I was talking to a veteran talent agent on the phone Monday morning when the news arrived that Ricky Gervais had signed on to emcee a high-profile award show.
“Ricky’s going to host the Oscars?” enthused the agent, who like most agents is on a first-name basis with all the top talent, even the ones his agency doesn’t represent. “That’s totally brilliant!”
I said the news was slightly different. Gervais was going to host the Golden Globes. There was a moment of thoughtful silence. “That’s awful,” the agent finally said, a funereal hush in his voice. “For the Globes?” I wondered. “No, for the Oscars,” he said. “If Gervais was available, how could they not have gotten him? This is a huge coup for the Globes. This gives them all the heat.”
Until today, the Golden Globes broadcast has always felt vaguely tacky, the award show equivalent of network stunt casting, except that instead of Oprah showing up on “30 Rock,” it was the likes of Cher, Melanie Griffith, Madonna, Sharon Stone and Hugh Grant, not to mention Calista Flockhart, all taking home major acting awards. I’m not saying that there haven’t been many worthy winners through the years, but the Globes have had a hard time shaking a reputation as a Pia Zadora-friendly organization. If I didn’t have a professional obligation, I couldn’t imagine ever watching the show.
But after hearing that Gervais has signed on to host the show, which airs Jan. 17 on NBC, I’m already setting my TiVo. And if the selection of Gervais is a huge victory for the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which puts on the Globes each year, it’s a crushing blow to the Academy Awards, which desperately needs some heat of its own to propel its show back into the must-watch-TV category.
It’s a sad commentary on the state of decision-making at the academy that after the Gervais news surfaced, the response from the first insider I spoke to there was: “Ricky who?”
It’s true that Gervais is by no means a movie star, his films -- like the recent “Invention of Lying” -- rarely making much noise at the multiplexes. But as the creator of the original British TV hit “The Office,” along with HBO’s “Extras,” Gervais has something that dozens of movie stars don’t -- a rabid, cult following and the kind of comedy credibility that has earned him three Golden Globes, two Emmys and seven BAFTA awards, not to mention plenty of sellouts whenever he does a stand-up gig. (He also has a popular podcast, “The Ricky Gervais Show.”)
The academy can poor-mouth Gervais’ star power all it wants, but his presence on the Globes -- which hasn’t used a host since 1995 -- gives the show instant event status, especially since Gervais’ wonderfully cheeky stint as a presenter at the Emmys (where he mocked a stone-faced Steve Carell) promises that he will be a bastion of comic irreverence from the moment he hits the stage.
In an era when TV viewers are already being subjected to an endless parade of forgettable award shows, having a dynamic host makes a huge difference. Gervais won’t necessarily make the Globes an instantly credible show -- they’d need to hire President Obama to do that -- but he will get a host of people to tune in whose lives might otherwise have been too media-saturated to have made the time to focus on the event.
In fairness to the Oscars, when I did get film academy President Tom Sherak on the phone, he was generous in his praise for the competition. “I think it’s a great idea for the Globes to have a host,” he told me. “I’m certainly going to watch him. It’s also good that he’s British, because they’re such an international organization, so that plays to their strength. Look, everyone wants to laugh, so you have to believe he’s a good choice, because having Gervais on board will make it a fun evening.”
He wasn’t as forthcoming about the academy’s pick for its own host, saying the choice was in the hands of the show’s new producers, Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman. My own sources say that Hugh Jackman, who was a success last year, especially in terms of presiding over a show that boosted its flagging ratings, is a no-go, with Jackman not wanting to make a return engagement. The Oscar producers are leaning toward a multiple-host format, which would team a pair of hosts who would have different strengths and different generational appeal.
The rough plan would be to look for hosts who have a strong comedy background as well as Hollywood credibility. Even though these particular candidates aren’t available, the academy would love to team someone like Steve Martin with someone like Tina Fey, which would appeal to several disparate audience (and academy) constituencies. Who knows? It might be fun to see two comics with different sensibilities, who could write their own material, handling the emcee duties.
My dream duo would be Steve Carell and Chris Rock, although Rock probably never will get invited back after his tumultuous 2005 gig, where he insulted poor Jude Law and didn’t juice the ratings. Maybe Jack Black would work; his impish antics would mesh nicely with Carell’s smoother comic patter. Stephen Colbert would also be a good choice, although he’s probably too much of a “TV guy” for the motion picture academy, which still looks down on its small-screen peers.
All I can say to the academy is: The choice of Gervais has raised the bar considerably when it comes to award show hosts. It’s time the Oscars came up with a bold move of its own.