Did you find Ricky Gervais funny during his hosting gig at the Golden Globes last night? Apparently, the answer depends on your sensitivity and your sense of humor. But anyone who knows Gervais from the squirm-inducing, pond-crossing TV show "The Office" should not be surprised that his humor is heavily reliant on discomfort. He is known for plowing the depths of awkward embarrassment. If you don't find yourself averting your eyes during that show, you probably should be on stronger medication and the national "No Fly" list.
So when you ask Gervais to host your show, you know what you're getting. Brutal, unpleasant truths bathed in humor. There will be sharp barbs directed between the eyes of those who came to be feted. He won't stroke their egos, he will skewer them. That's what he was hired to do, and that's just what he did. He came out last night with the obvious first target, reigning bad boy Charlie Sheen. "Welcome to a night of partying and heavy drinking. Or as Charlie Sheen calls it: breakfast.”
If the audience joined in the gibe against Sheen, they were a little less willing to go after a holier grail. Gervais took on an unnamed but not unidentifiable Golden Globe and Hollywood stalwart, when he made his most risky joke of the night. When discussing the film I Love You Phillip Morris, and its two leads Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey, Gervais said it was about "two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay - so the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists, then." As the audience audibly recoiled, he added, "My lawyers helped me with the wording of that joke.
He went after uber stars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp and their critical and financial flop The Tourist -- inexplicably nominated for two awards -- when he joked: "It seems like everything this year was three-dimensional... except the characters in The Tourist."
But he ratcheted up the barb, and approached dangerous "check with your lawyer" territory by adding, "I'd like to quash this ridiculous rumour going around that the only reason The Tourist was nominated was so the Hollywood Foreign Press could hang out with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. That is rubbish. That is not the only reason. They also accepted bribes." Under the theory that every good joke has an element of truth, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is currently being sued by a publicist who claims the Association accepts gifts in exchange for supporting certain films.
He took on former poster boy for bad behavior Robert Downey, Jr., introducing him with the comment: "Many of you in this room probably know him best from such facilities as the Betty Ford Clinic and Los Angeles County Jail..." He picked on Sarah Jessica Parker and her aging costars by saying "Nothing for Sex and the City 2. I was sure the award for best special effects would go to the team that airbrushed that poster.”
He made the following jab at Tim Allen, who presented an award with Toy Story costar Tom Hanks: "What can I say about our next two presenters? The first is an actor, producer, writer and director whose movies have grossed over $3.5bn at the box office. He's won two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes for his powerful and varied performances starring in such films as Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Castaway, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan. The other is Tim Allen."
What do these jokes have in common? First, they were funny. That should be the beginning and ending point in an analysis of a comic's bit. Is it funny? Did you laugh? Then it did its job. But these jokes are the focus of a lot of negative attention because there is more than a hint of truth in them. But that's the beauty of it. Because that's what good comedy is -- taking some universal or specific truths and finding the humor in them. If you want watered down jokes that have no sharp edges, go watch Jay Leno.
Gervais was not batting a thousand. A few of his quips fell short. His swipe at the HFPA president, Philip Berk, "I had to help the HFPA president off the toilet and pop his teeth back in" was a bit of a dud. His introduction of Bruce Willis as “Ashton Kutcher’s dad” was a bit funnier, but not exactly side-splitting. But too mean? From the writer who brought us the Charlie Brown of Scranton, Michael Scott? He built an entire show -- two actually -- out of a hapless shlub for whom almost nothing goes right. His failures, his disappointments, his pathetic excuse for a life propel the laughs. So we're surprised when the comic genius behind the mixture of pathos and humor is mean-spirited in his humor?
Perhaps CNN host Piers Morgan said it best when he tweeted: "Complaining that Ricky Gervais was too rude is like inviting a shark to your pool & moaning when it bites the kids.” He's right. Gervais was being the quintessential Gervais. He had us uncomfortably wincing and laughing at the same time. And I hope he is invited back to do the same next year.