Ricky Gervais returned as host of the Golden Globes this week, and as sure as night follows day and regret follows the purchase of a hoverboard, his routine sparked off yet another chorus of controversy.
The comic himself predicted it, tweeting “Better get dressed and offend some humourless c—s, I suppose” before the ceremony even began. Whether or not you agree with his characterisation of the many people who took exception, Gervais certainly achieved his objective from the first moment he took to the stage, nursing a beer as a palpable symbol of his disdain for the audience and the gig.
While the Oscars may be the movie awards night with prestige, the Golden Globes have become the ones that are reliably funny. Whether Gervais or the equally acerbic Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are at the helm, the room will regularly fill with the sound of uproarious laughter instead of the trite standing ovations you get at the Academy Awards.
They’ve turned the night into an industry roast whose fire temporarily cleanses Hollywood of the smug self-congratulation that is otherwise its default setting. Nothing is sacred – including, in one of Gervais’ more memorable gags this year, the priesthood itself.
Which brings us to the night’s most controversial joke, the Caitlyn Jenner gag, which illustrates why edgy material often gets bigger laughs. As soon as she was mentioned, there was an intake of breath in the room. How, Hollywood wanted to know, would Gervais make a joke on this topic funny rather than abominable? His attempt involved her perpetrating negative stereotypes of female drivers, thanks to a fatal car accident.
Ouch, right? When I summarise it in those terms, it sounds awful. But listening back, in the moment, it’s certain that the joke got one of his bigger laughs And it achieved that result because mentioning a sensitive subject raises the audience’s hackles pre-emptively, but also increases the chances of a really huge laugh. Sacred cows can be the most rewarding to prick.
Watching back, the Jenner joke somehow bypassed the crowd’s rational analytical processes and made the cream of Hollywood laugh despite themselves. Cutaways of some of the actors in the room betrayed a degree of sheepishness – Jamie Lee Curtis looked thoroughly disapproving, for instance. But she still had a chortle.
I won’t add to the many analyses of the joke published elsewhere – like dissecting a souffle, picking humour apart inevitably ruins even a perfectly defensible joke. If you laughed, you laughed; if not, the line didn’t work. A joke’s success ultimately reflects how many of our involuntary humour buttons it manages to push. And there’s a place for material that makes us groan, too.
The joy of comedy is that it entertains us despite our better judgment. It appeals to our actual sense of humour, not an affectation. You can fake trendy musical taste by memorising Pitchfork (I’ve tried), but you can’t fake the genuine belly-laugh when a comedian hits one out of the park.
The unvarnished honesty of audiences is what makes comedy rewarding, but it’s also what makes it difficult. Being funny is hard at the best of times, and being funny amid the general torpor of awards nights is about as hard as it gets, which is why even certifiable geniuses like David Letterman haven’t been invited back to the Academy Awards.
While it probably means that we’re all terrible people, there can be little doubt that humour is getting meaner. We’ve travelled from the gentle situation comedy of Family Ties, via Seinfeld with its total lack of likeable characters, to Amy Schumer, who doesn’t so much poke fun at things as burn them to the ground. Bless her for it.
When comedy is cruel, it sometimes chooses a sacrosanct target, or misses a blow. In that case, it delivers a wince rather than a laugh. But that doesn’t mean comedians shouldn’t try to hit the right targets, and hit them hard.
And when they fall short, we should react with indifference rather than fury, unless we want comedy that only ever delivers benign, bored smiles. If we keep tarring and feathering our edgy humorists, we’ll only have the dull ones left.
Personally, I’d rather Ricky Gervais delivered lots of big laughs and a few “ooh, that wasn’t quite right” moments than a lifetime of inoffensive comics doing safe material. Otherwise, we’ll have to watch the Golden Globes for the awards, and that would be far more painful than a few off-target one-liners.