Hollywood is buzzing and griping about the manner in which Ricky Gervais chose to host the Golden Globe Awards last night. The L.A. Times pronounced him “too nasty,” and it was clear as the night went on that his pointed and often personal jibes at the film and television egomaniacs filling the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton were often infuriating or embarrassing his targets. There was even speculation during the show (via Twitter) that he had been fired mid-ceremony.
Gervais, a British comic famous for his free-wheeling satire and fearless wit, did indeed charge across the line that divides “all in fun” from “in your face.” The conscious choice he made was in fact a brave, if not necessarily correct, resolution of a classic ethical problem. Gervais had simultaneous obligations to multiple stake-holders, whose interests were, to some extent, in conflict. How should he prioritize them?
The stakeholders who Gervais had duties to serve by hosting the Golden Globes were:
- The live audience, including nominees and their families along with other show business insiders and celebrities. This was, in theory, his true audience. His job: make the show lively, and make sure they have a good time.
- His employers, the Hollywood foreign press association, the producers of the Golden Globe ceremonies and NBC. Their objective: get publicity, high ratings, good reviews, and bigger audiences next year.
- The television audience. They wanted something worth watching, which TV award shows virtually never provide.
It is certainly possible to meet the needs of all three sets of stake-holders by striking a reasonable balance between their conflicting needs and expectations. Billy Crystal is generally believed to have achieved this in his successful stints as host at the Oscars. The problem facing Gervais was that his style is more acerbic than Crystal’s. Tone down Ricky Gervais, and you don’t have much: a milder, less intense Gervais hosted the Golden Globes last year and was widely panned for being slack and boring. The comic obviously looked upon this year’s awards as a chance at redemption, as well as a test of his own integrity. Trying to be something he is not (harmless and diplomatic) last year, he failed to give any of his stakeholders what they had a right to expect: when you hire Rickey Gervais, you should get Ricky Gervais. As the Golden Globes approached, he repeatedly warned anyone who would listen that he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
I think he made the right choice. The television audience got the Full Gervais, and a riveting night of spontaneous entertainment spiked with some genuine tension, as several stars took swipes at the host when their turns at the microphone arrived. Gervais’s employers got a show that can only help pump up future ratings and the Golden Globes’ reputation as one awards show worth watching.
By any assessment, Gervais’s treatment of the flesh and blood audience in the room with him bordered on wretched and disrespectful; it was certainly rude. If the show was not being televised, I would have no choice but to pronounce Gervais ungracious and incompetent, because then his sole duty would be to entertain the attendees. But the live audience last night was made up of show business professional, and they, of all people, should have appreciated the fact that Ricky Gervais was working, being as entertaining as he could in the manner that has made him famous and popular. They should have realized that his first duty was to make the public laugh, and they should have been able to accept his mild abuse without rancor.
In short, Gervais maintained his integrity and delivered on his obligations to his most important stakeholders. He jettisoned his duty to the remaining set of stakeholders, the Golden Globes attendees, but they didn’t suffer much, and as entertainers themselves, they should sympathize with his dilemma and respect his decision.