Ricky Gervais Defends His New Show Against Claims of Mocking Disabilities

The notoriously outspoken comic says his character Derek is "different," but not disabled. Should viewers believe him?

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Ricky Gervais’ new show Derek is about a “simple, vulnerable man working in an old people’s home,” which sounds innocent enough. But since it’s a Gervais production, it’s naturally gotten the comedian into hot water.

BBC News reports that Gervais is being criticized for his portrayal of the title role; some say the portrayal makes light of people with mental disabilities. Gervais has spoken up denying that his character has a disability, defending the show (which premieres on Britain’s Channel 4 on Thursday) in an interview with Nick Clark, a British disability rights advocate.

“Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don’t mean him to be disabled then that’s it. A fictional doctor can’t come along and prove me wrong,” he told Clark.

But there are people who will continue to think otherwise. British comedian Steward Lee wrote in the Guardian that Derek seems to have a “non-specific mental condition, with some superficial similarities to Down syndrome.” Considering the comedian’s spare-no-one approach to humor and comedy, as well as his use of the word “mong,” an offensive term about people with Down syndrome, is it really that surprising that people would assume this?

(VIDEO: Questions for Ricky Gervais About the TIME 100)

HBO’s roundtable comedy special Talking Funny, which aired last year, gathered Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. around to talk shop about stand-up and the craft of their own comedy styles. During the episode, Gervais repeatedly makes it known that he doesn’t really care what the audience thinks of him, nor should anyone feel safe in the face of a joke.

In his interview with Clark, he explained his philosophy: “We can’t go round not saying what we want to say in case it offends someone somewhere. It will. Some people are offended by equality. Mixed marriage. Being gay. So you’re offended? So f—ing what?”

However, while many wouldn’t put it past the notoriously outspoken comic to outright make fun of disabled people, that doesn’t mean he necessarily is doing so with the character of Derek. In fact, Clark herself says that after watching the pilot episode Gervais sent to her, she’s convinced that it is in fact a gentle and compassionate portrayal.

“I haven’t seen cruelty, I haven’t seen Gervais “playing disabled” but I have seen reality in the subject matter, having spent a lot of the last 7 years in and out of my mum’s nursing home until she died in December from Alzheimer’s,” she wrote on her blog. “Instead of it being a mocking disintegration of a learning-disabled man -paraded for the amusement of comfortable unaffected people, it’s the story that really needs to be told at the moment.”

Gervais describes Derek as “different.” “But then, so are a lot of people,” he told Clark. He also added that if he did intend for Derek to have a specific disability, he would have used an actor with the disability to play the role. But, for now, he says, Derek is just another sweet, tender guy.  “He’s based on those people you meet who are on the margins of society. Nerds, loners, underachievers.”

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