There’s a great moment in the second series of HBO smash Succession when Siobhan Roy, daughter of Brian Cox’s big beast media mogul Logan, cops off with an actor she meets in a New York bar. Back at his place, sitting on the sofa, she looks around and asks about his television. Specifically, she wants to know where he keeps it because it isn’t propped on a wobbly IKEA stand in the corner of the room, as is traditional.

“I have no screens,” he tells her proudly.

“What about news?” she asks.

He says: “I get all my news from comedians.”

Terrifying, no?

That episode is by British writer Tony Roche, a veteran of Veep, The Thick Of It and In The Loop, and is one of the most anarchic in what is already a smorgasbord of bonkersnicity. And if you think bonkersnicity isn’t a word, well neither was omnishambles until Roche invented it and stuck it in a script. Now we couldn’t live without it. It’s probably in the Sue Gray report somewhere, and if it isn’t it’s definitely splashed all over the Tory backbench group chats that followed the report’s publication on Wednesday.

Anyway, back to our screenless actor, the one whose news comes from comedians. He and people like him were on my mind watching Netflix’s controversial new Ricky Gervais comedy special, Supernature, which was recorded at the London Palladium and debuted on the streaming platform on May 24. What news and views could they take from it and – let’s stick with the conceit – believe as gospel because that’s their only source of truth? That AIDS was sent to earth by God because he didn’t like watching men have sex? That apart from Dame Edna Everage and Eddie Izzard, there are no funny women? That “old-fashioned” women have wombs but “new women” have beards and penises (though that isn’t actually the word Gervais uses in the show)?

Hopefully the answer to my question is none at all, because nobody is stupid or desperate enough to use comedians as their only source of news. But you never know. Which is what makes that line in Succession so troubling.

Gervais is aware of all this and opens the show by playing the stand-up equivalent of a Get Out Of Jail card. He states that much of what will follow is ironic. “That’s when I say something I don’t really mean, for comic effect, and you, as an audience, you laugh at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is. It’s a way of satirising attitudes.”

Fair enough. But if you’re satirising attitudes, they have to be there in the first place. Incipient. Bubbling under the public discourse. So who can say definitively that you aren’t actually reinforcing or under-pinning or giving a degree of legitimacy to those same attitudes? As for us laughing at the wrong thing because we know what the right thing is, well sure – at least as long as you’re talking about Adolf Hitler or obesity or the fact that there are no funny women. But where’s the correct line on, say, the issue of trans rights, or the thorny question of what does and does not makes a woman?

Gervais digs into this in particular – and how – and the backlash against the routine was swift and began the day Supernature aired on Netflix. Within hours, US-based anti-discrimination body GLAAD had issued a statement on Twitter.

“We watched the Ricky Gervais ‘comedy’ special on Netflix so you don’t have to,” it ran. “It’s full of graphic, dangerous, anti-trans rants masquerading as jokes. He also spouts anti-gay rhetoric & spreads inaccurate information about HIV … The LGBTQ community and our allies have made it very clear that so-called comedians who spew hate in place of humor [sic], and the media companies who give them a platform, will be held accountable. Meanwhile, there are PLENTY of funny LGBTQ comedians to support.”

That’s true. You can even watch some of them on Netflix. Check out Hannah Gadsby or Wanda Sykes.

Was Ricky Gervais graphic? Certainly. Eye-wateringly so. Was there anti-gay rhetoric and inaccurate information about HIV? From me it’s a maybe to the first and a probably to the second. Were there rants, did hate spew forth like it might from a sozzled Downing Street staffer at an illegal Downing Street party? It didn’t feel like it. Gervais even states that he is all for trans rights. Quoted on The Spectator website last week he said: “My target wasn’t trans folk, but trans activist ideology. I’ve always confronted dogma that oppresses people and limits freedom of expression.” He also told BBC One’s The One Show that the purpose of comedy is “to get us through stuff, and I deal in taboo subjects because I want to take the audience to a place it hasn't been before, even for a split second … Most offence comes from when people mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target.”

We’ve been here before, of course, and so recently and so often that the complaints against Gervais will be met with an exasperated rolling of the eyes in some quarters (on the set of GB News, for example, which pitted gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell against salty old Nigel Farage when they tackled the story).

Remember Jimmy Carr? In February he ran into flak for a line in a Netflix special about the death of Roma people being one of the Holocaust’s few positives. His Get Out Of Jail card was that although the joke was “edgy as hell” it had “an educational quality”. Right. Meanwhile, earlier this month, 23-year-old aspiring rapper Isaiah Lee did a Will Smith and attacked comedian Dave Chappelle on stage in the US, supposedly over his comments about trans people in another Netflix special, The Closer, which aired in October. Chappelle later apologised for those remarks – sort of, anyway – but he lost a fan in British trans comic Jordan Gray, whose Comedy Central web series Transaction is being adapted for TV by Simon Pegg. “It’s painful when a master craftsman trips up and does something lazy,” she has said. “It just wasn’t funny. Transgender people are the ones getting it in the ear off the back of these flippant comments.” Which sort of backs up the comments from GLAAD, doesn’t it?

Here’s a thing to ponder. Throughout Supernature, Gervais constantly refers to his personal wealth. He even makes a joke about being a white, middle-aged millionaire. And in a way that’s what irked me the most because maybe that goes to the heart of the problem. Perhaps it’s the case that comedy – once seen as edgy and even capable of being avant-garde in the right hands – has become a sort of tawdry vaudeville, corrupted by cash and the chase for ratings, co-opted entirely to the cause of commerce. It has become regressive rather than progressive.

We used to get stand-ups who railed against the government, took on and questioned the sexual, societal and moral status quo, and who always punched upwards – at the Establishment or the fat cat rent-seekers and their enablers. That seems to have gone. Instead, in 2022, we get rich, middle-aged millionaires pretending to fuss about things which don’t really affect them and which they have no experience of, and turning their apparent concerns for free speech into streaming content which, yes, punches down. Sure, the fool’s motley gives them licence to say the apparently unsayable – but ultimately it’s the king who pays the jester out the coins.

I can’t help feeling we’ll look back on shows like Supernature and see the material in them as the 21st century equivalent of the mother-in-law gag. Safe, conservative, lazy. Definitely not a place to turn to for news.