Perhaps the most telling moment of Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes hosting duties Sunday came as he was finishing them.
Last year, as the assembled began filing out of the Beverly Hilton ballroom, the host made a provocative crack about atheism. This year he tried a considerably more benign joke, about the gold on the table distracting attendees from the recession, a mild dig at the one-percenters of Hollywood.
As he flashed his arsenal of one-liners Sunday night, Gervais certainly didn’t refrain from biting the hand that feeds him. "The Golden Globes are just like the Oscars but without all that esteem," he zinged, offering that the show is Kim Kardashian to the Oscars' Kate Middleton — "a bit louder, a bit trashier, a bit drunker and more easily bought. Allegedly. Nothing’s been proved."
He then knocked the group’s principles with a line that “The Hollywood Foreign Press have warned me if I insult any of you they’ll … definitely invite me back next year."
And he took a page out of the “30 Rock” playbook by getting in some shots at NBC, which broadcasts the awards.
But overall Gervais took a lot less aim at individuals, and it felt a lot less mean even when he did. A joke about Colin Firth as a huge racist, for instance, was clearly tongue-in-cheek.
Last year, Johnny Depp was on the receiving end of jokes about the improbable nominations for “The Tourist.” This year, Depp was in on the joke, coming out to good-humoredly banter with Gervais about it (Host: “Have you seen ‘The Tourist?’" Depp: “No.”)
Even Robert Downey Jr., who last year called Gervais’ performance “mean-spirited and mildly sinister” and was a bellwether for Gervais’ obnoxiousness level, was a non-factor; the actor didn’t say anything about Gervais when he came out to present an award. This was a night for (relatively) good behavior.
Michael Fassbender summed up the feeling of many in the audience about Gervais when he told my colleague Nicole Sperling "He was great last year. Why is he being so tame tonight?"
Gervais’ performance — which, like last year, had him disappearing for chunks of the show — wasn’t entirely devoid of personal jokes. A dirty double entendre about “The Beaver” and Jodie Foster seemed crass if not harsh, and there was a sideways jab at Kate Winslet’s gushy acceptance speech.
But Gervais’ ironic coughing about Madonna as a virgin was about safe as you can get (though the icon didn’t seem entirely cool with it, retorting that “If I’m just like a virgin, Ricky, then why don’t you come over and do something about it. I haven’t kissed a girl in a few years — on TV.”).
In a way Gervais was in a no-win position: to try to top his act from last year was to risk people saying he went too far; to try a more generous direction was to solicit criticism that he pulled his punches. There’s no reason Gervais wouldn’t be asked back next year, though as the comedian himself might say, in the topsy-turvy world of the Golden Globes, he might not have been offensive enough to earn the invitation.
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Ricky Gervais and Jane Fallon at the Golden Globes. Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images