By Caryn James | James on Screens February 19, 2012 at 8:30AM
No one is smarter or funnier at tweaking celebrity than Ricky Gervais, and if you loved the inexhaustible wit of Extras as I did, you will probably also love his new HBO series Life’s Too Short, even though it doesn’t revolve around Gervais himself. Created by Davis, Gervais and his often underappreciated creative partner Stephen Merchant, the hero – or self-defeating anti-hero – is Warwick Davis, a dwarf and an actor who plays a skewed version of himself much the way Larry David does on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Davis is fine, but let’s be honest: the heart of the show is Gervais and Merchant, who in every episode meet some wildy funny star who makes a cameo appearance. This week’s guest scene is - and I am not exaggerating – one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and the unlikely comic is Liam Neeson.
Some people, particularly after the show premiered in the UK, were outraged that Life’s Too Short makes a dwarf the target of satire, but that misunderstands Gervais, whose humor thrives on exploding politically correct sanctimony. And as he has accurately pointed out in many interviews, the show isn’t making fun of the fictional Davis for being short, but for being an egotist.
In the mock-documentary style of The Office, we follow Davis, long past his moments of glory in movies like Willow or Harry Potter, and deluded about his own stardom. Desperate to claim a place in the spotlight, he often visits the office of his old friends (as he alone considers them) Gervais and Merchant, who also play distorted versions of themselves. Tonight, Neeson shows up for a visit too.
Just as the guests did on Extras, here the cameos take off from some shred of reality and then go soaring into the fantastic. Neeson, playing off his ultra-serious Schindler’s List reputation rather than his recent action-guy persona, arrives with a plan, delivered with hilarious, deadpan sincerity: he wants to do comedy. Somehow all his comic ideas have to do with AIDS. (Neeson’s sense of humor about himself also appears in my video conversation with him and director Joe Carnahan about The Grey. If you missed that, you can watch it here.)
Over the next weeks, guests on Life’s Too Short (the title may be the worst part) include Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp. Here’s a quick trailer for the series, which begins tonight on HBO:
You can also hear Gervais as the voice of a dolphin on tonight’s Family Guy on Fox. He is one of the few people who can be all over television without being tiresome or overexposed. Here’s a peek at him recording the show: