The opposite of dull and deferential is not snotty and abusive.
Just a little notion someone might have mentioned to Ricky Gervais before he once again took the stage at the Beverly Hilton on Sunday night as host of the 2011 Golden Globes. Last year, the famously astringent comic was mildly disappointing — he swore he wasn't going to break a sweat hosting, and he didn't. This year, he was far better prepared, and one would imagine, much sweatier, as it quickly became clear that his material wasn't just falling flat, it was making many audience members and presenters uncomfortable and even angry.
Gervais was called out for unnecessary roughness by so many stars both backstage and on that it would not have been surprising to see a hook emerge suddenly stage left or to learn that the host had taken "suddenly ill" and so Jimmy Fallon (who killed at last year's Emmys) would be filling in.
Once again wielding a full glass of beer as a prop, Gervais started off with a shot at Hollywood piñata Charlie Sheen — "It's going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking, or as Charlie Sheen calls it — 'breakfast'" — and then quickly moved on to less obvious and more dangerous targets.
"It seemed like everything was three dimensional this year, except the characters in 'The Tourist,'" he quipped, taking a shot at A-list darlings Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, whose nominations he joked were the product of bribery. While Depp smiled grimly, Gervais moved on to laud the un-nominated "I Love You Phillip Morris" as being movie in which two heterosexual men play two gay men "so the opposite of some famous Scientologists." Then, he went on to mime the sexual congress of Hugh Hefner and his new fiancee and to deliver a rather stale Mel Gibson joke.
Robert Downey Jr. may have put it best. After Gervais introduced him with references to Betty Ford and correctional facilities, the "Iron Man" actor smiled at the audience and said: "Aside from the fact that it's been unusually mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I'd say the vibe of the show is pretty good."
As far as the actual awards went, it was an evening filled with many wonderful moments — Katey Sagal won a much-deserved award for her role in FX's "Sons of Anarchy," Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch for "Glee," Steve Buscemi for "Boardwalk Empire," Melissa Leo and Christian Bale for "The Fighter," Annette Bening for "The Kids Are All Right," Colin Firth for "The King's Speech," Aaron Sorkin for "The Social Network" — all of whom were by turns gracious, witty and above all in tune with the elastic but still professionally proscribed form of the awards show.
Gervais, on the other hand, was busy defining the role of the perfect host by defying it. Poking fun at big stars is in the job description. But televised teasing requires a lightness of touch or else it quickly becomes bullying.
For a few short hours, an awards show host wields undeniable power. He or she can make a joke about someone in the audience and that person is stuck between a camera and a hard place — get all shirty about it and you risk looking like Sean Penn defending Jude Law from Chris Rock's rather gentle ribbing. So most just smiled, perhaps at the memory of Gervais' own dismal box office record, and prayed for a quick cutaway.
And Gervais went one step further, introducing presenters in a cock-eyed way, so Scarlett Johansson, the evening's first presenter, walked out in the wake of a weird Mel Gibson as anti-Semite joke. Steve Carell and Tina Fey were, obviously, better armed — "It never gets old," Carell cracked when Gervais introduced him with a tired reference to their feud of "The Office" — but Bruce Willis didn't know quite what to say when he was as " Ashton Kutcher's father."
Other things contributed to what was a remarkably strange, even by awards show standards, evening. After winning for television movie or mini-series, the producer of "Carlos" kept referring to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as "the academy," which was rather embarrassing; Downey followed up his dis of Gervais with a weirdly lecherous introduction involving film actresses; Annette Bening's hair looked like her stylist used a leaf blower; the mash-up for the Cecil B. De Mille Award winner Robert De Niro included such oddities as "King of Comedy" but no "Bang the Drum Slowly"?; and Justin Bieber presented an award without taking his hands out of his pockets.
But the coup de grace was when Tom Hanks and Tim Allen stepped up to present the Golden Globe for comedy or musical. "We recall when Ricky Gervais was a slightly chubby and kindly comedian," said Hanks. "Neither of which he is now," added Allen.
No comedian worth his salt expects to be loved by everyone. But slapped down in public by Woody and Buzz? That's got to sting.