Let’s get to the good stuff first. The funniest part of Sunday’s premiere of Life’s Too Short on HBO occurred at the end when Liam Neeson (playing himself) forced comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (also the show’s creators, writers, and directors) to teach him how to do stand-up. If seeing an imposing Irish actor who’s known for heavy dramas and dark actioners try his hand at improv by saying “I’ve got full-blown AIDS” sounds risible to you, then you were in for a super treat. But if you’re a diehard Ricky and Steve fan because of The Office and Extras, or even just a TV buff who’s watched television comedy flourish over the past decade mostly thanks to them, then you might have felt that they were feeding you stale cake.
Short follows a fictional version of real-life 3’ 6” actor Warwick Davis (also playing himself) as he hustles to make a buck in the entertainment biz, repay his massive tax bill, and put the squelch on his divorce. He refers to himself as “the U.K.’s go-to dwarf” because he’s appeared in both the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises, yet that work has obviously dried up since. Warwick also sidelines as a talent agent who manages little people — but he treats them horribly, claims they have very little acting ability, and lazily only finds jobs for them in obvious projects like Snow White.
Warwick, in Short, is a bit of a d—. Yet, he still considers himself both employable, bankable, and one hell of a guy. “I’m a bit like Martin Luther King because I too have a dream that one day dwarves will be treated equally,” he claimed in the debut. “Sure, the dwarf wasn’t taken from his homeland, enslaved, whipped and forced to change his name… but I’ve never seen a black man fired from a cannon.” He also thinks he’s a catch, even if he hasn’t “dipped his wick” in forever. (He does have a nice smile, if only there wasn’t so much rubbish coming out of his mouth.)
In the debut, we watched Warwick fall out of his expensive SUV, go unrecognized on the street, disparage his perfectly attractive wife (he’d walked out on her looking for a “younger, taller model”), and repeatedly visit Ricky and Steve (whom he’d worked for in Extras) uninvited, despite their attempt to keep him out of the building by raising the doorbell and intercom beyond his reach. These were the show’s better parts, especially when British actor Sean Williamson appeared as himself working for Ricky and Steve as an errand boy because he hasn’t found work since Extras, in which he played himself working as an errand boy because he hadn’t found work since EastEnders.
But the coup d’état came when Neeson entered Ricky and Steve’s office and so deliciously deadpanned a story about Steven Spielberg casting him as Oscar Schindler because he liked to make lists. When Neeson wanted help with “improvisational comedy, “ Warwick suggested he and Ricky pretend to be a hypochondriac and a doctor, which gave birth to the sequence mentioned above. And it really was quite funny — if utterly tasteless — but it certainly wasn’t original.
Life’s Too Short is made with a recipe we’ve tasted before from cooks Gervais and Merchant in The Office and/or Extras. All the ingredients were there. Mockumentary-style filmmaking? Check. An unlikeable protagonist with delusions of grandeur? Check. Supporting characters that are even worse? Check. Ricky in a featured role? Check. Steve in a secondary role? Check. Characters that look exasperatingly at the camera? Check. Self-mocking celebrity cameos? Check. Jokes that push the limits of good taste? Check. Unfortunately, as a colleague said to me recently, Short might have been funny if it had come out 10 years ago, but now it’s just more same old, same old.
And, sadly, even the laughs themselves are a bit weak. While I’ll admit to giggling a bit while recalling scenes for this post, I hardly remember laughing during the show. Warwick is a perfectly able comedian on his own, but here it seems like he’s simply playing a hybrid of Gervais’ iconic characters David Brent (The Office ) and Andy Millman (Extras). It reminds me of when, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the leads in Woody Allen films (like Kenneth Branagh and Jason Biggs) would mimic Allen’s tics and peculiarities as an actor — and the final product always felt like the copy of a copy.
That said, I won’t give up on Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant — and there are certainly worse creative minds to be so loyal to. And I will continue to watch Life’s Too Short (next week’s Johnny Depp cameo is just as funny as Neeson’s) until the very end, all the while hoping that next time, Ricky and Steve will move on from their old tropes and obsessions and make something really special.
Do you agree? Is Life’s Too Short a worthy entry into the Gervais-Merchant oeuvre, or were you disappointed? Did you laugh? Did you cringe? Did you laugh and cringe? Tell me in the comments below.