The sharp-tongued host was "indulged and appreciated with fond chuckles," writes PEOPLE's TV Critic

By People TV Critic Tom Gliatto
Updated January 16, 2012 09:45 AM

Where was Ricky?

You can only shock the monkey so many times. If the monkey is an actor, it will learn to pretend to like it.

That seemed to happen with Ricky Gervais’s disappointing return to the Golden Globes Sunday night on NBC. In last year’s rude but delightful show, he insulted Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp and more with a kind of delirious, infantile happiness, like the world’s smarmiest baby. This time, given all the hype, he might have been expected to go nuclear. But he was like a less reverent Billy Crystal.

If he had once been a fly in the ointment, this time the ointment rose up around the fly and neutralized it with a swallow.

The evidence of this game change came early. In his opening monologue, Gervais made a good, pointed analogy involving Kim Kardashian, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, the Globes and the Oscars. He said that Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler, masters of disguise, played all the roles in The Help. He verbally socked Mel Gibson (no surprise), who was absent (no surprise), then took a provocatively low shot at Jodie Foster, director of Gibson’s unsuccessful movie The Beaver. It was all funny – funny enough – but the edge was gone. No one was going to let him upset them. They were willing to play. Sleek and blonde and elegant, Jodie Foster smiled and gave him two thumbs up.

Then Depp himself arrived onstage as the night’s first presenter.

In one of the best moments of the 2011 show, Gervais mocked Depp’s flop comedy The Tourist. This time, Gervais asked Depp if he’d ever even seen the movie. Depp laughed, clapped his approval of this delightful quip, and answered that no, he hadn’t. As Gervais exited, Depp for a moment feigned that he might follow after him (and do what?), then said, deadpan, “Oh, boy. He’s fun.” (In fact, Depp will be contributing a cameo in Gervais’s upcoming HBO show, Life Is Short.) This was the official signal that Gervais was, much like the Golden Globes, now to be indulged and appreciated with fond chuckles.

Even Meryl Streep, accepting an award for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, started her acceptance speech by joking that Gervais had turned the part down.

Oh, boy. He’s fun.

Well, it’s show business – Gervais has been good for ratings, and every chance to promote a project should be seized by every star, no matter how maligned they may be or feel. Maybe no one really was upset last time, either, and I wasted a year thinking Gervais had been pushing the envelope. Maybe we viewers at home are simply chew toys tossed from one maw to the other in the Hollywood dog park.

The most shocking moment of the night was actually an anti-insult. When he introduced best-actor winner George Clooney, Gervais was close to fawning, signaling the actor’s preeminence by saluting him as “the Cloonmeister General.”

The second most shocking moment came when Madonna was allowed the upper hand on stage. Yes, Madonna, who seems to have been receiving diction lessons from the ghost of Audrey Hepburn. Gervais introduced her with a deliberately ham-handed string of references to her old hits, coughing in disbelief at “Like a Virgin.” Madonna, continuing this deliberately labored humor, ending up calling him a girl and questioning his masculinity. Gervais was seen dashing across the back of the stage in presumed panic.

If Ricky Gervais demurs to Madonna, is he still Ricky Gervais?