Despite being a fan of his work, I have never actually seen Ricky Gervais perform stand-up. Having heard that his live shows were generally inferior to his TV work, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was very up for finding out.

Rumour has it that way back in 2004, whilst performing his stand-up show Politics, Ricky Gervais was regularly upstaged by his warm-up act (the excellent Robin Ince). He has clearly learnt from this mistake as Doc Brown, his warm-up act on the night I saw him at the Hammersmith Apollo, offered no such threat. The Doc tried his best – and the rap about putting on a duvet cover was class – but this audience wasn’t even polite enough to listen. I honestly felt for the guy.

It was at this point that I remembered one of the reasons why I don’t really rate the Apollo as a comedy venue – it’s the audience that it attracts. They were up and down throughout both performers’ sets and either talking or playing on their phones. It feels like many of them were just there so that they could say that they saw someone famous and can post something cool on social media.

None of this is the fault of Ricky Gervais, of course, but it certainly affected my enjoyment of his performance.

The main event began with lights, smoke and booming quotes from some of the biggest names in history – Churchill, Martin Luther King and Neil Armstrong. Then out walks Ricky in a faded t-shirt and a pair of jeans… it was a moment reminiscent of the unveiling of the Wizard of Oz!

Ricky started the show by stating that he is better than Jesus… a deliberately overblown opener whose payoff neatly introduces the main theme of this show, which is that, when it comes to joke-making, context is everything, and that targets and subjects of jokes are often, crucially, two very different things.

Ricky’s material is expertly crafted and well delivered with plenty of it providing some context and background to celeb run-ins on social media and in real life (most notably the golden globes) and the thing he should and shouldn’t have said. Although if he went with all the things he thinks he shouldn’t have said the British audience would love it.

What remains impressive is his passionate pleas for freedom of speech within comedy, his accountability for each joke, and his fearlessness – At one point he actually got about 60% of the audience to clap and cheer for Pedophiles!!

Rants about social media, celebrities and stupid people followed “lets take the ‘do not drink’ warning off the bleach bottles for two years and then have another referendum“. Hitting out at the reactionary types who seem to prefer to engage in the cult of offence rather than take responsibility for their own personal emotions was a consistent theme.

But his highlights are the more personal routines: his reasons for not having kids, for example, and the stress that he enjoys putting his girlfriend through. Those more revealing moments were sadly too few and far between, particularly for a show that was supposed to be his most personal to date. And then we got the encore…

Ricky Gervais comes back on stage, thanks everyone once again and proceeds to drop an anecdote about his mothers funeral. It is the best comedy of the evening. It is open, honest, heart warming and hilarious – an hour of that and I might be talking about one of the best shows that I have ever seen, rather than just another solid night.

Ricky is undoubtedly one of this countries greatest Clowns, his writing is up there with the very best and few people can deliver an awkward moment like him. That being said stand-up supremacy still eludes him. This could be because his audience is too easy to please or because he won’t give us a full hour of brutal open honestly.

I love his work and look forward to his new show but I don’t feel that we saw his best here tonight. He will sell out and people will laugh which makes him well worth the price of admission… but still not a “must see” for me.

Clown Stars: * * * *

 @ Hammersmith Apollo, London