As a creator of Brit TV series “The Office” and “Extras,” Ricky Gervais has trafficked in those uncomfortable spaces where human communication breaks down, creating singularly squishy circumstances from social awkwardness. Unfortunately, the Anglo incarnation of Gary Shandling or Larry David’s first U.S. standup performance — at the Theater at Madison Square Garden as part of the Highline Festival — too often reduced Gervais’ genius to obviously naughty, puerile or pedestrian gags about fat people, AIDS, cable TV and the disabled.
Perhaps one of the show’s underlying problems was that the gig was part of the Highline Festival, a widely publicized but formless weeklong jamboree curated in its inaugural year by David Bowie and conceived to raise money to transform a dilapidated stretch of elevated railroad track into a high-end public park — another step in Gotham’s transition into an Epcot Center version of itself. And Gervais seemed to approach the perf as a charity appearance, almost winging it rather than honing his occasionally brilliant material into a cohesive act for his U.S. debut in a 5,000-seat arena theater.
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On his uproarious podcast “The Ricky Gervais Show,” the comic’s most inspired moments come from riffing with his mates Steve Merchant and Karl Pilkington on wide-ranging topics, from bizarre news clippings to the animal kingdom. Such loony chats have showcased Gervais’ book smarts, unseen when he plays bumbling “Office” boss David Brent, as well as his ability to whip himself into infectious hysterics.
If Gervais is best when he’s feeding off the energy of others, it’s not surprising that the best segments of his 80-minute New York set Saturday night mined more whimsical, autobiographical or adlibbed moments. When one audience member yawned loudly, the funnyman snapped, “Am I boring you,” before laying into the sleepy heckler.
But the up-and-down show never quite built to a head, with material arranged to flow and arc in a crescendo of laughs or applause. At times, Gervais even had to remind the audience of his other accomplishments, the only applause breaks the show enjoyed. (When one line didn’t go over, the funnyman blurted out “Six BAFTAs!”) But a deconstruction of various nursery rhymes, including guessing why parents with the surname Dumpty would name their child Humpty, and why anyone would send all the kings horses and all the kings men to perform a surgical procedure on an egg, were inspired. The moral lesson behind “Jack and Jill,” according to Gervais? “Don’t go around with sluts or you’ll get your head caved in.”
Other politically incorrect jokes about war — “Vietnam was my favorite because it had the best soundtrack” — and world dictators from Pol Pot to Hitler seemed borrowed straight out of Eddie Izzard’s catalog.
The intimate perf was perhaps too spartan for the cavernous MSG Theater: The entire set consisted simply of a podium where the comedian — in clingy black T-shirt, jeans and trainers — stashed an oversized can of lager.
Either way, despite the sparse applause, the audience didn’t seem to mind. The appeal of the evening was sharing space with a cult star.