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The Psychology of Ricky Gervais

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By now everybody has seen clips of Ricky Gervais' scorched earth emcee stint for the Golden Globe Awards, as well as selected negative reactions to it onscreen (Robert Downey Jr.) and off (HFPA officials), as well as homages to it.

Gervais himself has given several reactions to his performance and criticisms of it. In particular, he was interviewed by Piers Morgan for a full (television) hour on Morgan's new CNN show. He proved an evasive subject there, and elsewhere. It would seem to take a lot of balls to (potentially?) offend some of Hollywood's royalty including in addition to Downey, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp.

But Gervais says not. He says, alternately, that he doesn't care how people reacted, or that he thinks they're all fine with it. True, he hasn't checked in with them for their reactions, but Gervais claims, variously, (a) big stars can take a joke (why would super stars like Downey care about his comments?), (b) he didn't intend to hurt anyone's feelings (oh, so what if Charlie Sheen had too much to drink -- happens to us all), (c) his barbs involved no big revelations (it's not like Downey's experiences aren't well known), (d) he didn't expect to keep this gig long anyway, (e) his long-time "wife" (they're not married) of 30 years and his family and friends are supportive.

All of these might appear to be psychological defenses against incurring such a storm of criticism. They still leave unanswered what drives Gervais to attack the mighty -- or at least to tweak them irritatingly.

Is it that, due to his English origins and long gestation there before making an impact in the U.S., that he is an outsider and thus immune to Hollywood's cast system and values?

Or is his outsider status a result of his working class origins ("Where I grew up, they didn't expect you to go to medical school or become an international comedian -- they were happy if you didn't die in a bar brawl")?

Or does he really think Hollywood mores and its denizens are ridiculous and laughable -- primed to be deflated and assailed?

Gervais' very last comment on the broadcast -- thanking God for making him an atheist -- seemed to go one step beyond offending Hollywood and entertainment world insiders. As Morgan informed/queried him, he must surely know that the United States is a particularly devout nation, and that such a comment was bound to offend many in the television audience. Gervais' response was typically bland -- he didn't know/intend that at all; he can't help what he believes just as others -- Morgan described himself as a Christian -- can't help their beliefs.

Gervais gave this noncommittal answer even though he said he was raised attending a Christian Church and obviously somewhere along the line decided to reject what he was taught there. Is he really an underground fifth columnist trying to undercut our social institutions -- a latter-day Lenny Bruce?

In fact, the British and American versions of "The Office," which Gervais engendered and which lifted him to fame, examine a primary social venue of ordinary existence. The shows don't so much play off offices for humor as to depict these as places where deeply troubled people -- particularly the completely out-of-touch tyrant in charge of the space, played by Gervais in the UK -- live out psychotic scenes from Dante's inferno.

That's not everyone's cup of humor tea.