If you missed it, GawkerTV has the entire four-minute clip here.
For what it's worth, here's my take:
As a comedian, and as someone who has been accused on more than one occasion, by various friends, family members and ex-lovers, of having a touch of Tourette Syndrome (or at the very least an insufficient filter), I don't think there's such a thing as going too far in comedy. "Nothing is inappropriate in this house," Lily Tomlin says in "Flirting With Disaster," and that's a motto by which I've lived. I watch those Comedy Central roasts (and the infamous Friar's Club roasts of yore) with a mixture of wonder and glee, anxious to see just how far people will push the envelope in the service of a laugh. It thrills me, and in a very deep way, it's what comedy is supposed to do.
I also think awards shows, especially one as meaningless as the Golden Globes (which are chosen by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a corrupt shadow organization made up of 90 journalists no one's ever heard of) are ripe for the ripping. (Remember: This is the group that awarded Pia Zadora a Globe for 1982's "Butterfly.")
So the question, given all of the above, is this: Did Gervais go too far, and was he funny?
He ain't pretty -- that's for sho'.
I'll deal with the second part of the question first:
When I watched Gervais's monologue the first time, I found myself gasping with pleasure, shocked and delighted that he was hitting it so hard from the get-go. Watching it again this morning, I'm not so sure. The punchline to the opening joke, about Charlie Sheen's antics in the New York hotel room, was rather flimsy: "That was a Monday; what did [Sheen] do New Year's Eve?" That's a punchline just about any new bringer comic could come up with in about 30 seconds. Moreover, the hotel incident happened in October -- three months ago. That's an eternity, in terms of topical comedy. Why open a live show that's being watched by millions with a stale, hackneyed bit? Why not at least update it with Sheen's more recent shenanigans at the AVN Awards in Vegas?
Then Gervais segued into "The Tourist," joking that the acting was two-dimensional, the HFPA was bribed into nominating it and no one had even seen the film -- all of which are accurate. This was probably his ballsiest joke, and it was, indeed, funny. (Although I didn't care for the swipe at Cher. Gervais is showing his age and irrelevance if he thinks only people living in the 70s would want to see her in concert.)
The airbrushed "Sex and The City 2" poster joke was decent. "I saw one of you in an episode of Bonanza!" was a great tag.
Still haven't seen it!
Then came the bomb(shell): Gervais's joke about the famous closeted gay Scientologists. This line was met with a chorus of groans and boos and is the one everyone's talking about today. From a political standpoint -- that is, as an openly gay man/performer who believes that the closet damages our community more than any "God Hates Fags" protester could ever hope to -- I loved that Gervais said this. I would have loved it even more had he come right out and said, "John Travolta and Tom Cruise." (He did at least add the tag: "Don't worry, they're not here.") But funny? Eh. Like the Sheen joke, it seems rather obvious. In fact, it seems like something Kathy Griffin would have said -- and has said -- five years ago. And she would have said it funnier.
Next Gervais trained his sights on Hugh Hefner and his marriage to a women six decades younger. Good stuff, especially the "Just don't look at it when you touch it," line. And unlike the Sheen joke, the Hef material is utterly current. But I can imagine Leno, Letterman, Conan et al having already made the same joke in the past couple weeks (albeit, not as edgily as Gervais's). The joke was good; but the premise is already a bit hack.
So while I believe Gervais is a stellar comic, I'm giving the monologue a B-. When one considers that he probably had a team of professional writers backing him up, the grade slips to a C+.
Now the other part of the question: Was it too mean?
To give you my take on this, I offer a parable:
During my ill-fated attempt at living on the West Coast, my Aunt Marcia came to see me perform at a new comedy club called the Mad House. The Mad House was in suburban San Diego. It opened as a sort of challenge to San Diego's one and only true comedy club, the Comedy Store in La Jolla. In fact, most of the Mad House's staff -- including its co-owner -- were defectors from the Store. For those of us who found the Store to be a grim, way-past-its-peak shithole, the Mad House was a Godsend -- a place that treated comedians like human beings and booked them because they were funny. Of course, the Mad House, like my entire existence in San Diego, ended in dismal failure. The club got shut down for having an improper liquor license... two days before I was booked to headline there.
RIP, Mad House.
But back to Aunt Marcia. She had recently moved to San Diego and came to see me in a Mad House showcase where I did about 15 minutes. It was a great night. The place was packed, the lineup of comics was on their game, and I had a killer set. Then, for the check spot, one of the club favorites got up. I won't say his name because I genuinely like him and don't want this to come off like a burn on him; it's not. (San Diego comics reading this will know who it is.) Let's call him Matt Christianson.
Matt had had a few too many. Even sober, he was known for going off the rails on-stage -- chucking his material and just sort of riffing for the entire set. I'd seen him do this before and admired his courage and quick mind. But this particular night, he was just drunk. Drunk and progressively belligerent. The crowd grew increasingly weary of him, and everyone started furiously motioning to the waiters for their checks. Towards the end of Matt's set, he started doing some "crowd work." (Note the quotation marks.) "Are you a Jew?" he demanded of one of the patrons in the front row as she signed her credit card slip. "You're a Jew, aren't you! Jew! Let's see what kind of cheap tip you left, Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew! Jew!"
I found this rather hilarious. Aunt Marcia did not.
Don't mess with Marcia.
A few words about Aunt Marcia: She is in her mid-70s. She is a highly educated, extremely articulate person with an enormous heart. She's also something of a character, and it's been suggested by some that I inherited my lack of filter from her. But to Aunt Marcia, who was a young teenager when the horrors of the Holocaust were unfolding, there is absolutely nothing funny about a non-Jewish person standing on-stage angrily yelling "Jew!" In fact, it's rather frightening. "Listen to me," she told me the next day on the phone, as I tried explaining that Matt truly wasn't an anti-Semitic person. "You stay away from that guy. He is dangerous."
What bummed me out most about the experience was that Aunt Marcia had had a wonderful time up until that point. And instead of leaving the show feeling a sense of joy and catharsis -- which is what the best comedy can evoke -- she felt uncomfortable and troubled. Which is what the worst comedy can evoke.
Do I think Ricky Gervais's monologue was the equivalent of someone screaming "Jew?" I do not. But I do think he failed as a comedian in much the same way my friend Matt failed at the Mad House that night. Because at the end of the day, he made the room uncomfortable. I actually think Robert Downey Jr. had the smartest line of the night when he said: "Aside from the fact that it's been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I'd say the vibe of the show has been pretty good so far, wouldn't you?"
The art of comedy is to both provoke and entertain. Not just to shock people -- but to shock them into laughter. So that they find themselves thinking, "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm laughing at this, but I can't help it!" More importantly, the host of an event sets the tone. And the tone of a nationally televised awards show should not be the same as that of a Comedy Central roast. It should be irreverent and poking fun at all the pretentious bullshit while at the same time respectful to the people sitting in the room and watching at home. This an incredibly difficult task, whether one is hosting a back-room comedy show for five people or hosting the Globes. But it can be done, and for someone with Ricky Gervais's immense talents (and the aforementioned team of writers behind him), it should be done.
So in the final analysis: Was it unfunny because it was too mean? No -- it was too mean because it was unfunny.
Homo out. ♥
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