“Mean spirited”. That’s how Tom Hanks and Robert Downey-Junior described the presenting style of Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes last Sunday.
Now, I really like Ricky. But it was as if he felt this was his last chance to expose the Hollywood aristocracy for who they really are, to mortify them once and for all in front of, well, everyone.
Gervais knows what it is to have your work commercially and critically discarded. It’s only been relatively recently that he has enjoyed great success. So to attack others without mercy for their private and artistic failings is a risky enterprise. Once you realise you’re in a glass-house, it generally pays to start bowling rocks underarm.
But maybe Ricky sees himself in the grand tradition of ego-deflating truth-tellers. Chaucer, Pope, Swift, Shakespeare’s Fools, they all performed a vital function: telling the truth about vanity and vice when no-one else seemed brave enough.
The vital difference, however, was that at their best, these men identified with their targets. For all the hot coals that the Fool heaped on the head of Lear as he staggered wildly through the storm, there was the poignant sense that he cared for the King. There was tenderness in the teasing, sympathy in the scorn. He wanted to coax the King back from the brink, to save the man from himself, not shove him over the edge for the entertainment of others.
Maybe Ricky’s most telling joke on the night was his final one: “I want to thank God for making me an atheist.” Now, I don’t for a moment think that all atheists routinely treat other people as Ricky Gervais did last Sunday. But when you remove God from the picture, who is left to expose the truth about others – apart from ourselves? Who will make sure that justice is done – apart from us? It doesn’t help us to speak with gentleness and respect if we cannot rest in the knowledge that Gucci, gold statuettes and box office garlands will eventually be judged and found wanting.
“Mean spirited”? Thankfully, that’s not for me to judge.