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Ian Hislop knows how to stay relevant in middle age – Ricky Gervais, listen up

From left: Dave Chappelle, Ian Hislop and Ricky Gervais  (Getty)
From left: Dave Chappelle, Ian Hislop and Ricky Gervais (Getty)

Millions of us are still tender after being poked and prodded by relatives this Christmas. More often than not, it’s the elders who are to blame – goading their families with political views and divisive topics they know will get a rise. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes skyward while enduring a conversation that was abruptly steered towards issues such as race, immigration, sexuality, or gender, you’ll know the deal. It was strange timing, then, that Netflix chose the healing week after the Christmas holiday to put out two comedy specials that eerily evoked that feeling of being wound up by a relative you used to love, but who now deliberately drives you up the wall.

Even before the near-simultaneous releases of Dave Chappelle’s The Dreamer and Ricky Gervais’s Armageddon last December, the two comedians – aged 50 and 62, respectively – were already thematically bound to one another. Both had previously drifted into controversy for mocking people who are transgender. Chappelle’s 2021 special The Closer prompted a walkout from Netflix employees; Gervais’s SuperNature was deemed “dangerous” by the US LGBT+ rights organisation Glaad.

It was thus predictable that each would use their next, well-paid special on a global platform to double down on being offensive for the sake of being offensive. (Despite their protestations, neither has been cancelled.) And so in Armageddon, Gervais gets laughs by mocking asylum seekers on boats and using words like “cripples”, “coloured people” and “retards”, while Chappelle hinges gags on subjects like Asian people’s eyes, the handicapped, and as ever, trans people.

Less predictable was the fan reaction. Comments online, mostly from previous admirers of the pair, coalesced around the same themes: they were phoning it in and peddling the same lazy grumble, all the while sacrificing jokes for their own self-absorption. My favourite Reddit comment about Chappelle ran, “He’s so far up his own ass like he just thinks he’s dropping these huge wisdom bombs and it’s just boring.”

It’s a comment that neatly summarises how far these two comedians have strayed from, well, comedy. Instead they seem more concerned with being influential controversialists, but here’s the rub: instead of causing the stir they intended, both men have become so dogmatically petty and predictable in their provocations that they can’t even muster a shrug from their fans – or a disapproving tut from their enemies. They have become essentially irrelevant. Like jabbing uncles at the Christmas table, Gervais and Chappelle have reached a point in their lives where they’ll say just about anything to be heard.

As an opinionated man in his forties, this is a trap I worry about more and more. I have two children who are currently too young to do anything besides love their dad inside out. I know this will change – not least because it did with my own parents, who I lost more and more respect for when our own worldviews collided. No matter that recent studies are showing (contrary to long-held belief) that we’re becoming significantly less conservative as we age, I still worry about what lies ahead: an inescapable jadedness that will, one day, make my views seem irrelevant to my kids, eventually goading me into becoming ever-more shocking until finally, I overhear them say the dreaded words: “Oh f***, we can’t take him anywhere, can we?”

Not all oldies suffer this fate. Funnily enough, after watching two deeply entrenched men fail to inspire, it was heartening to see a man who has never tied his colours to the political mast make such a huge impact last week. “Having championed the cause of Post Office employees maligned by the Horizon scandal in Private Eye for over two decades, Ian Hislop (aged 63, one year older than Gervais) was in the media quite a bit in the wake of ITV’s drama on the subject. Notably, Hislop appeared on Peston where he eviscerated Conservative party chair Jake Berry with such blistering, vein-popping anger that he went viral for encapsulating the public mood over this debacle.

Had it been a Labour politician, or anyone from a Tory-opposing tribe, the moment would have passed. But Hislop has a rare relevance about him, one that boils down to his being both political and apolitical at once. Just before Christmas, Hislop was fawningly interviewed by both left-leaning media outlet Politics Joe and the centre-right Times Radio. He’s someone who can be punchy and still engender respect from all sides because he plays his cards close to his chest. He simply hates everyone, across the political spectrum, who has screwed up.

‘Peston’ ended in chaos when Ian Hislop and Tory chair Jake Berry clashed over the Post Office scandal (Peston/ITV)
‘Peston’ ended in chaos when Ian Hislop and Tory chair Jake Berry clashed over the Post Office scandal (Peston/ITV)

This prompt to be mysterious with one’s views has burrowed into me, to the point where – in the hopes of preventing any future irrelevance – I’m making some changes. Firstly, inspired by Hislop, I want to become more inscrutable, save that anyone thinks I’m a cliche and therefore automatically switch off when I talk. Next, I will slowly pack up my petty obsessions and beefs, for fear of becoming that person who tediously crowbars a bête noire into conversation, rudely alienating everyone else in the process. I will also seek to be emblematic of the year I’m living in, so as not to become an avatar of the past, forever clinging onto the mores and values of a time when I was briefly considered cool, sexy, and with it. I’ll never fall back on aphorisms I know to be untrue, such as “older is wiser”. Instead, I will work to earn my respect as an elder, not just assume it like a Freedom bus pass.

Finally, unlike Gervais and Chappelle, I will seek to be intentional and influential with my words, and not merely look for the shallow victory of saying something considered – tee hee – “unsayable”. And if, in 30 years, around the Christmas table, I hear the words: “Dad, you can’t say that,” I will try not to be crushed. At least I’ll have tried.