Life's Too Short

A brief Liam Neeson cameo stands out in the latest Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant sitcom

When pushing the boundaries of taste becomes a dreary trudge, you know you've lost the comedy. That's the trouble with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's new show, Life's Too Short, a mock-documentary about showbiz dwarf, Warwick Davis. The subject matter virtually guarantees an endless supply of tasteless gags, puns and slapstick at the expense of the hapless dwarf.

And sure enough we get them: Davis trying and failing to reach a doorbell, berating a fellow-dwarf for not knowing the words to 'Heigh-Ho, It's Off to Work We Go', or remonstrating with a lesbian dwarf, who happens to be blacked-up as Stevie Wonder and singing 'Ebony and Ivory'.

I expect Gervais and Merchant tell themselves that they're lampooning the stereotypes, but the irony is so heavy-handed it looks more like the original dumb prejudice. A worse crime, much of Life's Too Short simply isn't funny. It feels obvious and effortful, as well as lazy and dismissive – though I must admit to a fleeting giggle when Davis tumbles out of his glossy black 4X4 while in the process of comparing himself to Martin Luther King.

It doesn't help that the Davis character is a thoroughly dislikeable little squirt, a pint-sized Alan Partridge, with his washed-up career, estranged wife and rampant ambition. But while Steve Coogan played Partridge as a complex, multi-layered character – odious, needy and pathetic – Davis's send-up of himself lacks both pathos and brio. You feel he's simply a convenient vehicle for Gervais's and Merchant's sledgehammer-subtle dwarf jokes.

Speaking of send-ups, it's only when Liam Neeson makes a cameo appearance that things start looking up a little. Neeson arrives in Gervais's office, wanting to take his career in a new direction: stand-up comedy. 'I'm a funny guy, amn't I?', he deadpans in that familiar Ballymena-meets-Hollywood growl.

Neeson is actually pretty funny as a prickly, truculent and utterly humourless would-be comedian. He gruffly demands to do some improvisations with Gervais there and then, with suggestions for scenarios prompted by Davis. Pretending to be a hypochondriac arriving at the doctor's, he claims to have contracted AIDS from an African prostitute. Told by Merchant that the subject-matter might be a little heavy, he amends his illness to bowel cancer instead.

Alright, it's not roll-in-the-aisles quality, but the brief Neeson interlude has a quirky novelty factor that the rest of the show lacks. Although you can't help feeling that the presence of a big star like Neeson (other well-known names are in the pipeline for the rest of the series) has more to do with Gervais's need to shore up his own ego and less to do with getting laughs.

Once Neeson leaves the screen, it's back to the weary dwarf gags. Having found that his wife has changed all the locks on their luxury house, Davis attempts to make an undignified incursion through the dog-flap and, predictably, gets stuck. Theoretically, this should be funny, but again it falls flat. Something is missing. Cruelty can be hilarious, in the right hands, but only when it has a devilish sparkle. Without that, it's simply depressing.

Life's Too Short airs on Thursday's evenings at 9.30pm on BBC Two. Watch episode one, as well as Liam Neeson outtakes, on the BBC website.