In the early hours of tomorrow morning GMT, Ricky Gervais, the cackling comedian with a demonic ability to say the wrong thing, will host the Golden Globes award ceremony for the third year in succession. Last year, his turn as MC, in which he poked fun at Robert Downey Jr, Bruce Willis, Scientologists and airbrushed actresses, generated the kind of shock-filled news coverage more usually associated with rolling reports from an earthquake.
Judging by some of the horrified responses, there seemed to be more chance of the militant atheist crawling to Lourdes this weekend than presenting gongs in Los Angeles. But clearly the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs the Globes and was also a target for his barbs, decided that the publicity trumped the controversy.
For his part, Gervais says that he only agreed to return so that he could show those who’d said he never be invited back that they were wrong. It was a revealing comment, because Gervais has spent the better part of the past 12 months telling the world how little he cares what anyone, and most of all the media, thought about his 2011 performance at the Globes.
He began announcing how untroubled he was by the fuss soon after last year’s show, in an appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight. He didn’t care, he kept repeating to Morgan during the course of a long and fawning interview about his performance, he wasn’t remotely concerned.
And he’s scarcely stopped since. A couple of months ago, he told an interviewer: “I do the Golden Globes like some people play golf. Win, lose or draw, it doesn’t affect me. I’m not beholden to anyone. I don’t have to be nice to directors. I don’t have to be nice to anyone.” Just last week he said: “Maybe I’ll be a bit more chilled about it this year. Or not. Whatever. I don’t care.”
How much nonchalance can one man express before it begins to sound like nonsense? Why does he care so much about not caring? It’s a question that seems inextricably bound up in Gervais’s complex relationship with celebrity, the monster that he alternates between wooing, killing, dissecting and, in his new slimline guise, accompanying along the red carpet.
The effect of his act at last year’s Globes was to stick a knife into Hollywood’s inflated sense of itself – the punctured vanity leaking out in audible gasps of dismay. Yet Gervais’s behaviour in recent years suggests that his ego might have spent too long attached to the celebrity foot-pump.
Take, for example, the habit of casting A-list fans in cameo roles that he first displayed to mixed effect in Extras. Samuel L Jackson, Ben Stiller and Kate Winslet all showed up to send up their images in best postmodern tradition. While Gervais could argue that only a fool would forgo such walk-on talent, there was more than a whiff of cruising for a schmoozing. The effect was less to bring the superstars down to earth than to position Gervais in their elevated orbit.
He is far too astute an analyst of comedy to be unaware of the danger of looking smug and there were sufficient layers of irony and knowing jokes within jokes for the conceit to work. But it fared less well in his recent show, Life’s Too Short, a comedy about a struggling dwarf actor, particularly with regard to Johnny Depp’s guest appearance.
Depp was one of the people Gervais was supposed to have insulted at last year’s Globes, so it was something of a coup to get arguably the world’s biggest star to grace such a small – in every sense – sitcom. But it backfired, at least in comedy terms, because Depp’s caricature was called upon to enact a long and laughless riposte to Gervais for his Globes remarks.
Gervais is a master of comic agony, yet this was a moment when the audience was asked to suffer not in the cause of humour but for the greater glory of Ricky Gervais. When Depp started talking about Gervais’s Twitter account, it was hard not to wonder what had happened to Gervais’s comic instincts. How had someone with such a perceptive gift for social observation taken to producing mirthlessly indulgent parodies of his media image?
It’s now more than a decade since The Office first screened, without fanfare or promotion, on BBC2. Since then, Gervais’s brilliantly inspired David Brent has entered the language as shorthand for every managerial bore who ever saw themselves as corporate heroes. Richard Curtis, the creator of Blackadder, hailed it as “the greatest programme ever seen”. If that was forgivable hyperbole, The Office certainly has claim to be the finest-ever comic exposition of a blind spot.
Brent’s blind spot was himself. He couldn’t see how ridiculous he was. The character grew out of a sketch called “Seedy Boss” that Gervais’s long-time writing partner, Stephen Merchant, shot for his BBC training course. Merchant had been Gervais’s assistant at the radio station Xfm, where Gervais held the obscure title of head of speech. The two shared a comic appreciation of the mundane that may have something to do with their respective upbringings in Bristol (Merchant) and Reading (Gervais).
The son of a French-Canadian labourer, Gervais was a council estate boy who coasted through school, university and a series of low-profile entertainment jobs with a mixture of natural wit and outrageous charm. It wasn’t until he wrote and starred in The Office that he realised he possessed a capacity for hard work and stubborn creative control.
It’s a combination that he has since put to use across TV, radio, podcasts, stand-up, books, cartoons, and several Hollywood films, including The Invention of Lying, which he wrote, produced and directed. Not content with that exposure, he has also taken to Twitter, though not always with happy results.
Last year, he became embroiled in a Twitter storm when one of his tweets included the word “mong”. Gervais reacted to the ensuing complaints by insisting the word’s original meaning – derogatory slang for people with Down’s syndrome – had been tranformed into something more inclusive. To illustrate his point, he unapologetically used the term again. It was only when a mother of disabled children pointed out that, on the contrary, the original meaning was very much alive and active that he backed down.
The episode showed Gervais at his least attractive – arrogant, bullying and determined to see high principle in cheap laughs. In one sense, it’s laudable that he won’t submit to the strictures of manufactured outrage, but his stance against professional offence-takers seems increasingly marked by coarse sensationalism.
The ready-made excuse is that he’s dealing with taboos, making fun of prejudice, not endorsing it. As he says: “People confuse the subject of a joke with the target of a joke.” If so, Gervais is at least in part responsible for the confusion.
What’s the subject and who’s the target in the podcasts with Karl Pilkington or An Idiot Abroad? Isn’t the joke simply that Pilkington has a limited and therefore absurd view of the world? And how many cracks can you make about Warwick Davis’s height in Life’s Too Short before the meta-joke on our attitudes to physical abnormality collapses into desperate laughs at the expense of a dwarf?
On closer inspection, it looks like the only subject in Gervais’s work since The Office that he also identifies as a target is celebrity. It’s the theme that unites Extras and Life’s Too Short and, of course, it will be provide the laughs at tonight’s Golden Globes. But the unavoidable irony is that the more he pillories fame, the more famous he becomes, and the more famous he becomes, the more that fame bites back.
“Fame makes you more self-analytical,” he admitted a couple of years ago, “because now you’re worried about not how people perceive you but how people who don’t know you perceive you, which seems unfair because your reputation is everything.”
In other words, Gervais does care what people think him. To his credit, that’s unlikely to hold him back. But let’s hope that if there’s an adverse reaction, Gervais doesn’t loudly boast indifference and then cast the offended party in his next show. Because then it will appear that he really is taking celebrity seriously. And that’s a blind spot that would make David Brent look like a guru of self-awareness.
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