Exactly a year ago, days before Ricky Gervais was set to host the Golden Globes for the second time, there seemed to be no more perfect an awards show host in the universe. To that point, Gervais had made himself into something of an awards show treasure: Whenever he was trotted out for his few minutes of on-air patter, he was always funny — which, given the typical caliber of such banter, made him a walking miracle. And then came the 68th annual Golden Globes, an event at which Gervais had the audacity to level some actual fastballs (or fast relative to the standard softballs) at the rich, famous, beautiful people sitting in the audience and/or watching from home. Not everyone was pleased with Gervais’s gleeful skewering, and the likes of Judd Apatow and the Hollywood Foreign Press argued that Gervais’s performance had crossed a line, making for an unnecessarily bitter and antagonistic show. Vulture was on record as enjoying the whole thing — it was the perfect antidote to the season’s award show circuit of overstated mutual praise — and the Hollywood Foreign Press lightened up after a few months and asked Gervais to repeat as the host this year. But in the year since the Globes, one person has appeared to be more amused and delighted by Gervais’s performance than anyone else, in or out of Hollywood: Ricky Gervais himself. Having spent an awards show deflating the hype around movie stars, Gervais has spent the last year buying his own.
Ricky Gervais told some appealingly honest-to-mean jokes about famous people. And he has spent the last few months smugly discussing them as though they were tragically misunderstood by oversensitive actors. He self-importantly talks about how great it is to have Hollywood “scared to death of me.” Just this week, baldly flouting the truism that to explain humor is to kill humor, he gave an interview to EW dissecting all of his Golden Globes jokes, pedantically offering up highfalutin reasons why it’s funny to give Robert Downey Jr. a hard time about his addictive past — all as if his awards show patter was a complicated and multilayered upending of the social order rather than just funny jabs. He behaves as if telling Angelina Jolie she was in a bad movie is somehow striking a blow for the common man, and not, in its way, as totally frivolous as telling her she was in a good one. (It’s not that insulting her isn’t entertaining, but when Perez Hilton was still in his drawing-penises-on-her-face phase, he didn’t pretend he was doing important work.)
Gervais seems determined to keep promoting the notion that his performance at the Globes was wildly offensive, but it was only mildly offensive, at best, however many easily offended people he managed to offend. You can revisit most of last year’s jokes here: In addition to knocks on Robert Downey Jr. and The Tourist, they included digs at Cher, Scientology, Charlie Sheen, Hugh Hefner, Sex and the City 2, and and the HFPA. Sure, to that insular industry audience the jabs were more cutting than the usual award show fare and were pretty gloriously ungrateful (he went after no one so much as the hosting HFPA, accusing them of bribery and making a joke about how the president had dentures), but as The New York Times Magazine puts it in a profile of him running this weekend, “It was the sort of material that would have barely rattled MedicAlert bracelets at a Friars Club roast.” Gervais took some hard shots at easy, deserving targets, and if that made for a fairly shocking awards show, that’s because awards shows are absurdly staid and self-important, not because Gervais was breaking new ground — something that a comedian of Gervais’s stature and know-how should be the first to admit. But you wouldn’t know it from Gervais, who has spent the last twelve months reveling in his iconoclasm (posing as Jesus and all).
Perhaps what’s oddest about Gervais’s new persona is that for all his “not caring” what his peers think of him … he cares what his peers think of him. One of Gervais’s biggest Globe targets, Johnny Depp, who co-starred in The Tourist with Jolie and appeared unamused after jokes were made about it, cameos as himself in Gervais’s upcoming HBO show Life’s Too Short. In it, Depp scolds Gervais for his Globes routine by saying, “No one makes fun of Tim Allen on my watch and gets away with it.” Gervais told the Times that this proves just how little he is actually hated in Hollywood: “Just like the Golden Globes, it was, ‘Everyone hates me.’ Well, Johnny Depp’s in this show. If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does.”
That does in fact say it all: Gervais is a rich, powerful guy who one night a year makes fun of his brethren. He’s not an outsider, he’s just imagining himself to be. If Hollywood isn’t offended by his jokes, why does he feel the need to keep patronizingly explaining why they weren’t offensive? And if Hollywood did, in fact, take offense, why is he insecurely going out of his way to say they didn’t? Whether people were offended or not, shouldn’t he just laugh it off and move on, rather than harping on his accomplishment for months and months?
Promoting the notion that he doesn’t play by Hollywood’s sycophantic rules is good branding for Gervais; it’ll certainly get more people to watch the show this Sunday night. (The ad campaign for the Globes has Gervais telling audiences that the only difference between them and him, is that they’ll be saying catty things from home, and he’ll be doing it to celebrities’ faces.) We know we’re looking forward to it because he will take more digs than anyone else would, and the show will be less bland for it. But we will also spend the entire night worrying that at the end of the show, we are in for another yearlong didactic and scolding explanation about how humor works and a giggling identity crisis about whether he’s a Hollywood insider or outsider. We’ll also spend the night wondering where the man went who made his career by being unerringly clear-eyed about the ways that a lack of self-awareness and desire for approval can turn a person into a buffoon, i.e., a David Brent. Because he doesn’t seem to be the same guy telling the jokes anymore.