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20081017-my-favorite-atheist-by-ag-harmonTempting as it is, I mostly resist the urge to sacralize my preferences and hallow my velleities. So while I’ve heard that looking “deep” into Dark Side of the Moon will reveal a kind of religious experience stated in an inverse way, I can only reply: “But looking at it in another, more realistic way, that’s not so.” We can read too much into things, seeing what we like because we like what we see. Still, I always loved that album, and everything I listen to doesn’t have to be baptized.

In a similar vein, not long back I was at a bookstore, thumbing through a magazine I had no intention of buying, and came upon comic Ricky Gervais’ one-page atheist manifesto. Gervais explained how, growing up in England, his sassy older brother began to question young Ricky’s faith, soliciting their mother’s panicky protest. As far as the logic goes, Ricky deduced that his mother wouldn’t object so much were she more convinced of God herself, and that because she’d lied about Santa Claus, she must be lying about this, and—well, you can tease out the trajectory.

In short, Gervais was liberated from God and ultimately found a more dignified world of truth, science, and nature.

I’ve heard worse reasons for disbelief. For that matter, I’ve heard worse cases for faith. But my point is that despite all this, no actor—comic or dramatic, in my estimation—carries within him the power to convey hope, aspiration, faith, and human vulnerability like Ricky Gervais can. To hell with what he personally believes; when you see the things he makes—The Office, Extras, and even the recent, mawkish but charming film, Ghost Town—you witness a talent that radiates the cardinal virtues, disarming all claims of a disinterested universe peopled with fools that function under the pretense that “truth” and “love” have value outside an objective source. What Gervais the writer/actor does artistically belies what Gervais the man believes privately. On a vastly different but still comparable plane, he can do the kind of thing Yeats can: make you understand your own view of nature—your own belief even—while not sharing it.

Take The Office, the British mockumentary that spawned versions in America (as great as the original), France, Germany, Canada, and other countries. Created and written with Stephen Merchant, Gervais plays David Brent, the head of Wernham Hogg paper supplier. Brent is an ass, convinced he’s a star. Instead of running the bureau efficiently, he stages rotten comedy sketches, commandeers management presentations, and hijacks talent shows to the dismay of a brilliant cast of foils (Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis, notably) and with the help of a bizarro accomplice (the remarkable MacKenzie Crook).

The workers shuffle through their days with the thankless courage it takes to live a middle class life. Still, idiotic as he acts, Brent is never made contemptuous. He is mistaken about himself and about how the world sees him, but who isn’t? His strivings are only a badly executed version of what every soul attempts.

After this success, Gervais created Extras, the HBO series of limited run. Here, Gervais takes the straight man role, Andy Millman, a would-be actor who must endure the buffoonery of his agent, Darren (Merchant). Darren finds his client jobs as an extra in major films, which Andy hopes will help him break into the business. Big stars appear as caricatures of themselves (e.g., Patrick Stewart, Daniel Radcliiffe, Kate Winslett) as Andy struggles through disgrace and humiliation along with his dim, innocent-faced sidekick, Maggie (Ashley Jensen).

In the second season, Andy has achieved a backhanded breakthrough, becoming the star of a popular sitcom of the 70s BBC variety—corny, crass, and catch-phrased. This is not what he meant, of course; this is not what he’d planned at all; but in this world he at least finds an affirmation missing everywhere else. Jeered out of the elitist thespian circles, he is cheered at the bars, where working class people love his show. And who wouldn’t have a beer with those who love you; who wouldn’t wince at rejection from those you admire?

The latest outing has Gervais matched with another of the finest, most sensitive actors around, Greg Kinnear (e.g., Little Miss Sunshine). In Ghost Town, Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist beset by spirits who want messages conveyed to loved ones. And while this lighthearted redo of The Sixth Sense can only go so far, Gervais brings the character to an appreciation of those who nobly reach beyond their grasp for what is truly worth attaining: not glory or fame—but acceptance, friendship, home—even faith.

Whatever Gervais thinks he’s up to, he achieves much more. And it’s an odd and wondrous thing, as Bernanos’s country priest remarks: “that one can give to others what he doesn’t possess himself.”

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: A.G. Harmon

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