The Tao of Barry: How Shaun Williamson Can't Escape His EE Alter-Ego
By Kent Gibbons
"Are you havin' a laugh? IS HE HAVIN' A LAUGH?"
The above quote, well-known to fans of HBO series Extras, showed up
this week in the funny pages. The comic strip "Get Fuzzy" to be
precise. Spoken there by an orange tomcat wearing a Manchester City
Football Club cap, in response to a question about whether everyone in
England is "foppy." Answer: "No, there's a few blokes in Sheffield who
aren't complete spanners."
It certainly demonstrates the power of a potent catchphrase --
even a catchphrase from a fictional (fictitious?) television show. A
show within a show, if you will, starring Ricky Gervais.
Extras is the latest TV series by Gervais and writing and acting
partner Stephen Merchant. Like Gervais and Merchant's original The
Office, it's destined for a two-series lifespan, although like The
Office it might get a one-off special to wrap up storylines.
Otherwise, the recently ended run on HBO saw the last original
episodes. And, unfortunately for digital cable subscribers who get HBO
On Demand, for some reason it's been removed from the current
on-demand lineup, while the long-dead relic Comeback Kid remains. So
it's Extras on DVD or nothing for now.
The first season introduced us to Gervais, who works as a movie
actor playing non-speaking parts and dreaming of stardom. Merchant, as
feckless agent Darren Lamb, and Ashley Jensen as Gervais's fellow
sad-sack actor Maggie Jacobs, also were regulars.
For me, and maybe for most EastEnders fans who watch Extras, the
highlights of season one were, A, Ross Kemp's guest role in the first
episode, lampooning his own acting aspirations and, B, Shaun
Williamson's recurring part as an unemployed actor willing to do
whatever odd job Merchant, the agent who likes to unplug his phone,
has for him to do around the office.
Sadly, no EE principal has a guest bit in season two. So the
highlights are, A, Williamson and Merchant's Laurel and Hardy act and
a notable solo Williamson-as-Barry moment when he's just given an
impassioned speech about holding firm to your standards as an actor,
only to see his pockets spill out with food he's pocketed for free
from the crafts table; and, B, David Bowie's impromptu ballad inspired
by Gervais's character's big sellout.
Basically, Andy Millman (Gervais) has an idea for a true-to-life
working class sitcom. It gets embraced and then corrupted by the evil
BBC and turned into the kind of program The Office's creator would
never tolerate: vulgar jokes, a laugh track and the lame catchphrase
the factory supervisor played by Gervais (wearing thick prop glasses
and a curly prop wig) has to utter at least once a show.
Millman stands up for himself once, egged on by "Barry," whose
own version of history is he stood up for himself at EastEnders and
got fired for it. (In the first season, Kempner is credited with
having left the show for a packet of cash at a rival network, an
example "Barry" tried to follow and got fired for his trouble.)
One of the best jokes in the whole series is that Gervais's
character, Andy, is the only person who ever calls Williamson by
Shaun. Everyone else, especially Merchant, calls him Barry. HBO's own
Extras site identifies the character as "Barry." Williamson's Extras
bio — which truly reads like a bad Playbill C.V. – notes:
"He appeared in several TV shows before landing the part of
'Barry Evans' in EastEnders. He regularly appears in cabaret and a
Soul Band. He is a versatile and accomplished Stand-Up comedian,
Singer and After Dinner Speaker. Subject of This Is Your Life October
2001. He hosted a live daily quiz for ITV1."
Barry's in every episode of season two. He's kind of the
equivalent of Gervais and Merchant's podcast foil, Karl Pilkington,
whose round head and thick ways turn jokesters Ricky and Stephen into
howling straight men.
Extras lures extra special guest stars, like Kate Winslet,
Orlando Bloom and Ian McKellen, who come on and play themselves acting
against type. As Kemp did. But often it's a painful exercise — Patrick
Stewart poking fun at his own sense of self-importance, for example,
in the first season was overly broad and unfunny. Daniel Radcliffe, by
contrast, was funny this season around as an oversexed young geek,
before his truly shocking starring real-file role in Equus on the
London stage, in which he apparently bared all.
The formula also worked beautifully when David Bowie guested in
season two's second episode. Gervais had the brilliance to convince
Bowie that if he were appearing on the show, he had to sing a song
about Andy. Again, thanks to the HBO Extras Web site for some lyrics:
"The little man who sold his soul...sold his dreams/The clown that no
one laughs at/He sold his soul for a shot of fame/ Catchphrase and wig
and the jokes are lame/He's got no style and he's got no grace/He's
banal and facile/The little fat man with the pug nose..."
Imagine this sung in a bar, amid Andy's friends and at least one
keen rival, while Andy watches from a nearby banquette. Truly wincing.
(Editor's note: It's especially enjoyable knowing that in real life
David Bowie is an EastEnders fan.)
And, as The New York Observer neatly pointed out before the first
(of six) season-two episodes aired, the debut this season included a
Gervais scene that was the equal in poignance to anything in The
Office. After Andy capitulates, wears the wig and glasses, does the
catchphrase, agrees to do anything to get his sitcom on air, his best
pal Maggie (played by Ashley Jensen) finally accepts his invitation to
attend the premiere episode's filming. After he does his horrid
catchphrase, and leaves the stage, and the scene continues, Andy goes
offstage but is able to seek out Maggie in the audience. She looks at
him and wanly gives him congratulations, because she can't hide her
disappointment/ bewilderment. Andy smiles back. Then silently nods his
head in shame, for several seconds. Roll credits.
A Brit friend of mine loved the bit in season two's final episode
when Maggie goes home with a guy she thinks might be Mr. Right — only
to find his parents in the living room, playing bridge and more than
willing to offer her advice on contraception. Me, I howled at the
scene in which Gervais's character catches both Merchant's and Barry
masturbating on the job — inspired by a picture of a nude woman in one
of those souvenir pens that slide an image back and forth.
Another great Merchant-Williamson moment involved a badly
botched pick-up attempt at the same bar where Bowie tickles the
ivories. Merchant spots two unattended women who also don't have
drinks in their hands, and nudges Williamson and says, you know what
to do next. Turns out Barry's best idea is to chastise them for
Another came when a punter in the pub recognizes Barry – as the
guy who cleaned out the gutters at his mum's house. Merchant, as his
agent, is outraged and not receiving his cut of the proceeds.
Variety reported on March 19 that Gervais and Merchant had
confirmed there would be no third season of Extras, but that a BBC
spokeswoman said they did plan to write a sendoff special.
Here's hoping Barry – who reportedly wanted Extras to continue
with him in it — gets the girl, or a steady job, in the end.
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