“Are Y’havin’ a Laff?”

The painfully amusing genius of HBO's "Extras"

Andy Millman is the patron saint of resentment. The perpetually put-upon actor has love handles but no love life, recently landed a role in a sitcom that has been generously described as a “sh*tcom,” and retains the professional services of the worst talent agent in the United Kingdom. Yet in the hands of Ricky Gervais, the star and co-creator of the HBO series “Extras,” (Sunday nights on HBO at 10pm) Andy Millman’s unending misery is comic delight.

“Extras,” which centers on the awful travails of Millman’s bizarre career, is the funniest and cleverest show on TV. Now in its second season, it is yet another reason to buy a subscription to HBO. (In addition to “The Sopranos” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” another added benefit of an HBO subscription is discovering that, according to the network’s “Rome,” which precedes “Extras” on Sunday night, poor people in antiquity spoke with Cockney accents.)

Bloated Ego
The guiltiest pleasure of “Extras” is watching movie stars demolish their carefully constructed public personae. Andy Millman is a longtime “extra” in the film industry and regularly rubs shoulders with the glitterati that Americans read about in Us Weekly, and Brits in their issues of Hello. Kate Winslet appears in Holocaust-themed movie because she believes it makes her a lock to receive an Academy Award. Orlando Bloom is obsessed with his appearance. (“I’m objectively good-looking,” he says.) And Daniel Radcliffe—of Harry Potter fame—is a dirty young man who propositions every woman on the set, boasts of his sexual prowess and brandishes an unused condom during a lunch conversation. Somehow the condom lands on the head of Dame Diana Riggs (of the 60s show, “The Avengers”), leading to a line that you will never hear in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

“May I have my prophylactic back, please?”

In last season’s finale, Patrick Stewart played himself as a horny old goat with a bloated ego. Stewart has an idea for a new film in which an average man discovers he has the same powers as Stewart’s X-Men character, Professor Charles Xavier. The film essentially consists of Stewart mentally forcing women’s clothes to spontaneously drop off of them in public. “And I see everything!” Stewart says gleefully as Millman listens to the idea with growing horror. Stewart is not just a dirty old man; he’s a dirty old man too full of himself to realize how ridiculous he is. (He’s also crushed when Andy doesn’t know that “Make it so!” was Stewart’s “Star Trek” catch-phrase.)

“Extras,” which centers on the awful travails of Millman’s bizarre career, is the funniest and cleverest show on TV. Now in its second season, it is yet another reason to buy a subscription to HBO.

“The Whistle” Blows
Speaking of catch-phrases, Andy himself is the genesis of a new one in season two of “Extras,” stemming from his sitcom, “When the Whistle Blows” which he’s managed to get on the BBC. Unfortunately for Millman, the project that he hopes will rescue him from his life as an extra and launch his legitimate acting career has been thoroughly dumbed-down by the BBC. Part of this season’s fun is realizing that his faux-show is a believable Britcom, complete with unrealistic characters, cheesy sets and racist jokes, à la “Benny Hill.” This cannot be good news for the BBC.

Adding insult to injury, Millman’s dumbed-down sitcom is a surprise hit complete with the annoying catch phrase, “Are y’havin’ a laff?” which, to Andy’s dismay, his character says ad nauseam. Pub crawling hoi polloi find it hysterical. Reviewers are somewhat less fond of the show: one writes that the series makes him want to “gouge his eyes out.”

That last review is gleefully read to him by his dunderheaded agent, Darren Lamb. As played by the lanky Stephen Merchant, who also co-created both “Extras” and “The Office” with Gervais, Darren is lazy, stupid and, best of all, wholly ignorant of the “industry.” He confuses Harry Potter with Hallie Berry and asks one director if he will pay Andy even if his acting turns out to be “crap.” He cheerfully refers to “When the Whistle Blows” as a “sh*tcom.” (That is, when he’s not confusing it with The Wind in the Willows.)

The one false note in “Extras” is why Andy would put up with such a useless agent. Viewers are happy that he does however because it provides yet another opportunity to see Ricky Gervais do his trademark slow burns: more a catch-look than a catch-phrase.

Pride Cometh
Gervais’ Millman is right out of a medieval morality play or a Greek tragedy. And his fatal flaw? Pride. Millman thinks so highly of himself that he cannot bear to praise another actor; he is loath to admit that he’s made a mistake; and he stubbornly resists seeing another person’s point of view. Millman may be a talented actor (it’s hard to tell from his movie cameos or his role in “When the Whistle Blows”) but his pride and lack of empathy frustrate his enjoyment of any accomplishment. As the series progresses we see that pride curdling into resentment.

But Andy Millman’s life is not a complete loss. He perseveres with his morbid sense of humor intact, aided by his dimwitted but kind friend Maggie Jacobs (a winsome Ashley Jensen). Even though she often talks out of turn (she almost ruined Millman’s fledgling sitcom by telling one of the producers that Andy thought he was “too gay”) we root for Andy because Maggie roots for him. And so we are happy for his successes.

Still, whenever Andy gets too puffed up, someone will deflate him. In one of the many painfully amusing (or amusingly painful) scenes that have become Gervais’ specialty, Millman is finally ushered into the VIP section of a chic bar, where he meets David Bowie. “I’m an entertainer, too,” he pleadingly tells Ziggy Stardust. After listening attentively to Andy’s problems with his lowest-common-denominator career, Bowie spontaneously composes a mocking ballad at the bar’s piano, in which he sings “Little fat man who sold his soul…” to his besotted admirers as Andy flushes crimson.

For her part, Maggie suggests better lyrics to Mr. Bowie, “Fatso?” she says helpfully.