Poor Ricky Gervais. He couldn’t possibly live up to the kind of hype he got from the moment he was invited back to host the Golden Globes a second time. In the press releases, the initial coverage, the Saturday Night Live sketch, it was like he was Gabbo from The Simpsons, a little character who was going to take the world by storm through his willingness to say anything about anyone.
His comments last year were only mildly critical—really, the jokes everyone was making about Charlie Sheen or the Sex and the City women, except that awards-show hosts are traditionally expected to be a little less blunt about them—so it was hard for him to live up to that fearless truth-teller reputation. Plus there has been a bit of Gervais backlash recently (though less in North America for the moment, if only because Life’s Too Short hasn’t aired there yet) and a lot of parodies of his style. So even if he’d wanted to shock and surprise us all, he couldn’t have done it. It was left to the unscripted moments, like Meryl Streep’s s-bomb, to liven up a less than lively evening.
And yet Gervais is a good fit for the Golden Globes, and might someday be a good fit for the Oscars. These shows are primarily for celebrities—the Golden Globes are an excuse for stars to dress up and get drunk; the Oscars are literally the awards showbiz people give themselves—so the host has to appeal to the celebrity audience while also appealing to the home audience. Maybe Gervais isn’t quite well-known enough in North America to have the kind of direct link to the home audience that other hosts have. (The trick of a really good host is to be loved by the stars while also being loved by the regular viewer, who has a sort of love-hate relationship with stars.) But his humour captures the way celebrities think about themselves and their peers: loving them, considering them the most important people in the world, while also poking fun at how little they deserve their god-like status. Gervais’s joke about Natalie Portman taking time off to have a baby was, I thought, a good joke and a good summation of the way Hollywood people see themselves: they see themselves, or say they see themselves, as putting family and children first, even as they know perfectly well that taking time off for family and children are bad for their careers.
Gervais also has what we might call the Bob Hope sweet spot in terms of his career: someone who is famous enough to be a genuine peer of the celebrities in the audience, but is also able to portray himself as an outsider in a room full of beautiful, award-winning people. (Gervais has won awards; he just won’t win an Oscar; at least not for a while.) He’s not actually an outsider, but he can play the part.