When Ricky Gervais first hosted the Golden Globes, in 2010—promising, “It’s OK, folks, I won’t be doing this again”—it seemed he might become the best kind of one-hit wonder, burning Hollywood self-satisfaction so badly he’d have to run himself out of town.
By the time his three-year stint came to an end in 2012, however, Gervais turned his discerning comic eye to lower-hanging fruit (Eddie Murphy, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association), and the nervous titter in the audience that made his initial appearance such surprising, uncomfortable viewing became a warm embrace. Whether he softened his material or we simply got used to him, Gervais was by then a familiar cog in the awards-season machine, dulling his once-sharp edges. (Watch a compilation of his three times as host in the video above.)
With the news that Gervais will resume hosting duties at the 73rd Golden Globe Awards (after a great run from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) in January, along with the choice of Chris Rock as host of the 2016 Academy Awards, it appears that any real revolution in the approach to awards shows will have to wait. Of course, both men are reliably funny, prickly stage presences, and both—as evidenced by Gervais’ stinging TV series, “Extras,” and Rock’s recent showbiz satire, “Top Five”— have testy relationships with celebrity culture.
But neither seems likely to disrupt the moribund format contributing to the award shows’ ratings woes, subject of much hand-wringing in recent years. (Fact is, ratings depend on the box office popularity of the movies that are vying for top awards.) Gervais and Rock are “edgy” selections, in a way, but the HFPA and AMPAS can trust that their most sacred cows are quite safe.
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Perhaps still smarting from James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s memorably disastrous attempt to make the Oscars skew “younger,” the Academy has reined in the experimentation of late, with lackluster results. (I can still feel the slime of Seth MacFarlane’s egregious smarm.) But if Neil Patrick Harris—whose weekly variety hour, “Best Time Ever” (NBC), is full of anarchic, family-friendly glee—can’t enliven the telecast, it seems to me that the real problem is “the awards show” itself.
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After all, beyond the opening monologue, of which former Globes hosts Fey & Poehler are the undeniable masters (video below), hosts are primarily the bridge between celebrity presenters, acceptance speeches, and the requisite montages of Hollywood magic. (Honorable mention to Whoopi Goldberg for her 1999 Oscars entrance in costume as Queen Elizabeth I.) The result is that even those hosts who’ve “crossed the line,” as then-HFPA Philip Berk said of Gervais in 2011, tend to get lost in the shuffle, inevitably subsumed by the rules of the game.
Which brings us to the question of why, exactly, we tune in for awards shows. With so much attention paid to predicting the eventual winners, surprises have become fewer and further between, but there’s still a shiver of potential in every opening of the envelope. From Meryl Streep’s hilarious speech at the Golden Globes after winning for “Adaptation” and Julia Roberts’ “I love it up here!” upon winning the Oscar for “Erin Brockovich” to Taraji P. Henson’s effusive celebration of Viola Davis’ “How to Get Away with Murder” Emmy victory just last month, it’s still the unexpected, sincere pleasure that comes with being honored that we remember the next day, or the next year.
Gervais and Rock won’t be able to do much to move either the Globes or the Oscars away from speeches timed so tight that reading from index cards and listing names is the structure du jour, and so the awards shows will likely continue to shortchange what best differentiates them from other programs. I’m sure their jokes will be “edgy,” maybe even controversial, but it’s the “You like me! You really like me!” moments that keep us tuning in.