What Ricky Gervais's Bruising Comedy Teaches About Innovation

[This is the first installment in a new series by Paddy Harrington, executive creative director at Bruce Mau Design.] Ricky Gervais is a great designer. Some would say that Gervais’s cutting jokes as the host of the Golden Globes were a form of professional suicide. In fact, after the event, several members of the Hollywood community said that he would never work again.
Here’s the problem: those people have an old-fashioned idea of power. Yes, the ability to make and break a career used to be concentrated in the hands of a few powerful producers and studios, who controlled how we saw movies. The studios owned the theaters and they owned the show. But the best designers see the big picture. And Gervais made his Golden Globe hosting gig into a design project by altering the relationship between the insular world of Hollywood and the rest of us.

Information Wants to be Free

The first thing that Gervais knows is that information wants to be free. Screens are everywhere. You’re looking at one now. Different forms of access to information means that content has been democratized. If you have a computer, then you can easily create content that is globally accessible (unless you’re really into talking about issues with a political bent).

The People’s Choice

Now, anyone can choose who to watch and when to watch, in an increasing number of ways. If you choose to download a single episode of a television series online, you can do it. If you want to make your own show, you can do that, too. And with YouTube, you can often watch whatever show you want, without watching ads or paying for a ticket. And that’s just the mainstream audience. If you’re moderately more committed, you can get whatever content you want at any time and from a range of places, for free. In short, Gervais knew that his audience wasn't just limited to the room, or to one night. It would live on for years. And that brings us to the last and most important point...

Only Connect

While Ricky Gervais may have alienated the celebrities in that room, he had a bigger audience in mind. He wasn’t speaking to them, he was speaking to us. He understood the disconnect between the world of Hollywood and its audience and decided to tell the movie stars what the rest of us are seeing. In some ways, the funniest part of the show was the shock with which many actors seemed to take his comments, as though it was all some big surprise. When, really, he just told them what we’re thinking. Was it mean? Maybe a little bit. But isn’t the entire culture of Hollywood propped up by these kinds of ruthless judgments? Gervais called out Tim Allen by saying that he’s a peripheral actor who hasn’t done anything notable. Harsh and true. The truth hurts, but a good designer know that if you don’t acknowledge the truth, your solutions will not be relevant. Ricky Gervais is a great designer because he sees the big picture and understands where the tension is. He pushes against that tension, knowing what new technologies now allow us to do and understand. He knows that the methods of media consumption have become increasingly democratized and that the people now have more power than the studios. Gervais has absorbed the true philosophy of design: It’s more important to stay true to your bigger audience than to the few sitting in a small room.

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