Ricky Gervais may be the funniest storyteller we have.
Just don't make the mistake of thinking even half of his stories are true, or you're bound to be offended.
Despite the title and the format — the star standing alone on a Madison Square Garden stage — Gervais is not doing stand-up, at least not in the sense of sharing "have you ever noticed" personal observations. He's an actor playing a part, that of a self-satisfied, faux-humble celebrity, and playing it brilliantly, which is how he does just about everything we ever see him do.
The distinction should be clear from the moment he comes out in a robe and crown and launches into a wildly inappropriate routine about the work he does for charity. It's a hilariously exaggerated version of the self-serving "who me" nonsense stars so often dish out. It's possible that if Gervais ever gets cancer, he'll "walk into the nearest hospital and go, 'Right, I paid for that machine. Get that little bald (expletive) off it' " — but I tend to doubt it.
From there on, it's a stroll through any number of potential minefields, from obesity ("We have some fat people in England, but you, like everything else, have the gold medal in that") to Anne Frank, to the moral lessons of fairy tales. Most controversial of all, perhaps, is a long, shockingly funny routine built around a safe-sex AIDS pamphlet — a bit that's designed to mock not the people being warned, but rather the misplaced, gung-ho enthusiasm of those doing the warning.
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.
All in all, not a bad way to spend 75 TV minutes.
"Ricky Gervais: Out of England -- The Stand-Up Special" * * * * (out of four) HBO, Saturday, 9 ET/PT.