Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Ricky Gervais and the Future of Awards Show Hosting

By  · Published on January 18th, 2011

Quite a fuss has been made of Sunday night’s Golden Globes ceremony. Not the actual awards mind you – everything was safe and predictable in that arena. Not even the obvious drunkenness or awkward attempts at humor with varying degrees of success by the night’s celebrity award winners and presenters are the primary subject of the conversation (De Niro’s bizarre acceptance speech, Robert Downey Jr’s creepy framing of the Best Actress category). All discourse has been centered on the performance by the show’s host, Ricky Gervais.

Gervais’s acerbic monologue was met with audible surprise and even aghast by his elite audience. His introductions to awards presenters ranged from tongue-in-cheek playfulness to blatant comic criticism. He later disappeared for more than an hour, prompting speculation on Twitter (the only place where aside observations can immediately morph into conspiracy theory) that he was taken off the show, only to emerge later, without his jacket and appearing vexed, to give quite the backhanded introduction to Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, which all-in-all does suggest at least a firm backstage talking-to.

With strangely perfect timing, Gervais ended the show with the line, “And thank you to God for making me an atheist” before the generic end credits music surged. The Buñuelean echo of these final words was a rather appropriate summation of Gervais’s brilliant absurdity and anarchic irreverence peppered throughout this masturbatory rich-ual (get it?). It was, in short, hilarious and the best thing about the show. Here’s his monologue:

Yesterday, members of the HFPA made it clear that this is the last time Gervais will ever host the Globes and, in a rare and odd moment of transparent industry politics, allegedly also stated that the comedian would never have a chance at a nomination for any film associated with him. Gervais clearly played his cards as if these were the exact stakes – and it is the false notion that such an award is a legitimate signal of prestige and accomplishment that Gervais deconstructed with his comedy, which made his performance far more threatening to the self-congratulatory institution of awards shows than the typical plant-a-jibe-here-and-there brand of host. Gervais’s comedy wasn’t a threat to the HFPA and the supposedly sacred cows of the rich and famous because he joked at their expense, but because (unlike many, many other hosts of this type) he never metered these jabs out with any sincere acknowledgement that the ceremony had worth or importance.

Awards shows have had a downward ratings slide the past few years, and there are a multitude of possible reasons why: 1) we’re inundated with so many of these shows and they become indistinguishable in the mix, 2) arguably as a result of changing business models in Hollywood (a pervasive box-office/quality split), there is an audience split between viewers who tune in for the celebrities and viewers who have actually seen the movies nominated, 3) unlike the heyday of awards broadcasts, the opportunity to see so many celebrities in one place is currently available on so many other outlets now, and celebrity is no longer synonymous with Hollywood or even performing (e.g., Paris Hilton, the Kardashians), and 4) the shows are very long. The above are some of the reasons the industry speculates that we don’t tune into such shows, but what they rarely account for are pervasive, shifting cultural factors that are much harder to put into numbers, factors like indifference and irony.

Those who say that we live in the “Age of Irony” often do so despairingly, scapegoating an Internet-consuming culture for emboldening an environment that lets nothing exist in popular culture without critique or snark. But when it comes to hollow media rituals in which the rich and famous perform greatness and gratitude, and when miniature statues are bestowed upon actors and films whose signification has no little causal or reflective correspondence with the work’s critical or cultural value through time, then pointing out bullshit where bullshit definitely resides seems the only logical and responsible response.

Comedic irony is indeed a weapon, a critical device that possesses both remarkable subtlety and an incredible potential to demolish its subject of ridicule. Whether it was the mood set by Gervais’s comedy or the amount of drinks in the room or something different altogether, the guise of the ritual did begin to show its threads a bit more evidently even when Gervais was not onstage, most notably when De Niro delivered the acceptance speech for his lifetime achievement award (only a few weeks after the release of Little Fockers) with bad comedy, troubled teleprompter reading, false gratitude, and, well, bad acting.

The Globes, and this year in particular, seems the most appropriate venue for a performance like Gervais’s, for while the Oscars somehow still hold the prestige to bring in 40 million US viewers each year, the Globes encapsulates the ever-apparent lack of necessity for these ceremonies being the bastard child of the Emmys and the Oscars.

With a Best Comedy or Musical category that would have more aptly been called “Films Released This Year,” the Globes represent, more explicitly than any other show of its type, the function of these ceremonies as a synergistic promotion of fashion and entertainment journalism rather than a celebration of great accomplishments in cinema or television (that Gervais even can be blacklisted from receiving awards displays how recognizing quality isn’t much of a priority for such programs). On Sunday, De Niro wasn’t as much a winner as TMZ.

The increasingly apparent emptiness of these shows makes for a rather odd scenario for audiences. There is an audience (like myself, admittedly) who annually watch these ceremonies out of curiosity and do so not without a healthy degree of snark (it makes for an enjoyably irreverent social experience).

This is the audience Gervais’s humor spoke for and towards. His real audience was never the people in the room, but those at home engaging while feeling just as Gervais does about the bullshit involved. That there are any real stakes in Gervais’s performance is an illusion, making the offense felt by those in the industry all the more absurd and unsympathetic.

There’s a reason these shows can’t find today’s equivalent to Dick Clark or even the Billy Crystal: the truly great comedians of our day can’t play the game without letting it slip. Some comedians (Jon Stewart, Chris Rock) have tried on shows past to speak for both audiences, but for the sake of laughs, credibility, and (I imagine) sanity, they have to choose one or the other.

How the Globes and other awards shows choose hosts after Gervais’s performance will be significant – not because these rituals matter in any way, shape, or form, but because these hosting choices will signal the way Hollywood chooses to speak about itself or reflect on itself henceforth. Like Hugh Jackman two years ago, the Oscars have once again chosen actors (co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway) to engage in this act of reflection, a significant departure in that it represents a desire for the industry to speak about the industry instead.

That actors, unlike comedians, are trained in the value of going by the script makes the reasoning behind this decision clear. Though I wouldn’t put it past Franco to turn the evening into a performance art piece of some sort, the fact that he will likely be hosting while receiving a major nomination this year shows that those manufacturing these ceremonies want somebody with something at stake within the ceremony to be the one who comments on the ceremony.

However, the ironic audience remains and would like a spokesman guiding them through the unnecessary charade, acknowledging how silly and stupid it all is. It will be interesting to see where such ceremonies go from now on in choosing between outsider comedians and safe industry players, and exactly what audience in the face of low ratings and in the Age of Irony these rituals seek to attract.

Thank God for more Culture Warrior

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