lead him out of his lethargy. There’s a halting mutual attraction, but, despite being moved by her kindness to his ailing father and the other residents, widower Tony has miles to go before he can leave grief prison.

After Life is a moral conversion story in slow motion, an autobiographical religious drama even, minus the formal religion part. Its creator’s schoolboy atheism presupposes the transcendent element he ostensibly rejects.

I say schoolboy, not because Ricky Gervais is unintelligent, but because his atheism began literally when he was a school boy. If pubic interviews are any indication, it hasn’t been seriously challenged.

But he likes to tell the story of his apostasy, in 2009 with James Lipton’s Actor’s Studio, and with 60 Minutes Australia in this 2019 INTERVIEW

It went down like this. He was eight years old, he loved Jesus, and one days was coloring Him as part of a kind of Bible study. His then 19-year-old brother Bob walked in and asked his little brother point blank, “Why do you believe in God?” As soon as the question was out, their mother sharply said, “Bob,” cutting off the line of questioning. In Gervais’ account, she was trying to shut Bob up.

“Then, I thought,” he recalls, “Of course there isn’t. Of course there isn’t. I was always into science and nature….yeah, it doesn’t make sense, does it?” With one (actually very good!) question, big brother Bob destroyed little Ricky’s faith. 

Questions arise. Why would his mum (RIP Eva Gervais, +2000) shut Bob down? Low information catechesis? Overwhelmed enough by family stresses? And where is Ricky’s father? 

Well, Lawrence “Jerry” Gervais (RIP, + 2002), who was born in Ontario with French Canadian ancestry emigrated to the UK, was by all accounts an alcoholic. Jerry’s son once in a while alludes to painful memories involving his father. 

We learn from a 2020 INTERVIEW, that his middle name is Denny, but it’s spelled “Dene” on his birth certificate. “I was christened Ricky,” he says. “Ricky Dene Gervais, and Dene is spelled ‘Dene’ and my mum says my dad was drunk when he filled it out; I don’t know if that’s true, the chances are he was.’”

So his father was not there to chime in with an answer, if he had one, to son Bob’s pointed question.

Evidence from sound psychology suggests that bad (or absent) dads are a central tap root of early religious formation. More than peers, teachers, siblings—and more than the mother—the father is the chief role model for belief in God. 

Which makes sense. Jesus calls God Father, so if your earthly father failed you badly—or you perceived him as such—this can negatively impact how you perceive God as Father. This is especially true for boys. Psychologically, atheism is less a rational argument than a cri de couer

Former atheist and professor emeritus of psychology at NYU, Dr. Paul Vitz, explores this fascinating topic in Faith of the Fatherless: the Psychology of Atheism https://amzn.to/3tAW9x7. It’s short bio-histories of the most prominent modern atheists from the last four centuries, from Jean Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzche, Arthur Schopenhauer, and David Hume to Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud—and Gervais’ atheist mentor, Richard Dawkins.

Vitz takes Freudian psychoanalytic theory and uses it, judo-style, against its own standard operating procedure. What do all the atheists examined have in common? All had abusive, or sadistically strict, or completely absent, fathers. 

He contrasts this data with a control group of defenders of Christianity, like Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, William Wilberforce, G.K. Chesterton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Henry Cardinal Newman, and found that all of these had robustly affirming fathers or father figures. 

Interesting. 

This defective father hypothesis, naturally, is not 100% applicable in all cases. Some men survive fathers who were major league jerks and thrive as practicing Christians. Other men had great dads but ended up adopting atheism along the way. But the research suggests this is a rule-proving exception.

In After Life, one of Tony’s virtues is supposed to be his laser-like commitment to telling the truth. It’s his “I don’t give a shit” mantra. And yet, in season three, there’s a scene in a cancer ward when a small boy in chemo looks up and asks Tony if he believes in heaven. Wide-eyed with surprise at the question, the taken aback Tony answers, “Definitely.”

He lied. Not exactly a commitment to the truth no matter uncomfortable. Didn’t the boy deserve a truthful answer? Would a Christian adult deny he existence of heaven if asked by an atheist child?

In one episode of Extras, character Andy Millman denies his atheism and pretends to be a Catholic with a Catholic fellow extra to up his chances of getting laid.

There’s a deathbed scene in Gervais’ 2009 movie The Invention of Lying in which his (uh, atheist) main character visits his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) on her death bed and…lies to her about heaven being real. I get that it’s a comedy about lying. But he also told The Scotsman a few years back that that scene was inspired by his real life mother Eva’s death by lung cancer. “My mum was dying for a year, and she knew it. I planned it,” he says. “I thought, if she says, ‘Is there a God?’, I would say, ‘Yes, definitely.’ She never asked.”

So the atheist truth planned to lie to his mother. He seems to lie in fiction and in reality.

Why?

A good guess would be that he doesn’t really, deep down, have much faith in his atheism. He clutches at it, ruminates about how awful life is, how much easier it is to love dogs. He gives glib answers about it on talk shows, but when it really counts, he lays down his rhetorical sword. 

If atheist materialism is true, and we’re just electric meat slabs walking around for a few decades on a spinning rock in the vast abyss of space, then words like “good,” “hope,” or “love” have no fundamental meaning. Why does Tony try to overcome his grouchy selfishness and start helping people? On the atheist view—where consciousness is a hyper-realistic illusion caused by the electric activity of brain cells, and everyone becomes worm food in their graves, and there is no final Judge at the end— why is helping people better than not helping people? As Ivan says in The Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no God, then everything is permitted.” 

Put respectfully, does Ricky Gervais really think that any innocent, precocious (and no doubt hurting), eight-year-old has the capacity to defend his faith in Jesus? How many adults, let alone eight-year-olds, have ever read St. Thomas Aquinas’ FIVE WAYS https://www.philosophybro.com/archive/thomas-aquinas-summa-theologica-q2-article-3? or been exposed to Peter Kreeft’s 20 ARGUMENTS https://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm for God’s existence? 

After Life seems fashioned to rationalize its creator’s atheism, as seen with two women characters who serve as that atheist premise support, Anne and Kath, who, like Greek chorus members, fill in the gaps of the main idea.

The widow Anne at the cemetery confirms all of Tony’s godless self-talk, adding her own theories that angels are only symbolically real as dogs. Sure enough, Brandy seems to show up to thwart Tony’s suicide attempts at just the last second, time and again. 

Co-worker Kath (Diane Morgan) is the weak Christian foil for Tony’s strong atheism. She believes in “the real God, the God of the Bible,” to which Tony replies with the “one less god”  cliche popularized by Richard Dawkins, which goes, “There are about 3000 gods out there to believe in. You only believe in one god; therefore you don’t believe in 2999 gods—and I don’t believe in just one more.” Plus, along with lame brained superstitions like theism, Kath also believes in mediums and astrology. 

If I may, one flaw of the series is that it’s a bit too talkie-preachy. The series at times verges on sounding like a repetitive homily in which things are told, not shown—violating Screenwriting 101. If the premise was Christian faith, and not atheism, Christians would rightly complain.

Our atheist comedian throws around the word “science” a lot, but seems unaware that the scientific method arose within the medieval Catholic worldview that presupposes an ordered creation governed by certain laws by a Creator and Lawgiver. Catholic scientists (some of them clergy) are overrepresented as Nobel Prize laureates. Science aims at how and when, not why. The existence of God is a metaphysical question having to do with being as such, and lies outside the limits of science.

Like Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais is careful about with whom he’ll get into the rhetorical ring. He chooses his hosts carefully. Exhibit A is THIS shallow exchange with faux Catholic Stephen Colbert. 

To his credit, Colbert at least asks him, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” But his guest skates away from the question and then repeats the one less god bit. Colbert leaves it on the table, and it goes downhill from there. Gervais gets the best lines, the audience cheers, cut to commercial break.

The correct answer to the trope is that it relies on ignoring or denying the definition of the one true God. Which is, variously: the unrestricted act of understanding; existence itself; the ground of all being; the uncaused cause; or just the good ole Supreme Being. Also, Zeus and Jupiter are fictional characters. And although demons can be worshiped as false gods, God alone is the source of the Real.

But leave all that to the side.

The main interpretive key to the flabby underbelly of Gervais’ atheism is Derek (the character, not the show). In a 2014 INTERVIEW  with RadioTimes.com, he explained that Derek is his favorite character, his personal hero. 

This is the heart of the matter. (Emphasis mine):

“I think I like Derek because he is all of us before the weight of the world makes us be cynical and cool and we worry about what people think,” Gervais admits. “He is sweet and sincere. He is me before I turned about eight. It was also a little bit of an antidote to all that cynicism and irony that I am guilty of—I am the ringleader of it, fifteen years of irony!”

Catch that? He admires his hero Derek, whom he identifies as himself before his brother knocked God out of his budding heart and mind with a question that any eight-year-old would stumble over, but that any well-formed adult Christian could answer decently.

The Catholic Faith sits like a still, small voice in the background. Gervais is a French-Canadian (read Catholic) name. (The former Archbishop of Ottawa is Marcel Gervais.)  Ricky’s longtime non-wife Jane Fallon attended St. Bernard’s Catholic Grammar School, which, sadly, in the low-information post-Vatican II ecclesial swamp, suggest a high likelihood of leaving the Faith.

I do know that all my strongly Catholic friends went gaga over his savage Golden Globes 2020 live opening monologue as emcee. That stemwinder went VIRAL as millions of viewers enjoyed watching him take apart the woke culture of the limousine liberals, one hypocrisy at a time. If only more Catholics, who have access to sacramental grace, would speak truth to power like this.

Indeed, Gervais sometimes inches unawares toward theism. In a 2011 online WEB CHAT  with The Wall Street Journal, he became emotional remembering his late mother at Christmas time. “[My mum] selflessly did her best for me all my life.”That’s what mums do though,” he said. “They do it for no other reason than love. Not for reward. Not for recognition. They create you. From nothing. Miracle? They do those every day. No big deal.”

Close, but not quite. I know he was speaking from the heart as a loving son and not a philosopher, but moms only supply half the genetic material that makes up Ricky Gervais, and me, and you. Only God creates the soul, from nothing, at conception. 

Not that the Faith can be proven by reason alone, but reason alone can refute objections to it. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it, “Reason is to faith what the naked eye is to a telescope.” 

But when your estimated net worth is north of $150,000,000, you live in luxury (all richly deserved, btw), it becomes extremely difficult to dislodge the Village Atheist persona you’ve invested in and that’s is expected of you. He’s built an empire around it. 

God forbid he comes to the Faith through suffering. But as Sheen also wrote, “Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them.”

Interestingly, Sheen has something in common with Mr. Gervais. At the 1952 Emmy Awards, after being on the air barely a year—with ratings that quickly rivaled television titans Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, Sheen defeated Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball, and Arthur Godfrey for the title of Most Outstanding Television Personality.

I am no prophet. But I say his trajectory is headed toward Catholicism. Which is impossible, except that “nothing is impossible for God.” And I say the blessed event will have something to do with the intercession and influence of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen.

 “All worry is atheism,” Sheen once wrote, “because it is a want of trust in God.” This insight applies to the remarks by Gervais as to why he’s afraid to be a father and afraid of marriage to his decades-long partner Jane, and why he “wishes he dies first,” as he admitted during a  recent One Show INTERVIEW https://metro.co.uk/2022/01/19/ricky-gervais-selfishly-wants-to-die-before-his-partner-15945238/.

But, as with the atheist posture, does he mean it, really? Only a monster would wish upon his real life beloved the same horrible fate suffered by his protagonist in After Life. Yet his wish is contradicted by the loveable, if irascible, funny man we’ve seen in interviews for years.

This is the kind of contradiction that come with the mental gymnastics atheists must perform to achieve a sense of consistency. ​​As Sheen WROTE https://amzn.to/3tO06ig during World War II: “Would there ever be prohibition unless there was something to prohibit? Would there ever be anti-cigarette laws unless there were cigarettes? How could there be atheists unless there was something to atheate?”

The ex-atheist C. S. Lewis gets down to philosophical brass tacks in this passage from Mere Christianity: https://amzn.to/3tKZJ7V

”Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind,” Lewis wrote. “In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

Say what you will about the blackness of his black comedy is, or the pottiness of his mouth, or the inconsistency of his godlessness, Ricky Gervais is at low risk of becoming God’s barf. “‘Would that you be hot or cold,’ says the Lord. ‘The lukewarm I will vomit from my mouth’” (Revelation 3:16). 

Do remember the gifted man in your prayers. Maybe he’ll come on my show to refute all this. Either way, what a saint he’d make. Deathbed Catholic convert Oscar Wilde, who came to Christ through suffering of his own, said it best. “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”

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