I was talking to a veteran talent agent on the phone this week when the news arrived that Ricky Gervais had signed on to host a high-profile award show.
"Ricky's going to host the Oscars?" asked 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."
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I couldn't agree more.
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 Association, 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 true that Gervais is by no means a movie star, his films — like the recent "Invention of Lying" — rarely making much noise. 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. (His podcast, "The Ricky Gervais Show," is consistently ranked as the most downloaded podcast.)
The academy can poor-mouth Gervais' star power all it wants, but his presence on the Globes — which hasn't used a host in 15 years — 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.
Having a dynamic host makes a huge difference. Gervais won't necessarily make the Globes an instantly credible show, 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.
Tom Sherak, president of the Academy Awards, wasn't 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. They are leaning toward a multiple-host format, which would team a pair of hosts who would have different strengths and a 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.
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.