In the days leading up to the 2020 Golden Globe Awards, Ricky Gervais seemed to have learned from the criticism he received for his recent transphobic jokes. But the lesson wasn’t “Try to avoid jokes about subjects you don’t understand.” It was more about imagining future persecution for the sake of avoiding it. In an interview this month with The Hollywood Reporter, Gervais cited Kevin Hart, who’d lost out on hosting the Oscars after his homophobic tweets resurfaced, followed by a fumbled apology. “There’s more pressure on making [the jokes bulletproof],” Gervais told THR. “It’s the world [watching].”
When it came time to deliver his Golden Globes opening monologue on Sunday night, Gervais decided to frame it as reluctance: if he was going to be criticized for making shitty transphobic and sexist jokes, then he’d like to take his toys and go home. Once a host who gleefully giggled at the camera while joking that the car accident that killed someone came down to Caitlyn Jenner being a “woman driver,” a cranky, disinterested Gervais rattled off network-approved jokes with the enthusiasm of a schoolteacher two weeks out from retirement. He announced that last night’s ceremony would be his last.
“Remember, they’re just jokes,” he scolded the audience both at the show and at home, in what seemed to be a preemptive effort to avoid criticism, behind an apparent shield of self-awareness. The camera cut to Amy Poehler, who along with Tina Fey, has used the Golden Globes hosting gig to call out rampant abuse by powerful men and the industry that for decades ignored it. Poehler raised her eyebrows to the people at home with a look that reminded me of the ones I’ve shared with countless women, a silent signal acknowledging that the man we’re supposed to be listening to isn’t saying anything worth hearing.
Judging by the fact that last night was his fifth time hosting the ceremony, Gervais’s history of riling up celebrities and grabbing headlines perhaps appealed to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in a time of much hand-wringing over whether cancel culture has stripped comedians of their right to make jokes that upset people. Previously, after Gervais’s opening monologue nine years ago at the 2011 Golden Globes, headlines asked if his jokes mocking Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism, Tom Cruise’s rumored sexuality, and Robert Downey Jr.’s arrest record were “too mean.” During his awkward monologue, cameras cut to the audience, to catch celebrities accustomed to being praised or lightly ribbed at these self-congratulatory Hollywood awards shows, in this case, openly dreading their turn.
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Gervais loved the attention. Afterward, he told Deadline, “For three hours every year, Hollywood is scared to death of me. It’s great.” Then after the 2018 Golden Globes, where Gervais spent a chunk of his hosting time making transphobic jokes that included deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner, his response to criticisms of his jokes took a decidedly bitter turn. His Netflix special, Humanity, released two months after his 2018 Golden Globes monologue, doubled down on his transphobic humor, further deadnaming Jenner in addition to referring to her as a man and likening the idea of being trans to a human being wishing to be a chimpanzee.
In preparing to host this time around, Gervais explained to The Hollywood Reporter that his Jenner jokes at both the 2018 Golden Globes and in his Netflix special were “pro” rather than “anti” trans, and that he’s finally learned his lesson after seeing Kevin Hart’s get booted from the Oscars for homophobic jokes he made on Twitter. Still, just two weeks ago, Gervais published more transphobic tweets, which he then explained were jokes actually meant to mock a woman and not trans people.
Ricky Gervais has made a career out of such cringe-inducing humor. In the original U.K. version of The Office, his character David Brent was often openly sexist, racist, and homophobic. But his offensive jokes weren’t actually the joke. The unfairness of a power imbalance that left Brent’s employees unable to call him out was the punchline. The Dickensian nature of modern-day office power structures and Brent, along with his mean-spirited jabs, were the villains of the show.
Gervais seems to have forgotten that fact and instead imagines that criticism is the same as persecution. He openly jokes about a member of a marginalized group and then claims that those who push back against that humor are a threat to his free speech instead of people exercising their right to engage with the rhetoric he presented. He has become David Brent, cornering his staff to make shitty jokes in the conference room and throwing a fit when they don’t laugh, assuming the fact that he’s been paid to tell jokes obligates the audience to chuckle along.
In lieu of sharpening his humor, his reaction to that perceived persecution seems to be shutting down and lecturing other celebrities not to get political in their acceptance speeches, telling nominees, “You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world.”
While that could be true for many of the guests in attendance, including Gervais, who seems to know little about trans people, nor which of his jokes are casually sexist, there were people at the Globes who made political speeches that absolutely related to their lived experiences. One of them was Michelle Williams. She accepted her Golden Globe with the acknowledgment that she “wouldn’t have been able to do this without the woman’s right to choose.” She used her time on stage to encourage millions of women to vote for candidates who will protect abortion access, a topic Williams, who recently announced that she’s pregnant with her second child, is certainly in a position to speak publicly about.
After Gervais’s 2011 monologue, Vulture declared that most of the “mean” jokes Gervais told took shots at subjects deserving of ridicule: “It may not be ‘polite’ to invite someone to show up to a party and make fun of them to their face, but which of these topics—Charlie Sheen, The Tourist, the HFPA, Scientologists, Tim Allen—doesn’t deserve to be joked about?” A fair point, but calling a statement a joke doesn’t magically shield that statement from dissection and analysis. Just as celebrities in 2011 had the right to ask if maybe Ricky Gervais wasn’t a bit of an asshole, the marginalized groups at the center of his comedy have the right to ask why he can talk politics but they can’t talk back.
But this year, Gervais decided that if he was going to be criticized for punching down with his jokes, then he wasn’t going to be funny at all.