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Ricky Gervais: Carrying The Torch For The Pop-Culture Flameout

Actors and chorus girls perform on stage in German-themed costumes during the 'Springtime For Hitler' musical number in the film, 'The Producers,' directed by Mel Brooks, 1968.
Embassy Pictures
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Actors and chorus girls perform on stage in German-themed costumes during the 'Springtime For Hitler' musical number in the film, 'The Producers,' directed by Mel Brooks, 1968.

Apparently, I picked up on what would be the prevailing story of this year's Golden Globes right away. Not three minutes into the show, I made the following comment on our Monkey See liveblog: "I think Gervais' goal is to get run out of this broadcast on a rail."

As even people who didn't watch the broadcast know by now, the host seemed to make a conscious decision not to censor himself and to just say things that he thought was funny, consequences be damned. Does that mean the end of his career, as some have suggested? Doubtful. But certainly at some point (probably before the broadcast, certainly by the time midway through when Robert Downey, Jr. noted the tone of his jokes), Gervais basically figured, "You know what? Heck with it. Let's see what happens here."

He certainly isn't the first. There have been plenty of other performers, real and fictional, who did just what Gervais seemed to do: they saw an opportunity to crash and burn and took it. In honor of Gervais' second and possibly final time hosting the Golden Globes, here's a small sampling of folks who declared, "If I'm going down, I'm going down big." Feel free to offer up your own favorites in the comments.

(Warning: many of the following video clips contain NSFW language. That's part of what makes them meltdowns, after all.)

"Springtime For Hitler," from The Producers (1968)

The lavish production number at the center of Mel Brooks' first film is the granddaddy of the purposeful flameout, and deservedly so. The entire movie has been building up to this one song -- which, of course, is intentionally, magnificently objectionable on every conceivable level so that the show will flop, since no profits means no payoff to the investors -- and those three and a half glorious minutes radiate outward with such vicious zeal that they justify and elevate everything else that happens during the other 78.

Andy Kaufman, The Great Gatsby (1970s)

As with everything that has to do with Andy Kaufman, it's hard to separate myth from reality. It's certainly possible that, as some legends have it, he got so fed up during one show with his audience's insistence that he do his Latka character from Taxi that he spontaneously cracked open the book that he happened to have with him at the time and read the whole thing aloud as a defiant bird-flip. But even if, as the clip above seems to indicate, it was all a premeditated routine, it was still a grand gesture of refusal to submit to fan expectations. Kaufman spent just about his entire career riding that audience-antagonism sweet spot, building an entire character, Tony Clifton, around it (a concept which in turn inspired Neil Hamburger's own anti-comedy act).

Funny Bones (1995)

I can't find a clip of this, which is a shame, because while the movie it's attached to is uneven, the first ten minutes or so of Funny Bones stand on their own as a sharp, perfectly structured short film. Aspiring comic Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt) is trying to break out of the shadow of his father George, a Jerry Lewis-stature comedian played by ... Jerry Lewis. George first shows up to wish his son well on the occasion of his Vegas debut, then he flat-out shows up his son when he is (not that reluctantly) goaded onstage by the emcee and ends up performing part of Tommy's act.

What happens next is a profoundly angry act of artistic self-immolation, as Tommy tells a joke he's been warned will go over poorly, a joke that culminates in a punchline that I can't even describe here, let alone quote. "You made a lousy [flamping] audience," he says in the stunned silence that follows. "My name is Tommy Fawkes, and I've got two weeks to live."

Georgia (1995)

On first blush, this one doesn't seem like a flameout so much as a standard-issue trainwreck, only the person melting down is so far gone (in terms of self-delusion, though drugs and alcohol certainly may have played their long-term part) that she doesn't even realize it. But the screw-up played by Jennifer Jason Leigh both adores her folk-rock star of a sister and resents her for her success, for the softness of her life and music, for her talent and for being and having everything that she never will. And so when Georgia invites Sadie to sing at one of her concerts, Sadie leaps at the chance, and what happens to Van Morrison's "Take Me Back" over the next nine minutes is both compelling and agonizing. For the most part, Sadie's blissfully unaware of the disaster she's perpetrating, but it's hard to watch without the sneaking suspicion that somewhere deep down, she's purposefully sticking it to her sister in public.

Seinfeld, "The Butter Shave" (1997)

I'm clipless here as well, but you know the score: Tired of Kenny "It's gold, Jerry! Gold!" Bania drafting off of his laughs, Jerry decides that he's finished doing the heavy lifting and watching the hack comedian who follows him become a timeslot success. And so, with television executives looking on, Jerry does the only thing he can: he makes sure to tank, and hard. Rainbow suspenders, cancer jokes, "Hey, everybody, who's ready to laugh?," the works. This being Seinfeld, of course, the execs give the thumbs-up to Bania's flop-sweat set and accuse Jerry of being "a little hacky."

Gilbert Gottfried, "The Aristocrats" (2001)

Gottfried's appearance at the Friar's Club roast of Hugh Hefner three weeks after September 11, 2001 marked an intersection of two running jokes amongst comedians: "Too soon!" and "The Aristocrats." The former was lobbed at him when he made a comment about a plane crashing into the Empire State Building. Quickly realizing that he was losing the audience at a head-spinning rate, Gottfried essentially went for a Hail Mary, launching into the ultra-profane talent-agent joke from out of nowhere. (In fact, it's so filthy that we're really not going to embed it here, even with a warning. There aren't enough warnings in the world. You can find it yourself with a little Google mojo, but please understand: it is completely filthy. You have been warned.) It was a move of sheer desperation, and while it passed into legend as possibly the best version of "The Aristocrats" in history (in part due to its genuine inappropriateness given the situation), Gottfried had to have started it knowing that it was wildly unlikely that it would be his way out of the massive hole he had dug for himself and not caring.

Stephen Colbert, the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner (2006)

Technically, Colbert's roast of sitting President George W. Bush wasn't a flameout in the sense that things started going so wrong that he decided, "The hell with it." It was more of a decision to walk into the lion's den and set himself on fire. Recognizing that the circumstances would never again align in the same way, the fake pundit did exactly what he always does -- twist the language and ideology of a particular stripe of conservatism on its head in a display of postmodern Swiftian satire -- only he did it five feet from the President's face. The room was taken aback, which was surprising, since, again, Colbert was doing exactly what he always does. The wildly squirm-inducing incident ensured that he'd never be invited back, but that probably suited him just fine, since the actual audience to which Colbert was speaking wasn't the one in the room with him. It was the one watching from afar, talking about it later.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Hirsh lives in the Boston area, where he indulges in the magic trinity of improv comedy, competitive adult four square and music journalism. He has won trophies for one of these, but refuses to say which.