If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly among the millions of people around the world who have watched clips of Ricky Gervais’s opening monologue at the 2020 Golden Globes.
You’ll already know the most widely shared lines: Leonardo DiCaprio’s date growing too old for him during the runtime of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood; film executives cowering in terror of Ronan Farrow; The Two Popes being a paedophile movie.
Or maybe you’ve only seen the climax, Gervais calling out his audience of film stars: “You say you’re woke but the companies you work for in China — unbelievable. Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?
"So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.
"So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent, and your God and f*** off, OK?”
Perhaps you flinched at a mean-spirited mockery of those willing to stand up for a cause, an old man yelling at the clouds. Perhaps you laughed at a scathing takedown of Hollywood sermonising in all its bedazzled hypocrisy. Perhaps you fall somewhere in between.
Before condemning Gervais as a cynical elitist, remember the humanity of his best work
Personally, I’m with comedian Colin Quinn, who tweeted: ‘my opinion on the @rickygervais fiasco?? Not ok! I didnt think he was right for going after Apple, Amazon and Hollywood superstars because I don’t believe in punching down!’
Or Gervais himself: ‘I didn't roast Hollywood for being a bunch of liberals. I myself am a liberal. Nothing wrong with that. I roasted them for wearing their liberalism like a medal. I'm such a snowflake, liberal, I can't even really hate them for it. But my job is to take the piss. I did that.’
But regardless of your opinion, of both Gervais and his performance, within a week the world will have moved on, and by the time the Oscars roll around next month – hosted or not – I doubt many people will remember the jokes currently being condemned / celebrated in every media outlet and flying around social media.
This isn’t surprising. As the man himself said, they’re just jokes.
But those who condemn Gervais as a sneering, cynical elitist would do well to remember the work that allowed him on that stage – for a record fifth hosting stint – to make those jokes in the first place.
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Take The Office, still and always his masterpiece. The true story of this nigh-on perfect show wasn’t the hapless, hopeless – yet ultimately redeemed – David Brent, but the faltering love story between Tim and Dawn: the hopeful, heartbreaking glances, their shared laughter that added a moment of colour to an otherwise grey existence.
Or Extras. Yes, the hook was the film stars who relentlessly sent themselves up (or rather allowed Gervais to send themselves up). Daniel Radcliffe accidently throwing a condom onto Diana Rigg’s head; Clive Owen refusing to kiss an extra he considered too ugly for him; Robert DeNiro being fascinated by a novelty pen that showed a woman losing her clothes.
However, the heart of the show was provided by Ashley Jenson’s brilliant performance as Maggie, the amiable, idiot savant best friend of Gervais’s ambitious and shallow Andy Millman. The climax is not Millman accepting the Oscar – or even the Golden Globe – he so nakedly craves but him breaking down in tears in the Big Brother House, telling Maggie – now working as a cleaner – that her friendship is the best thing in his life, the only thing that’s worth anything.
The legacy of Ricky Gervais isn’t a few barbed quips at some award ceremony
Or then there’s After Life, his 2019 Netflix show depicting a suicidal man searching for reasons to keep living after the death of his wife from breast cancer. His hatred of the world, and budding misanthropy, are thwarted by the unremitting decency of his fellow humans: demonstrated in multiple characters from his brother-in-law to the widow he encounters at his wife’s grave.
God, Gervais really hates the modern world, eh?
After Life is up for a National Television Award for best comedy, and while I hope it wins – you can vote here – in truth, like the best of Gervais, the show offers far more than mere laughter. (Not that there can ever be anything ‘mere’ about laughter.)
The legacy of Ricky Gervais isn’t a few barbed quips at some award ceremony. It’s Tim removing his microphone to silently profess his love to Dawn (she says no). It’s Andy Millman passing up the chance to meet his idol DeNiro to join Maggie at the bedside of a sick boy. It’s the moment Sandy begs Tony to be happy – and that she can't wait for someone to love her as much as he loves his wife.
The Golden Globes, after all, were just jokes.
The work is so much more.