To many Americans, last year’s Golden Globes appearance by Gervais defined how they know him: as a self-styled provocateur who’s not afraid to shock and offend in the service of humor. It’s an image he embraces and even lovingly cultivates. In a photo shoot for Rolling Stone, he dressed as Jesus with the word “atheist” scrawled across his bare chest; on another magazine cover, echoing a famous image of Muhammad Ali, he dressed as Saint Sebastian.
In this sense, the Little Jesus scene was the perfect embodiment of his current comedic formula: loaded with potentially outrageous elements that will reliably offend some portion of its viewership, or at least titillate them with the idea that somewhere else, someone is being offended. As Gervais surveyed his diminutive actor playing Jesus on a scaled-down cross, he gave a loud laugh, cackling like a mad scientist whose plans were coming to fruition. Then he announced to the room, “We’ve got the billboard for Texas, haven’t we?”
Of all the surprising turns in Gervais’s career, perhaps the most surprising, at least superficially, is his return to hosting the Golden Globes this year. From the moment he said good night at the 2011 Golden Globes, it seemed unthinkable he’d be invited back. He previously opened the awards show in 2010, and took some flak from critics for a dialed-down routine that Gervais himself later acknowledged was “nice and cheeky.” In 2011, he showed a different kind of cheek. In a five-minute opening monologue, he took aim at such low-hanging targets as Charlie Sheen (“It’s going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking, or as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast”) and the “Sex and the City 2” movie (“I was sure the Golden Globe for special effects would go to the team that airbrushed that poster”). Later, he described the movie “I Love You Phillip Morris,” as being about “two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay — so the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists, then.” He closed out the program by declaring, “Thank you to God for making me an atheist.”