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Gervais and Merchant back in action with HBO mockumentary

HBO

By Proma Khosla, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 22, 2012

On HBO’s new comedy, “Life’s Too Short,” creators Rickey Gervais and Stephen Merchant once again find humor in the awkwardness of daily life. It’s shot in the “mockumentary” style that Gervais so loves, a style that lends itself perfectly to exploiting everyday embarrassment.

Contrary to all the promotion dropping of Gervais’s name, “Life’s Too Short” is centered on actor Warwick Davis, who calls himself “the U.K.’s go-to dwarf.” Davis’s other roles include Professor Flitwick in the “Harry Potter” films and an ewok in “Star Wars,” which he mentions multiple times in this pilot. Davis plays an egotistical caricature of himself, running an agency called DwarvesForHire. The humor comes from his lack of self-awareness, not from his being a dwarf. When he goes to Gervais and Merchant looking for work, Gervais’s “I thought we made the (door) buzzer high enough” is a clear dig at Davis not being able to take a hint, not at his height.

That oblivious delusion of fame and charisma is what leads Davis to do things such as be rude to his wife or not pay his taxes. He perceives her as obviously ordinary and unaware of how lucky she is to have landed a famous film star. She wants a divorce, so Davis has to find a new place on top of the work of promoting unknown dwarf talent and paying off 250,000 pounds.

All these things — DwarvesForHire, the divorce and Davis’s bumbling accountant — are disguised as plots. But “Life’s Too Short” isn’t a comedy to watch for story and character development. It’s a minimalist series starring an underappreciated actor. Seeing Davis as the camera’s main focus is refreshing since his roles so often conceal his true identity. And it’s doubly gratifying to see his wit and clever delivery.

Though it’s amusing, the show isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. It’s worth watching, though, for the skill with which Davis, Gervais, Merchant and a slew of forthcoming guest stars execute the challenging humor of just going about their lives. The pilot features Liam Neeson (“Taken”) asking Gervais and Merchant to help him with improvisational comedy.

It’s also a lesson in one of Gervais’s cardinal rules of comedy: Be able to laugh at yourself. Neeson immediately missteps in his improv role as a hypochondriac by saying he has AIDS. When Merchant advises him against it, Neeson indignantly asks why Gervais gets to joke about offensive things. “We don’t know,” Merchant replies. “He just does.”

Maybe Merchant is summing up the general phenomenon of Ricky Gervais: He can get away with things in the entertainment industry at which others would inevitably fail. Having a show about nothing that just lets famous people be awkward and funny is one of them. How does he get away with it?

Merchant has an answer. “Again, I don’t know.”