Critic's Notebook: Ricky Gervais Isn't Quite as Deadly as He Seems

Ricky Gervais - H 2015
Paul Drinkwater/NBC

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If you glance back at reviews of Ricky Gervais' three-year stint as Golden Globes host, you see a lot of heightened rhetoric about the British comedian's "blistering," "scathing" "insurrection" — about how the co-creator and star of the U.K. original of The Office "went too far," made things "uncomfortable" and "bit the hand that fed him."

And fed him. And fed him. And then took a three-year break. And fed him again.

The Myth of Ricky Gervais, courageous truth-teller and metaphorical dragon slayer, has comfortably usurped The Reality of Ricky Gervais, above-average awards host — a narrative that already was taking place back when Gervais was hosting, as each year found critics lamenting, "Why wasn't Ricky as edgy as last year?"

If you look back on Gervais' Golden Globe hosting gigs, there's little doubt he enjoyed a fair amount of what the British would call "taking the piss," but the notion that he crossed any hypothetical lines is absurd.

Yes, he introduced a presenter in 2010 with, "I like a drink as much as the next man. Unless the next man is Mel Gibson," thereby managing to tweak the least controversial element of Gibson's anti-Semitic rant and subsequent arrest. He chided Hugh Hefner for having young girlfriends, Charlie Sheen for partying, Robert Downey Jr. for his checkered past and Angelina Jolie Pitt for adopting an assortment of international children. He uncorked grand revelations like Hollywood stars enjoying plas­tic surgery, Paul McCartney having an expensive divorce and actors of different ages who married Demi Moore. Revolutionary stuff, eh?

He called members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association old and clueless, mocking them for loving The Tourist, and made veiled references to long-held rumors about the sexuality of a couple of stars. Funny stuff? Sometimes, absolutely. Revolutionary? Almost never, so put that "insurrection" nonsense back in your pocket.

Just last year alone, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made multiple Bill Cosby jokes, gave George Clooney a gentle elbowing for marrying a woman with far more impressive credentials than his own and tore into various Hollywood standards about age and beauty. Nobody said they'd gone too far. Tina and Amy were well admired, but nobody was ever shocked that the HFPA dared to employ them again.

Because Gervais punctuates his cheeky punch lines with references to his attorneys or to how much trouble he's going to get into, he gets bonus points. Because everything is done with his mischievous grin and "I'm an outsider crashing this party" accent, we buy that the substance is matching the presentation. And, to his credit, it often does. Seth MacFarlane employed similar "Aren't I a naughty boy" tactics when he hosted the Oscars, but because the material failed, he failed.

Remember that when Gervais took over Golden Globe hosting duties, the HFPA mostly had eschewed hosts, so standard hosting seemed like a wild shift and ratings experts could imply that Gervais moved the needle — compared to "nobody."

Detractors claimed Gervais soured the tone in the room, but the offense wasn't too great to prevent two return contracts or a fourth turn at the mic this January, when you can expect the Golden Globes to be provocative, but probably not as provocative as Gervais pretends they are.