Entry from January 18, 2011

In yesterday’s Washington Post, critic Hank Stuever panned the Golden Globe Awards show the night before on account of the antics of its Master of Ceremonies: “Are we at war with England?” he asked. “If not, then why have we been subjected to two years of Gervais hosting the Golden Globe Awards, witnessing a growing hostility between the British comedian and a resentful audience of celebs?” At a couple of points, indeed, the critic seemed to suggest that violence was in order by writing that “you kept hoping the crowd would rise up and pummel Gervais” and, later: “who wouldn’t be surprised if someone didn’t bully Gervais the moment school lets out tomorrow?” His objection to the comedian’s performance was expressed during the show itself by one of its celebrity victims, Robert Downey Jr. who, said Mr Gervais, was known to many of those present at the ceremony “from such facilities as the Betty Ford Clinic and Los Angeles County Jail.” Mr Downey Jr. then came on and replied with a witticism of his own: “Aside from the fact that it’s been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I’d say the vibe of the show has been pretty good so far, wouldn’t you?”

In today’s Washington Post, Mr Stuever was at it again, panning another TV Brit, Larry King’s replacement on CNN, Piers Morgan, for the opposite failing to that of Mr Gervais. Instead of being insulting and “mean-spirited,” Mr Morgan had done nothing but suck up to his opening night’s guest, Oprah Winfrey. His interview with her, he wrote, had “made Barbara Walters”s interview with her last month look like a performance of Frost/ Nixon.” We gather that David Frost (yet another Brit, by the way) once upon a time got the balance between toughness and sycophancy right. Along the way, however, Mr Stuever himself showed a touch of the mean-spiritedness he deplored by characterizing CNN”s other anchors as “Blitzer, Spitzer, Blinkin” and Blonde.” Isn’t that always the way of it? How hard it does seem to be — as Paul Krugman and Eric Fuller, just to name a couple, have discovered — to condemn the incivility of others without being uncivil oneself!

But then what’s this? Has Mr Stuever changed his mind about Ricky Gervais. In mentioning that the “mean-spirited” comedian was to be Mr Morgan’s guest later this week, he added that his “Golden Globe Awards hosting gig on Sunday was either the most brilliant bit of postmodern Hollywood humor or an unfunny flop. (Jury still out.)” The jury hadn’t still been out yesterday. And, anyway, how could it be trying to decide between “the most brilliant bit of postmodern Hollywood humor” and “an unfunny flop.” Funny is one of those things that you either are or you aren’t. Juries are unnecessary. Could it be that, between yesterday and today, Mr Stuever was beginning to suspect that he might have failed to get the joke? That must be what that word “postmodern” is doing there.

I myself had thought many of Mr Gervais’s wickedest and most “mean-spirited” jokes were brilliantly funny, but then I don’t have the sort of liberal conscience which thinks that some kinds of laughter is so morally compromising to be laughed at, that decency demands we pretend it isn’t funny. Now, apparently, if our denial that the joke is funny is itself laughable, we can right ourselves again by calling it “post-modern” — post-modern jokes presumably being the kind in response to which laughter is optional. In fact, there is nothing post-modern about making comic insults of people to their faces. Don Rickles was doing it before the term was even invented. No, what was truly outrageous about Mr Gervais’s humor was the act of l se-majesté against the cult of celebrity. People make insulting jokes about politicians all the time, but celebrities? That does seem to be stepping over some kind of line.

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