Were you offended by some of Ricky Gervais’s off-color jokes at Sunday night’s Golden Globe Awards? Well, what’s your problem, you whiney cunt?
That’s just one choice phrase Gervais has for critics of his hosting performance in a series of tweets Tuesday afternoon. The comedian took to Twitter to explain and defend some of his controversial jokes, especially one about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition that some argued was transphobic, and to ridicule those who were offended by his comedy.
“If jokes caused the easily offended to bleed internally, I’d do more standup,” Gervais tweeted Tuesday afternoon, one of roughly a dozen posts addressing his awards performance haters—all mixed in with tributes to David Bowie and a photo of his cat.
At least two attempted to directly explain the joke he made about Jenner and why he doesn’t believe it is transphobic. Another read, “Suggesting a joke about Caitlin [sic] Jenner is automatically transphobic is like suggesting a joke about Bill Cosby is automatically racist.” In the middle of it all he retweeted a news article with the headline, “Ricky Gervais really doesn’t care if you’re offended by his jokes.”
That Gervais made headlines for pushing the envelope with his comedy at Sunday’s Golden Globes is no surprise. That’s the comedian’s brand and, in fact, offense is something he promised in the lead-up to the awards.
(“Better get dressed and offend some humorless cunts I suppose,” he tweeted before the ceremony.)
What is unusual, however, is this aggressive social media pushback against those who were scandalized by what he said and criticized him for it. A comedian known for pushing buttons doesn’t normally insult or explain himself to people when their buttons are pushed, as planned.
Occasionally you’ll see an apology come from the likes of Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman when a joke may cross the line, though typically a raunchy comedian will let their edgier jokes just hang there for debate. It’s part of what they do: provoke.
What they don’t do: launch what amounts to a veritable tirade against critics of their performance, explain their jokes, and react in such a loud and unapologetic way to people who didn’t like what they said.
The crux of the controversy sprouted from Gervais’s opening monologue, a vicious series of randy barbs designed to make the celebrities in attendance squirm and clutch their pearls and, in the age of social media, make those at home take to Twitter with their hashtag outrage.
While arguably offensive—because everything is offensive in this day and age, the Age of Offense—many of his jokes were smart critiques that cut so sharp because they were true. (His bit about equal pay in Hollywood especially.) Many were politically incorrect, but still funny because they were smart.
Others were politically incorrect, but also lazy—like his Caitlyn Jenner jokes. Hence the controversy.
“I’ve changed, he said. “Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously.”
“Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course,” he went on. “What a year she’s had. She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers. But, you can’t have everything; not at the same time.”
Immediately Twitter took him task, calling the bit transphobic. (They also weren’t too pleased with his riff on Jeffrey Tambor trying to conceal his scrotum while playing a trans woman in Transparent.)
Speaking to BuzzFeed at the ceremony, Transparent creator Jill Soloway said, “I know his thing is to make fun of everything, but I think if more people understood the violence trans people face every day, it would be harder to make jokes about it.”
Were the jokes transphobic? Gervais certainly didn’t think so, though many social activist and LGBT sites did, taking Gervais to task for it. Being generous to Gervais, they were at best lazy and tired.
Beginning a longer bit with a punchline suggesting that it is inherently funny that a man would want to transition into a woman is a cheap and dated laugh, and that’s what he went for with the joke about Jenner.
Taken to task about that on Twitter by U.K. Huffington Post writer Rachel McGrath, Gervais argued that the joke wasn’t about Jenner’s transition, but about her fatal car accident, and therefore was not, as McGrath accused, “transphobic.”
After two tweets that directly addressed McGrath’s criticism, Gervais tweeted, “I made a joke about Caitlyn Jenner killing someone in her car. I’m #TransportPhobic.”
E.B. White once said—and we understand the preposterousness of evoking E.B. White in a piece about Ricky Gervais—“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”
Speaking in terms of comedy, whether or not there was reason to be offended by Gervais at the Globes, there’s a danger in defending a joke, insisting that it was funny to those who you think “just didn’t get it,” or reducing yourself to explaining the joke.
It patronizes an audience, making it seem that they are not intelligent enough to understand your comedy. And, when you are a comedian whose entire act rests on a giddy embrace of off-color content that you even say is meant to offend people, attacking those who were offended threatens your integrity as a performer—at least in this critic’s opinion.
It seems hypocritical, to intend to offend and then to be annoyed when people take offense.
As we mentioned before, it’s not uncommon for a comedian to apologize for a controversial joke, as Schumer, Silverman, and countless other comedians have done—though we’d argue that threatens a comedian’s integrity in a different way.
But it seems particularly noteworthy that a comedian like Gervais, who at the tail end of his series of tweets posted, “Outrage is the comedian’s alchemy,” would confuse an insecure shaming of critics and pandering tutorial on the merits of his jokes for an apologetic endorsement of his controversial statements.
This isn’t an argument for censorship. No topic should be off-limits, and no venue should be absolved from the kind of edgy and provocative comedy that Gervais is known for when he’s on his game. Provocation causes discussion, and discussion is essential in shifting cultural attitudes and mores—whether offense is the catalyst for that discussion or otherwise.
So Gervais was extremely correct in one point in this series of tweets: “You have every right to be offended. Just don’t cry when no one cared.”
Call me crazy, but after spending an hour dissecting roughly 20 tweets Gervais posted on the topic, it certainly seems like he cares.
In what appears to be (at least for now) his final word on the topic, Gervais posted a photo of himself with angel wings giving the middle finger.
“Don’t offended people realise they are doing my marketing for me,” he wrote. Maybe. But now more than ever they may be unsure of what brand they’re marketing.