There has been a firestorm of criticism cast at British comedian Ricky Gervais, following a caustic performance as host of the Golden Globes. The zingers were harsh and penetrating, drawing from the public indiscretions of actors like Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey, Jr. The comedic onslaught prompted defensive reactions from some actors and comedians the night of the show, from a defensive Robert Downey, Jr. to a holier-than-thou Tom Hanks. The only thing that it proved is that Americans can't take a joke.
In defense of his fellow thespians, Tom Hanks had the following to say: "We can recall back when Ricky Gervais was a slightly chubby but very kind comedian." Clearly, Tom Hanks knows nothing about Ricky Gervais. The Office creator always has had biting wit that travels well beyond the realm of humor into the land of discomfort. From his BBC programs to his stand-up comedy, Gervais has the unfailing ability to poke fun at the vanity and self-absorption of society and its mindless denizens. What better target than a room full of rich, coddled entertainers?
The frosty reaction last night and the fiery one in the media today show how uptight Americans really are. The American stereotype of the British is that they are stodgy and uptight, wearing powdery wigs and raising their pinkies as they consume tea and crumpets. We think of Buckingham Palace and Shakespeare. Whenever we want an erudite character on a TV show or in a movie, we slap on a British accent. After having spent two years living in the north of England, I learned that it was Americans that were the uptight ones. You don't believe me? Watch American Congress in session, and then watch British Parliament in session.
The British don't care about trivial things like some bare skin. They were thoroughly perplexed by our outrage at Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at Super Bowl XXXVIII. Why wouldn't they be? They have topless women on "Page 3" of The Sun, one of Britain's largest tabloid newspapers. They're not nearly as censored and, as a result, aren't nearly as sensitive to various forms of entertainment. Maybe because of this, they don't take themselves so seriously (or maybe because they don't take themselves so seriously, they enjoy that lack of censorship) and are able to laugh at themselves -- something that they often achieve through brutal sarcasm. It can be difficult to take and humbling, but a dose of humility is good for everyone. Knowing that, Ricky Gervais is equally merciless with himself in his comedy.
I'm sure it's that sarcasm that keeps him grounded in the face of great success, which often breeds an insular sycophantism to which most celebrities seem to fall victim. He could easily rest on the laurels of The Office and toe the Hollywood line, characterized by self-congratulatory navel-gazing and back-slapping. Instead, he takes Hollywood head-on. So, go ahead, criticize him, crucify him, disinvite him, and ban him. Unlike most Americans, he welcomes it.