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Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais was too conservative to be shocking

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The supposed truth-teller's jokes just reinforced Hollywood's status quo

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Around two hours into the 2016 Golden Globes awards ceremony, host Ricky Gervais faced down one of the men he repeatedly targeted during his three previous gigs hosting the show. ("I like a drink as much as the next man," he said in 2010, "unless the next man is Mel Gibson.") Gibson joined Gervais onstage to present Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the Best Motion Picture nominees in the Drama category. Gervais acknowledged the potential awkwardness: "I'm sure it's embarrassing for both of us, okay. And I blame NBC for this terrible situation. Mel blames — we know who Mel blames."

That backhanded reminder of Mel Gibson's famous 2006 anti-Semitic rant during a DUI arrest — during which he reportedly called a female police sergeant "sugar-tits" and said, "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" — was about as confrontational as Gervais' comments got all evening. And even so, there was no hint of real edge as the two men half-hugged and traded mild jabs. Gervais closed it out by asking, "What the fuck does ‘sugar-tits' even mean?" "I dunno, ask the guy who said it. It wasn't me," Gibson responded. The bit wasn't out to make anyone uncomfortable, or even to find the dark humor in Gibson's unsettlingly public battles with alcoholism. It was about giving control of the narrative back to Gibson, while letting him play the role of a good guy who's game for a little friendly mockery. Gervais' former, mildly edgy joke about terrible behavior was transformed into an opportunity for Gibson to deny the event even happened.

"I've got to bite the hand that feeds me."

And that toothlessness typified a night where virtually nothing Gervais said was shocking, or even particularly pointed. After weeks of media lead-up, cringing over the possibility of more ugly, personal humor like the barbs that made headlines after Gervais hosted the Globes in 2010, 2011, and 2013, he was worse than mean-spirited: he was dull.

Making the press rounds before the show, Gervais let it be known that he'd been given the freedom to say whatever he wanted this year. "I've got to bite the hand that feeds me," he told Matt Lauer on Today. "I'd rather people laugh than gasp. But if they gasp, that's good, too." On Ellen, he told Ellen DeGeneres, "If I didn't drink, I wouldn't be brave enough to say some of the things I'm going to say." But his Golden Globes jokes didn't require liquid courage. They were mostly dated humor that echoed his past jokes, fell into well-worn, familiar ruts, or took on unworthy targets.

A few bits were authentically trying to provoke outrage, like the one addressing the fatal car crash involving Caitlyn Jenner: "I've changed," Gervais said, about taking it easier with his humor. "Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously... She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn't do a lot for women drivers, but you can't do everything." There's a particular tone-deafness to invoking Caitlyn Jenner's pre-gender-transition name at all (also known as "deadnaming"), but to use it as the punchline of a "women can't drive" joke that was hoary back in the 1950s is even more baffling. It makes light of an actual death, but there's nothing daring or subversive going on here. It's just a tired old establishment joke, coming from a place of smug privilege.

And that tone persisted throughout the night. Gervais took on trendy, fresh topics like Roman Polanski's 1977 rape of an underage girl. (On Spotlight, a film about child abuse within the Catholic Church: "Roman Polanski called it ‘the best date movie ever.'") He aimed at easy victims like Adam Sandler's reviled video-game comedy Pixels, saying The Martian (weirdly nominated in the Best Picture, Musical or Comedy category) was funnier, "but so was Schindler's List." Throughout all this there was the distinct feeling that we'd heard these jokes before. Poking fun at Mel Gibson yet again was only part of it — he referred to Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer's films as "Joy and Trainwreck. No, not the names of Charlie Sheen's favorite hookers," as if it was still 2011 and #winning was still a trending topic. Talking about how Donald Trump "can't wait to deport" Eva Longoria and America Ferrera wasn't that different from his weirdly racist shot at the accents of presenters Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek in 2012. ("I can't understand a fucking word they're saying.")

Kicking at his industry's underdogs and calling it "brave"

And he returned over and over to the familiar, exasperating last-ditch show-host jokes about how long the ceremony was running, and how bored he was. It's never encouraging when a host — the person supposedly responsible for selling the show, engaging the audience, keeping things moving, and being the event's enthusiastic public face — makes a point of disengaging, of trying to be too cool for the job while still doing the job. But Gervais' disdain for the Globes was the evening's one running gag: "Don't get emotional. It's embarrassing," he pre-advised the winners during his opening monologue. "[A Golden Globe is], no offense, worthless. It's a bit of metal that some nice, old, confused journalists wanted to give you in person so they could meet you and have a selfie with you."

This sort of clear-eyed disillusionment would work better if Gervais wasn't consistently punching down. In isolation, a lot of his humor seems innocuous or random, like his joke about where Jeffrey Tambor puts his testicles while playing a trans character on Transparent. ("I've seen his balls — they're huge, and long.") But looking over the entire ceremony, there was that disturbing tendency to target earnest, ambitious Hollywood players working for diversity or equality. Addressing a groundbreaking show about gender transition by mocking Tambor for wearing a dress ("he reminds me of my nan") is as conservative as it gets. Other targets included Jennifer Lawrence, for championing equal pay for female actors, even though she personally is well paid. ("There were marches on the street with nurses and factory workers saying ‘How the hell can a 25-year-old live on $52 million?'") And then he tried to have it both ways by tweaking the rise of female-centric film remakes and the pay gap: "This is brilliant for the studios, 'cause they get guaranteed box-office results, and they don't have to spend too much money on the cast."

Gervais' awards-host humor in previous years has been problematic, because it's so often narrow and cheap, or as Robert Downey Jr. called it in 2011, "hugely mean-spirited, with mildly sinister undertones." But at least some of it was considered shocking because it was addressing uncomfortable Hollywood truths, like plastic surgery and the age barrier for women, or current power players like Downey Jr. himself. "People confuse the subject of the joke with the target of the joke, and they're very rarely the same," Gervais said in a 2012 Esquire interview, refusing to "apologize" for that year's hosting gig. "Let's get this in perspective: they're the wealthiest, most privileged people in the world." And when he's talking about someone like Gibson, or Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp, or Kim Kardashian — or when he's relentlessly targeting himself, as he did for years with the self-accusing or self-effacing humor of The Office and Extras — he may have an arguable point.

But at the 2016 Globes, the targets weren't really Jeffrey Tambor, Jennifer Lawrence, or Caitlyn Jenner. Gervais was dismissive of what they stood for — a TV show centering on a trans woman, a famous actress calling attention to systemic sexism in her industry. When the Esquire reporter wondered why the Academy hadn't offered him a hosting gig yet, Gervais complained that "Hollywood's gotten more reactionary and conservative over the years." Maybe so, but judging from the direction of Gervais' actual jokes, he's every bit as conservative. The problem isn't that he's not raw, crass, or confrontational enough. It's that he's kicking at his industry's underdogs and calling it "brave." Maybe a few more drinks might have given him the courage to take on some more worthy targets.