‘Life’s Too Short’ is Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s return to the fly-on-the-wall documentary style that made their reputation ten years ago. It is clear they are relishing the opportunity to revisit the strategy.
Their brand has always been a comedy of awkwardness, and the characters’ uneasy awareness of the camera crew contributes greatly to the success of the scenes, which is spectacularly captured in ‘Life’s Too Short’ maybe even more so than in ‘The Office’.
Whereas David Brent was a nobody who misguidedly played up to the cameras for a shot at reality-TV fame, ‘Life’s Too Short’ sees its lead actor Warwick Davis (playing a fictionalised version of himself) trying to appear confident and at ease onscreen, with equally unfortunate results.
He is an actor with thirty years experience; the camera should be his friend. The show seems, from the evidence of this first episode, to be about the many ways in which it is not.
Davis is having a hard time. His career isn’t booming, he owes £250,000 in back taxes, and his wife is arranging a divorce. He also runs an agency called ‘Dwarves for Hire’, where the phone never rings. Posters of his best-known movies adorn the office walls, contributing to one of the show’s more subtle jokes: he stresses his fame and household-name status, repeatedly citing ‘Return of the Jedi’ and ‘Willow’ as the two main examples. He does, of course, spend all his screen time in the former in a full-body Ewok costume, and the latter’s failure to recoup at the box office is remarked on early.
Both points are drawn on excellently for laughs, and an exchange between Davis and a passer-by who fails to recognise him is especially funny: “Who was you in that?” “I was an Ewok.” “Those little bears?” “They’re not little bears.”
The writers appear as themselves too; sitting in a very plush modern office and glancing occasionally at Davis’ camera crew as they less than politely try to get rid of him before someone more famous arrives. They haven’t portrayed themselves as nasty or dismissive, it is more Warwick Davis’ cloying candidness that puts them off, in a hilarious exchange that goes into unnecessary detail about his sex life.
Later in the episode Davis manages to deflect their hints that he should leave before their next meeting starts, which happens to be with Liam Neeson. The ensuing scene between the four of them is easily the funniest of the half hour, and may be up there with the best scenes from ‘Extras’ and ‘The Office’. Neeson’s stony-faced reading of himself is just wonderful, and the setup allows for numerous meta-jokes to sneak in without a hint of shoehorning.
The tone of the show will be familiar to anyone who knows Gervais and Merchant’s humour, and it seems a shrewd move to marginalise their own screen-time in favour of Warwick Davis, who is totally at home in the central role. It is a very promising start to a new series, and I have a feeling it might get better as it goes.
by David Hamilton-Smith