by Brently Johnson, English Department
Berglund Fellow, Associate Professor, Pacific University
“England and America are two countries separated by a common language” –George Bernard Shaw
Ricky Gervais, the British actor and comedian, raised the hackles of many Americans a few years back for his “disrespectful” and “mean-spirited” sense of humor as host of the Golden Globe Awards. He took jabs at Hollywood, poked at producers, and was bleeped a healthy number of times. Michael Russnow, despite claims that he is “not a prude”, went on to write for the Huffington Post that it was Gervais’ “lapses in judgment that resulted in so-called jokes that were in severely bad taste.” Russnow spoke for many American critics it seemed (“the opposite of dull and deferential is not snotty and abusive”—LA Times; “Are we at war with England? If not, then why have we been subjected to two years of Gervais hosting the Golden Globe Awards?”—Washington Post) appalled at how shock standup might pass for primetime humor. In the UK, The Telegraph ran these headlines on Gervais’ act: “Golden Globes 2012: Ricky Gervais Falls Flat.” At first glance, it might have appeared that the Brits, too, were equally dismayed, but, reading on, the article faulted Gervais not so much for his ability to insult, but for the “missed open goals” to lampoon poorly made films and the actors receiving awards for them, Madonna being a particularly glaring oversight. 
Granted, Gervais was invited back two more times as host, perhaps because many Americans “got” his sense of humor after all, or perhaps, as I am more prone to believe, shock and abuse are synonyms for better ratings. Gervais upset both the US protocol for humor as well as our protocol for imagined Brits: eloquent, demure, deferential, i.e. Colin Firth’s elegant acceptance for his award for the King’s Speech.