OPINION: Ricky Gervais was doomed before began

Photo: NBC Universal

Photo: NBC Universal

Chris Luckett

Last year, Gervais hosted the Golden Globes and shocked the celebrity world by — heaven forbid! — mocking movie stars. What would have seemed tame on a Celebrity Roast was deemed savage and insulting simply because it was said at an awards show.

Even Gervais himself was shocked at the harsh reaction his jokes caused. Pundits and actors said he had ruined any chance of coming back and hosting again. Of course, when people were still talking about Gervais’ hosting a month later, it became obvious that despite the offense taken by the jokes’ subjects and despite the staunch stance of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that Gervais would not be invited back, we all knew he was going to be. The question was whether he would accept.

When I first began getting interested in film award shows, one incident (or series of incidents) really stuck with me. In early 1999, when Jim Carrey was the talk of awards season for his work in The Truman Show (including winning Best Actor in a Drama at the Golden Globes), the Academy did not even include Carrey in their nominations. Despite this, when the Academy invited Carrey to present at the Oscars a few weeks later, he graciously went and even poked fun at his lack of a nomination before presenting the award, in what ended up as one of the most memorable moments of the night.

Twelve months later, Carrey was back in the same position. He was one of the major award-winners that season for his work in Man on the Moon (including winning Best Actor in a Comedy at the Golden Globes). Again, the Academy did not recognize Carrey’s performance. And again, they still invited Carrey to the Oscar ceremony to present. The second time, Carrey politely declined the invitation. I always interpreted that action as his way of basically saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

That has always stuck with me. It taught me a lot about character, a lot about pride, and mostly a lot about politics, especially when it comes to awards shows.

Winning a Golden Globe or an Oscar these days means a little less than it did in the ‘30s and ‘40s, if for no other reason than the importance now of television audiences. While one can argue that the Globes and the Oscars haven’t ever truly been just about the best performances, the nominations did become less pure after awards ceremonies began being televised.

The most important thing about the ceremonies (in producers’ eyes) shifted from the awards themselves to television ratings. They began pandering to what TV audiences wanted. TV audiences preferred seeing people they recognized on TV. They preferred popular movies getting showcased. They liked recyclable jokes and fluffy banter between likeable presenters. And, as people always do, they liked seeing anything scandalous.

Over the last 50 years, there have been many watercooler moments on both the Golden Globes and the Oscars telecasts, from streakers to F-bombs to David Letterman. One thing that such moments do for producers of awards shows is shine a light on what the public currently wishes there were more of in awards shows, be that spontaneity, vulgarity, poignancy, etc.

The producers of the Golden Globes knew well enough that the only way they could achieve the same TV audience numbers this year that they did last year would be to bring Ricky Gervais back, despite all their earlier outrages.

For the HFPA, bringing Ricky Gervais back was a complete win. They were virtually guaranteed good ratings, as Gervais’ hosting last year was one of the biggest news stories of the year involving the entertainment industry, and more people were aware of last year’s show now than had watched it live in 2011. Plus, it showed the HFPA had a sense of humour about themselves, as well as demonstrating that they weren’t too proud to admit they had harshly judged Gervais last year. For the Golden Globes, they had nothing to lose by having Ricky Gervais come back and host. For Gervais, though, it was a fool’s errand.

There was no way for Gervais to avoid criticism this time. Last year, what got him into such hot water was not really the harshness of his jokes but the unexpectedness of that harshness. Honestly, mocking the quality of a movie like The Tourist or the less-than-stellar career of Tim Allen when compared to Tom Hanks should not exactly cut to the bone. What rankled so many feathers was that people like Robert Downey, Jr. or Angelina Jolie (nor most movie stars, I’d wager) don’t go to awards shows expecting to be insulted or mocked. TV audiences didn’t expect it either, which is why it was so jarring/refreshing.

This year, everyone knew what Ricky Gervais was capable of as an awards show host. Moreover, as much as people loved the change he brought last year, they all seemed to want him to do the same thing this time. Gervais’ biggest mistake was trying to give it to them.

There were three ways he could have hosted. He could have toned it down and not done the same thing as last year. This probably would have been his best bet, because it would show that he’d prefer to not even do comedy he was adept at than do it just because hypocrites wanted it from him. It would almost be rebelling against the rebels, since the most unexpected thing he could do this year would be to not deliver what people wanted. (It worked last year, right?) The trouble is, while he’d be able to sleep easy at night, he’d get torn apart for going too easy on the celebrities and would be accused of toning things down as atonement for the fallout last year.

He could have gone even farther with his jokes, but multiple problems would come from that. He would look like a puppet, dancing to the tune of what the mass public wants from him now. He would surely alienate more movie stars and Hollywood elite, which wouldn’t necessarily bother Gervais, but would likely not help his movie career, either. Worst of all, it would begin cementing Gervais in the eyes of the average Joe as nothing more than a roast comedian, as this generation’s Don Rickles.

You would think, then, that his best chance of emerging from this year’s hosting duties unscathed would be to walk the same precarious tightrope he did last year. And that’s exactly what he did. He even managed to succeed. Yet if you’ve talked to anyone about last night’s Golden Globes ceremony, you probably know the consensus is that Gervais didn’t “pull it off” like he did last year. So where is the disconnect?

In the end, trying to achieve the same tone he did last year was an impossible task because it was no longer unexpected. People are already criticizing his jokes last night, saying they weren’t as cutting or edgy as they were last year, but people have short memories, and revisionist ones, at that. Side by side, Gervais’ jokes this year were just as pointed as his jokes in 2011, and last year’s really weren’t as stinging as people remember them being. In our heads, though, we’ve built last year’s jokes/jibes up, if just by talking about them so much at the time. By doing so, we raised out expectations of Gervais to something that no one could conceivably deliver.

We would have been disappointed if he played it safe. We would have been disappointed if he insulted people even harsher than before just because he was expected to. As it was, by doing the exact same thing as last year (which, let’s be fair to Gervais, he’s been saying for weeks is what he would do), he ended up with the worst of both worlds, looking simultaneously stale and inoffensive (for the most part). He would have been best off leaving his hosting total at two, instead of rolling the dice a third time.

Gervais will be fine after this. He’s incredibly intelligent and has a flair for brilliant comedy. (Even if Gervais had retired from the entertainment industry after creating/writing/starring in The Office, his place in the Hall of Fame of comedy would still be guaranteed.) Gervais will eventually re-emerge, relatively unscathed and maybe even a little wiser. For now, though, he’s rolled the dice one time too many. The HFPA got all the benefits from him hosting, while he got stuck with the bill. My advice to Ricky Gervais, when the HFPA comes calling again next year: take a cue from Jim Carrey.

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