Since his breakthrough series The Office "crossed the pond" a few years back, spawning remakes here and around the world, Ricky Gervais has gained considerable fame in America as a comic writer, actor, and podcaster. But before last fall, we here in the States weren't really plugged in to his successful stand-up career; he embarked on a trio of British tours ("Animals," "Politics," and "Fame") over a short period in the middle of the decade, but his appearances in New York and Los Angeles last fall were his first Stateside stand-up gigs.
Ricky Gervais: Out of England- The Stand-Up Special was taped during his multi-night, sold-out run at Madison Square Garden's WaMu Theatre, and captures Gervais in fine form. Much of the material is recycled from the three British tours, with some new bits and extemporaneous flights of fancy--in the special features, Gervais dubs it "a greatest hits collection with a few new singles." He talks briefly about his "tour" of the U.S. ("New York and L.A... Didn't do the middle bit. Nothing wrong with the middle bit... if you're watching the DVD...") before jumping into his low-key, anecdotal, frequently funny show.
Like his contemporary Eddie Izzard, Gervais' stand-up style is very much in the stream-of-consciousness mode. His topics are all over the map--he touches on obesity, health, Rosa Parks, spiders, the Falkland Islands War, "going commando," masturbation, polar bears, the Internet, and cows. He does an extended bit on fairy tales, which includes a ridiculously funny deconstruction of Humpty Dumpty, particularly questioning the effectiveness of "all the king's horses" trying to help put Humpty back together again.
Not all of his topics are that innocuous; Gervais isn't afraid to tackle some taboo subjects, including cancer, AIDS (in a hilarious section about its origination), AIDS prevention (in which he reads an uproarious brochure), the Holocaust ("Not a traditional subject for comedy, the old Holocaust!") and Adolph Hitler ("Adolph. That name's died out, hasn't it?").
Like Izzard (though not quite as effortlessly), Gervais often sounds like he's making it up as he goes along. In one inspired riff, he sidetracks a story about giving a urine sample to talk about the size of his penis, and seems to dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole. It's an inspired moment, and he plays it as natural, awkward, real, and really funny.
There are occasional quotable lines (he mentions that he's changing his viewing habits to better educate himself, only watching Discovery and History--"Ask me anything about sharks and Nazis"), but the laughs are less frequently the result of strong material than of Gervais himself. His easy-going manner and ace delivery frequently close the deal, and his toothy grin remains one of his best comic weapons (as when, early in the show, he talks about the fall of the dollar and asks, with a huge smile, "What's it like being a third world country?"). Out of England isn't exactly a laugh riot; it's more laid-back and chuckle-heavy, modestly paced with an emphasis on wit over one-liners. But it definitely has its moments.
The 16:9 anamorphic image is about average for a recent pay cable broadcast--no better, no worse. Some of the wide shots look a little soft, but overall, details are sharp (I could clearly make out the edges of the flesh-colored microphone tape on Gervais' neck) and black levels are solid, with nice contrast between the deep blacks of the background and the lighter, grayish tones of his wardrobe.
HBO's continued reluctance to release its stand-up DVDs with 5.1 audio is a real turn-off. The surround mixes of Comedy Central's DVDs, for example, are wonderfully immersive, with laughs and echo in the back channel helping to duplicate the experience of being at the live show. This 2.0 track is flat and a little dull, and while audibility is fine, it's been mixed with a bit too much echo.
We only get one bonus feature: "A Conversation With Ricky Gervais" (11:03), a slickly-produced interview-and-clip package. It plays more like a promotional piece than anything else, but Gervais' interviews do contain some genuine insights, particularly in his thoughts on taboos, his on-stage persona, his influences, and the differences (or lack of them) between American and British humor.
HBO has long been the gold standard for comedy specials, but they're kind of getting their asses handed to them by Comedy Central with regards to DVD presentation. Ricky Gervais: Out of England- The Stand-Up Special is definitely worth a peek, but the virtually non-existent extras and flat aural experience show a real lack of effort on the distributor's part.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.