The Golden Globes are the fun awards show and they are the fun awards show because they are utter, complete nonsense. The Hollywood Foreign Press, the body that elects the nominees and determines the winner, is small, batty, singular, and very lobby-able. It loves that which is new, shiny, sexy and/or very famous. It lauds both TV and film,leaving no time for categories not populated by very famous people, who show up in droves because they can get drunk and curse and touch each other’s faces, all while exuding a low-level disdain for an award they totally want. The Golden Globes is the awards show that gives the talent the space to acknowledge that award shows are ridiculous, without actually harming their chances of winning other awards. (You get drunk and curse and touch each other’s faces at the Oscars at your own risk.)
Sunday night’s Golden Globes, hosted by Ricky Gervais, back after hosting from 2010–12, perfectly embodied this “no one cares about the Golden Globes except we’re all here caring about the Golden Globes” spirit. For the past three years, the inherent ridiculousness of the Golden Globes had been somewhat obscured by hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who by their very presence made the awards seem like something worthwhile. But Gervais’ whole shtick is to make cracks about the crass absurdity of the Golden Globes, standing onstage with a glass of beer, appearing exhausted and aggrieved as the show goes on, even as he, like everyone else in attendance, is there of his own free will. When a room full of actors conspire to convey the impression that an awards show is the greatest party they don’t want to attend, after three hours, you start to believe them.
2010 was not so very long ago, but when it comes to Ricky Gervais’ reputation, it might as well be eternity. That year was the first that Gervais hosted the Golden Globes. He smashed it. Gervais, a longtime award show MVP, the guy who came onstage and somehow always perked up reliably awful banter, treated the Globes with the proper amount of irreverence: He threw darts at famous people and at the HFPA. But the success went to his head. The next year he got marginally meaner, upsetting some folks used to award shows in which nary a jibe landed. Instead of shrugging it off, Gervais took up the mantle as the most hated outsider in Hollywood, positioning himself as a kind of truth-telling martyr, and making himself unbearable in the process.
Returning to the Golden Globes stage after a three-year absence, Gervais was semi-recondite, not all that cruel about any particular actors, but thankfully still pointed. He opened with a good Sean Penn crack and an avowal to be nice, before dissing NBC for having no nominees at all. He then launched into a “joke” about Caitlyn Jenner and an incoherent bit about Jeffrey Tambor’s balls, part of a bad trifecta of cracks about trans issues. Gervais righted himself by noting the corrupt power structures at play at the Golden Globes, observing that film stars will show up if they have a chance to win one, “particularly if the film company has already paid for [the victory].” He ended his opening on a strong note: “If you win tonight, please remember, no one cares as much about the award as you do.” This was an injunction that was promptly forgotten, though to be fair, many of the people who won Golden Globes were so unexpected, you can forgive them for a little excitement.
The night proceeded in a loose, wild blur. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill took to the stage next, with Hill wearing a bear hood and pretending to be the infamous ursine in The Revenant, who apparently has a very filthy mouth. Hill was the first presenter of the night to be bleeped but not the last: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jaimie Alexander, Amy Schumer, and Alejandro González Iñárritu would also curse on air before the night was through, as further proof that the Golden Globes are the R-rated awards show and no one there takes them that seriously. (Only a heathen would curse at the Oscars.)
This lack of decorum climaxed in a mini-confrontation between Gervais and Mel Gibson, who was on hand to introduce Mad Max: Fury Road. Say what you will about Gervais, but any other host at any other awards show would have let Gibson have his contrite and hackneyed “I am recovered from my anti-Semitic and misogynist outburst and ready to get back to work” moment. Gervais, instead, said, “A few years ago I made a joke about Mel Gibson getting drunk and saying a few unsavory things, and now I find myself in the unsavory position of having to introduce him. I blame NBC. We know who Mel blames.” Not content to end on this rock solid joke, Gervais followed up, “ I want to say something nice about Mel: I’d rather have a drink with him in his hotel room tonight than with Bill Cosby.” Gibson retaliated with am “I love seeing Ricky once every three years, because it reminds me to get a colonoscopy.” Gervais, who one senses can never leave well enough alone, came back onstage to get bleeped out when asking “Can I ask you something: What the [F-word] does ‘sugar tits’ mean?” Gibson’s moment of redemption had been thoroughly ruined and we had all been treated to a catfight.
While etiquette was getting tossed out the window, so were predictions. The night was full of unexpected winners, and none more so than Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, a perfectly decent show that is not nearly as good as Amazon’s Transparent. But surprise winners, even undeserving ones, are one of the thrills of award shows. The unexpected winners made the night: The Martian and The Revenant were both surprises, but less fun than the victories for Rachel Bloom for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Maura Tierney and her glasses for The Affair, and Lady Gaga with her slow, slow march to the stage for American Horror Story. More expected but no less deserving were Taraji P. Henson, handing out cookies for her win as Empire’s Cookie, Oscar Isaac for Show Me a Hero, and Brie Larson for Room. Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon also all won because the HFPA loves Hollywood royalty.
Damon at least had the decency to look a little sheepish when Gervais dinged his movie, The Martian, for nominating itself in the comedy category, in a crass (and successful) bid to win some Golden Globes. But that exact push-pull is the Golden Globes’ whole gestalt: Everyone involved desperately wants to win—or host—one, while looking like they don’t care about winning—or hosting—at all. So they curse and blush and slur and complain, up until they win.
Read all Slate’s coverage of the 2016 Oscar season.