Ricky Gervais may have indeed "warned" the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. that he'd pull no comedic punches and spare none of Hollywood's sacred cows in reprising his hosting role on the 68th Golden Globes broadcast.

Nonetheless, a visible contingent in the glitzy crowd on Sunday night was palpably discomfited by the British comic's full-frontal joke assault, which set a corrosive tone for this year's ceremony that was reflected by both on-stage repartee and backstage opprobrium.

Gervais' opening remarks, which snark-blog Gawker dubbed "one of the most unrelentingly harsh and uncomfortable monologues in awards show history," skewered 64-year-old Cher's status as a senior citizen, needled 84-year-old Hugh Hefner as "the walking dead" and made mincemeat of the critically drubbed (yet Golden Globe-nominated) Angelina Jolie- Johnny Depp heist-thriller "The Tourist."

But that was only a warm-up. He went on to question the sexual orientation of high-profile entertainment industry Scientologists and — talk about biting the hand that feeds — suggested that the HFPA had accepted bribes (as a recent lawsuit has alleged).

After introducing Robert Downey Jr. as someone better known for his stays "at the Betty Ford Clinic and the L.A. County Jail" than for his movie roles, the "Iron Man" star felt compelled to address the situation.

"Aside from the fact that it's been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I'd say the show's going pretty good so far, wouldn't you?" Downey asked.

Among Gervais' other victims: Bruce Willis (" Ashton Kutcher's dad") and HFPA President Phillip Berk ("I had to help the HFPA president off the toilet and pop his teeth back in!")

In a moment that made light of the HFPA's decision to disqualify Gervais' comedy "The Invention of Lying" from Globe contention in 2009, though, Berk gave the star of the English version of "The Office" back as good as he got: "Ricky, the next time you want someone to qualify your movies, go to another guy," Berk fired back in accented English.

While attendees such as Guy Pearce and Sean "Diddy" Combs heartily endorsed the comedian's low blows — "I think he's doing an excellent job," Combs exclaimed, "I'm really enjoying it!" — certain presenters hedged their bets with mixed praise. "He's been terribly nasty and horribly rude, and I think he's genius," said "The Social Network" costar Andrew Garfield. But some guests, including veteran Hollywood producer Richard D. Zanuck, could hardly suppress their disdain for Gervais' performance.

"It's one thing if it's just the people in the room, but on a broadcast it makes you feel bad for some of the people," said Zanuck, producer of "Alice in Wonderland," whose movie successes date back to "The Sound of Music." "I know it's what some people want, but I still feel bad."

About two-thirds of the way through the broadcast, the Twitter trending topic #freerickygervais gained popularity with many responders pondering whether the comedian had been ordered to tone his act down by either the show's producers or the HFPA. "ok seriously people, Ricky is being held somewhere and tortured for crimes against Hollywood," a tweeter going by the handle @aussuze posted Sunday.

Backstage, Downey, a recovering addict who spent a number of years as the punch line to the kind of barbs now directed at Charlie Sheen, elaborated on his earlier remarks. "I think it's great to be funny, but it's just better if you can do it without hurting people," Downey said.

Toward the end of the Globe ceremony, presenters Tom Hanks and Tim Allen got in on the Gervais bashing.

"We can recall when Ricky Gervais was a slightly chubby and very kind comedian," Hanks said.

"Neither of which he is now," Allen added quickly.

In an interview last month with the L.A. Times about hosting, Gervais said: "I quite like people hating what I do. I quite like the fact that some people hate me so much they don't sleep, they make themselves ill."

Asked in the event's interview room point blank if he'd hire Gervais to host again next year, Berk issued a non-denial that spoke volumes. "No comment," he said.

chris.lee@latimes.com

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nicole Sperling and Gina McIntyre contributed to this report.