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An Unexpected Globes from Gervais: No Harm, No Foul, No Memories

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Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Gervais showed up without a tie and, for the most part, without his fangs.

Performance, like politics, has a lot to do with setting expectations. Ricky Gervais’ hosting performance at last year’s Golden Globes was incendiary partly for its content–acid jokes about Scientology, corruption and Robert Downey Jr.–but also because Gervais had hosted just the year before and performed a decent but tame monologue.

So if this year’s Gervais outing seemed a little, well, decent and tame, it was partly because of the content (which included zingers against such risky targets as Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber and NBC’s low ratings). It was also because Gervais’ performance in 2011 had gone from brief Hollywood scandal to marketing tool: a prominent topic in profiles of Gervais and a running theme in NBC’s publicity and in jokes within the show. Gervais even did a bit reading from a list of “forbidden topics” he said the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave him. Oooh, watch out! What will Ricky say next!

Truth be told, last year’s “scandal” was short-lived. Hollywood forgave, if it was ever truly annoyed to begin with; Johnny Depp gamely shows up on Gervais’ upcoming HBO series, Life’s Too Short, to reference his roasting at last year’s show, and did the same with Gervais on stage last night. (Gervais, who said in 2011 that no one had watched Depp’s nominated film The Tourist, asked if Depp had watched it yet.)

The fact is, comedy can only be so subversive when that subversion gets you invited back by the target in the hopes of generating bigger ratings. If anything, Gervais held back. One joke played off the scene in Bridesmaids in which a character defecated in a sink, which, he told the audience, was “still less demeaning than what most of you have done” to get here. It was a funny line, but last year, he would have gone with “still less demeaning than [insert specific, mean-but-true reference to a lousy movie starring valorized celebrity].” He dropped a bleeped F-bomb, in service of a tepid joke about Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas’ accents. Only at the show’s very end did a barb really hit home, in the spirit of Occupy the Beverly Hilton: “I hope you enjoyed the goody bags and the champagne and the gold,” he told his departing crowd. “I hope that took your mind off the recession for a little while.”

MORE: Richard Corliss on the Globes’ film winners

Weirdly, the celebrities seemed to be trying to out-Ricky Ricky, especially when it came to working blue. Apparently the hot accessory to bring to this year’s Globes as a penis joke, with Seth Rogen saying that he was “currently trying to conceal a massive erection” and George Clooney pantomiming Michael Fassbender of Shame playing golf, nude, with his hands behind his back.

As for the TV winners, I’m going to follow my practice of not getting overly excited or outraged at the Globes’ choices, which are near-random and have little bearing on honors like the Emmys. There were deserving winners (Peter Dinklage, Laura Dern, Claire Danes) and puzzling ones (Matt LeBlanc in a fine but not spectacular role in Episodes) and good-enough ones (Homeland was not as great a drama last year as Breaking Bad, but it was close enough and Breaking Bad was not nominated at all).

It could not have delighted NBC that it was shut out–the only major TV win for a broadcaster was Modern Family’s–but the network tried to lay the groundwork for next year by running an ad for Smash every fifteen seconds. (I saw Anjelica Huston throw a drink in that dude’s face so often I think I have a stain on my shirt from it.) Beyond that it was a big night for cable, and a stronger then usual night for Showtime, recognized for both Homeland and Episodes.

And it was largely the winners, not the host, who delivered the closest thing to memorable moments from the podium. Peter Dinklage, winning for Game of Thrones, invited us to Google Martin Henderson, a fellow actor and little person recently paralyzed in a vicious tossing attack, reminding viewers that dwarf-tossing is not a punchline but a very real, barbaric practice that still exists. Sidney Poitier honored Morgan Freeman’s career, setting up a highlight reel that included, for TV fans, an early Electric Company clip among Freeman’s many movie landmarks. And Modern Family producer Steve Levitan hilariously mistranslated an acceptance in Spanish by Sofia Vergara, asking women at afterparties to give their phone numbers to the show’s creative team: “They may look pasty and out of shape, but they’re the greatest lovers I’ve ever had.”

It was in the Globes’ none-too-serious spirit, and a better line than nearly any from the host.  Maybe his heart wasn’t in it, or maybe last year’s outing was just not reproducible—maybe there are only so many jokes you can do about stars’ and awards’ corruption and vanity until it becomes shtick itself and you’re stuck with “Like a Virgin” jokes from 1984. Either way, Gervais spent most of the night out of his discomfort zone. Is it possible to disinvite a host for offending too few people?

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