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Can Ricky Gervais deliver Emmys as well as laughs for HBO?

November 14, 2008 | 11:30 am

Ricky Gervais may be too afraid to host the Oscars but he has certainly proved his appeal with the Emmys. In September, he was nominated for a record four awards for writing, producing, directing and starring in the one-off telefilm finale of his series "Extras." While he lost those races, he was a surprise winner in 2007 as lead comedy actor for the second season of the show. And he shared in the 2006 award for best comedy series with a win by the Americanized version of his hit Brit show "The Office."


Next year, he could well be competing at the Emmy Awards with his stand-up comedy special "Out of England," which debuts on HBO Saturday night. Robert Bianco of USA Today thought, "The jokes may seem cruel, but they're really ridiculing our fondness for cruelty and the sanctimonious pretense that we're above such things. But then, I may just be an easy audience: All Gervais has to do is flash that evil, pleased-with-himself grin, and I laugh." David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun says, "The most daring part of his act involves commentary about charity concerts he performs. But he veers into a piece about charity events for kids with cancer that viewers might find problematic. Great comics help us laugh at the things that scare us most. But if you wind up being offended, don't say you weren't warned."

As Hal Boedeker of the Orlando Sentinel writes, "If you loved Ricky Gervais in 'The Office' (British version) and 'Extras,' you will not want to miss his HBO special." And for Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times, "Onstage he blends the best, which is to say the worst, of his two most obnoxious characters: the slimy self-delusion of David Brent, the branch manager who alone thinks he is funny, and the aggrieved hostility dished out by the failed and perpetually humiliated actor Andy Millman." That certainly sounds like a formula for winning over Emmy voters.

Over the years, the catch-all variety, comedy or music special Emmy category has rewarded a handful of HBO stand-up shows. In September, Don Rickles won both individual achievement as well this award for a HBO retrospective of his 50-plus years as a comedian. Among the shows he beat were those from a trio of other stand-ups: two HBO specials featuring perennial Emmy loser Bill Maher and the late great George Carlin as well as one by Bravo's Emmy bad girl Kathy Griffin.

In 2007, HBO had two stand-up specials contending but both Lewis Black and Wanda Sykes lost to "Tony Bennett: An American Classic" with the singer also taking the individual prize. In 2006, HBO's Maher and Carlin specials lost to the opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics. HBO did not compete in 2005 though Showtime's Dave Chappelle lost to the Tony Awards (kudos now compete in a separate special class). In 2004, HBO had a winner with Broadway musical vet Elaine Stritch winning both show and individual achievement, edging out among others Chris Rock and Ellen DeGeneres for their HBO stand-up specials. In 2003, Robin Williams' HBO comeback comedy concert lost to Cher and her never-ending farewell tour.

HBO had no stand-up comedy specials in the running in 2002 and the previous year only had Ellen DeGeneres in contention who lost to Cirque Du Soleil. While stand-up shows by Chris Rock and Eddie Izzard lost to the "SNL" 25th anniversary in 2000, Izzard did win individual achievement. And while Carlin and John Leguizamo lost to the Tony Awards in 1999, Leguizamo too won the individual prize. In 1998, it seems there was nothing especially funny on TV. However, in 1997, Chris Rock won HBO its first Emmy in this category for a stand up special (Barbra Streisand's comeback concert had won the paycaster the award the year before as had Cirqu Du Soleil in 1992.)

Photo: HBO