Not long into Rick Gervais' fourth stint as host of the Golden Globes, his first since 2012, he promised to break with tradition - and be nice: "I've changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously."
No one, of course, expected a radical personality transformation from Gervais, who greeted the celebrity-filled crowd at The Beverly Hilton hotel by calling them "disgusting, pill-popping, sexual deviant scum." If anything, the four-year absence made the heart grow colder, as Gervais gleefully hurled some of his sharpest barbs yet at the Hollywood elite, clearly confident the groans in the audience were being drowned out by the laughter of folks watching from home.
Gervais succeeded, at least by his own measure as a surrogate regular-guy, beer-fueled snark-and-shock machine: He delivered a wickedly funny and irreverent performance using the same old approach, armed with plenty of new material.
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"I'm going to do this monologue and then go into hiding, okay - not even Sean Penn will find me," Gervais cracked, referring to news of the actor's interview with the until recently on-the-run Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Other quips were somewhat less timely, but just as pointed. Gervais introduced Matt Damon as "the only person Ben Affleck hasn't been unfaithful to." He declared "Schindler's List" funnier than the recent comedy "Pixels." After musing about "Transparent" star Jeffrey Tambor's anatomy, Gervais described an uncomfortable anatomical use for one of his own Golden Globe trophies ("That award is, no offense, worthless").
He made up - sort of - with his most infamous past target, Mel Gibson, who appeared as a presenter: "I'd rather have a drink with him in his hotel room tonight than with Bill Cosby," Gervais deadpanned.
Gervais proved at his best, and perhaps most controversial, when tackling pay disparity between men and women performers in Hollywood. He joked that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who hosted the three previous Globes broadcasts on NBC, made as much for the gig combined as he did ("It's not my fault if they want to share the money, is it?"). He also tweaked Jennifer Lawrence, an outspoken critic of pay disparities: "There were marches on the street with factory workers and nurses saying, 'How can a 25-year-old live on $52 million?'"
The bit proved vintage Gervais: He used his obnoxious comedy persona to highlight the inherent unfairness of pay disparities, while slamming Hollywood as out of touch. That's about as subtle as Gervais gets - and not everyone is going to get it, or appreciate it, as evidenced by the grumbling after his riff about producers saving salary on all-female remakes of "Ghostbusters" and "Oceans 11." ("Shut up, I don't care," Gervais replied.)
The show's producers knew what they were getting when they brought back Gervais, which seemed to only boost his sense of freedom to say whatever he wanted. His style appeared to rub off on some of the presenters: Andy Samberg made the night's first Bill Cosby joke. Jonah Hill got bleeped as he played the bear from "The Revenant." Jamie Foxx mocked Steve Harvey's Miss Universe mess-up - and skewered the Golden Globes for ignoring "Straight Outta Compton."
But the show clearly belonged to Ricky Gervais, who hasn't changed. Neither has Hollywood. They deserve one another - for at least one night a year.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.