Here’s the trouble with awards shows: They’re so busy self-congratulating and self-promoting that most of the time they forget to be entertaining, much less actually about anything. Everyone who goes up on stage ends up tailoring whatever it is they have to say to one segment of the market or another, in an effort to sell themselves or their industry to whatever their agents have told them is the most valuable demographic. The awards show host is supposed to be the answer to that, he’s supposed to be the guy who stands outside all the ass-kissing and backslapping around him. In the process he provides a window into what’s going on for the viewing audience, and in the ideal scenario gets them so interested they’ll be talking about what happened at work the next morning (or at the very least finds a way to keep them awake). If you’ve watched any awards shows recently then you know that these days, that almost never happens.
It doesn’t happen because the show’s producers are all too often scared and in the process they end up scaring their hosts out of doing anything that someone might think is controversial. Even the MTV Awards, once a cavalcade of questionable material and crazy happenings have lost their edge. The modern awards show is all too often left with a host who can’t really comment on the proceedings, lest he risk pissing someone off, a host who can’t really say anything too funny, because of course the best comedy is challenging and thinks outside the box. Demographics don’t think outside the box. Market segments don’t like challenging. If you’re a comedian, agreeing to become an awards show host is in essence, agreeing to bow to those pressures. Unless you’re Ricky Gervais. He doesn’t seem to care.
This was Ricky Gervais’ second stint hosting the Golden Globes and it seemed clear from the beginning that he doesn’t care if he ever does it again. From the start Gervais poked fun at everyone and anyone around him and, though he’s now inevitably going to take a lot of flack for the things he said or be accused of being some sort of shock comic (that’s never been his style and it still isn’t), the truth is that this is exactly the guy everyone clamors for when one of these interminable awards broadcasts seems stale or dead or slow. And now, having given both the audience and the network what they’ve always wanted, the lynch mobs are fomenting plans to tear him apart.
The truth is this: Ricky Gervais is the perfect awards show host.
He doesn’t have to do a song and dance number to get laughs. He doesn’t really need a long monologue. Ricky Gervais is the kind of funny that can be slipped in between the cracks. He’ll get laughs with two biting sentences, directed at whoever the next presenter is, before getting out of the way to let the thing move on. He’ll be hilarious by letting Steve Carell shove him in the chest as he escapes from the stage. Anyone can do a pre-prepared series of limericks on the year’s biggest blockbusters, but not anyone can hurl hilarity at Hollywood’s stiff uppercrust for twenty seconds and have everything he said end up as the most discussed moment of the broadcast.
Ricky Gervais introduced Bruce Willis with a perplexed listing of all the terrible movies Bruce would like to forget. He called out nearly everyone who shared the stage with him at some point during the night, guaranteeing that at least half of them (the ones without a sense of humor, I’m looking at you Annette Bening) will never work with him. He knew that going in and still he strode up there, stared them all in the eye, and unabashedly poked fun. Sure, you can bring in a host who takes part in all the back-slapping in the name of creating an air of class, but that’s how you end up with another boring awards show that no one talks about and everyone regrets watching. If you want that kind of insider ceremony, that’s fine, just don’t broadcast it so we can all ignore the thing and go to bed. On the other hand, if you’re trying to create something you can actually televise, Ricky’s biting satire is the perfect counter-point to all the tedious congratulating around him. An awards show needs balance, and on Sunday night Ricky created that all by himself. He walked up, did his thing, and did it with style.
He was only able to do that because, clearly, Ricky Gervais doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. If he did, he wouldn’t have made a TV show in which David Bowie composes a surprisingly catchy song dedicated to labeling him as a pathetic little fat man. He wouldn’t have made the only recent mainstream atheist movie that didn’t involve Bill Maher, knowing that absolutely no one would want to see it. Ricky Gervais’s entire career is dedicated to not caring what people think about him. He’s written entire television series’ dedicated to mocking people who feel otherwise, shows about the kinds of desperate performers who pander to the lowest common denominator in order to make everyone happy. It’s the cornerstone of his work. It’s who he is, it’s what makes him funny, presumably it’s why NBC hired him. It’s not just that he doesn’t care who he pisses off, he refuses to be ashamed of who or what he is. He doesn’t change himself to suit the mood. No matter how much you pay him, Ricky Gervais won’t put on a funny wig and glasses. He stands for something and he brought all of that with him to the Golden Globes.
When he closed the show by making a joke about being an atheist, Ricky knew he’d send the world into a tizzy (surveys often rank atheists as the most hated group in America), but that’s who he is. Why should he pretend to be anything else? A good comedian holds a mirror up to society and challenges our perceptions and attitudes with humor. In the process he gets people’s attention, and that’s what a good host does too. That’s exactly what Gervais did throughout the entire Golden Globes broadcast, and he did it with a wink and a nod that let us all know we were part of what’s going on. Ricky Gervais is the perfect awards show host, and because of that, don’t be surprised if he’s never allowed to host again. If he does get another shot at this, no matter what’s being awarded, I’m tuning in.
UPDATE! Rumor now has it that Gervais may indeed be banned from hosting the Golden Globes. Full details here.