Comic royalty with a common touch

JESTER: “Extras” and “The Office” creator/-star Ricky Gervais on the Kodak Theatre stage for his stand-up show.
JESTER: “Extras” and “The Office” creator/-star Ricky Gervais on the Kodak Theatre stage for his stand-up show.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Ricky Gervais made his grand entrance at the Kodak Theatre on Friday wearing a crown and silly grin as a giant sign bearing his name ignited in an incandescent blaze behind him. RICKY!

“In any other town, I’d think that was over the top,” he quipped.

A master of comic self-deflation, Gervais is a big star who never lets you forget that he’s just an average bloke. The painfully mediocre characters he has played on TV’s “Extras” and “The Office” have won him an international fan base as well as a slew of awards. He’s become the patron saint of modern-day sad sacks.

Gervais was in Hollywood for an engagement of his “Out of England” tour. Commanding the stage with effortless appeal, the self-coronated “English king of comedy” proved himself eminently worthy of his crown even if he was wearing it only facetiously -- a Cockney court jester in royal drag.

Whether on screen or on stage, Gervais’ brand of comedy hinges on his ability to say insensitive things with an ingratiating smile. At the Kodak, he delivered a string of jokes involving autistic children, cancer patients, AIDS sufferers and Anne Frank -- a field strewn with land mines that the comic defuses with his non-threatening charm.

Of course, the real target of these tasteless jokes was Gervais himself. His stand-up persona is the harmless schlub who hangs out at the corner pub. (During the show, he took frequent swigs from a can of Foster’s beer, his only prop for the evening.) Gervais is a happy drunk -- as opposed to an angry or bitter one -- and even his crudest jokes were delivered with the affability of someone who just wants to be your bar buddy.

The best gags placed Gervais’ hetero laddy-boy personality in awkward proximity to the male reproductive organs. In one sequence, he read aloud from a pamphlet on gay sex, enacting some of the literature’s more outlandish scenarios. Later, he told a story involving a young man’s public restroom tryst that goes wrong in horrific ways.

As graphic as these jokes were, they seldom went far enough in revealing the real Gervais. The comedian spoke little about his background and even less about his personal relationships -- two reliable weapons in any comic’s arsenal.

The Kodak show was taped for an eventual showing on HBO, and in many ways, the TV screen seems a more natural fit for Gervais than the stage. His trademark awkward silences and embarrassed mumblings register better in close-up than from the mezzanine seats.

Unlike most comics, Gervais didn’t start his career on stage, and he still lacks the finesse of a stand-up veteran.

None of this seemed to bother Friday’s audience, which roared its approval and demanded an encore. A comedian on a roll is a force to be reckoned with, and the global Gervais juggernaut has undeniably reached full-throttle high gear.