Natalie Haynes: America can take a joke – from its own

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Are the British finally taking Hollywood by storm? This week saw a several-pronged attack: Piers Morgan's new chat show debuted on CNN, with him interviewing the queen of chat herself, Oprah Winfrey. Ricky Gervais caused controversy with his second and, by all accounts, last hosting of the Golden Globes. And Colin Firth left the same awards ceremony with a Best Actor statuette in the bag and very short odds on him doing the same at the Oscars next month.

Our thespian exports may be the flavour of the month (Helena Bonham Carter, Hugh Laurie and Kelly Macdonald were also up for Golden Globes, and while none of them won, Laurie must find consolation in being one of the most-watched television star in the world). But Morgan and Gervais revealed that while Americans may like our actors, they are still far from keen to have their sacred cows mocked by outsiders.

While some of Gervais's jokes were better than others (introducing Bruce Willis as the father of Ashton Kutcher, the very much younger man now married to Willis' ex-wife, was particularly good), they certainly all provoked a response – laughter, boos, or gasps. After all, he was hardly mocking the afflicted. He was poking fun at some of the most beautiful people on earth (and Hugh Hefner).

But even during the ceremony, he was being decried as mean-spirited. Robert Downey Jr certainly suggested as much when he took to the stage, and Tom Hanks and Tim Allen appeared to endorse this view: "Like many of you, we recall back when Ricky Gervais was a slightly chubby but very kind comedian," said Hanks. "Neither of which is he now," Allen added. And really, it may be time to take a long, hard look at who you have become, when you are being told off by Woody and Buzz. That's like finding out that all the kittens in the world hate you.

But to suggest that Gervais's material was unbearably vicious and that Americans just can't take this kind of ribbing is a nonsense. The roasts which go out on Comedy Central make Gervais' nastiest lines look like The Vicar of Dibley: who could forget comedian Jeffrey Ross asking – to her face – how it was possible that Courtney Love looked worse than Kurt Cobain, 11 years after the latter had committed suicide?

Perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that an American audience – much like any other audience – doesn't like to laughed at by a foreigner. Particularly one who came to Hollywood with Extras under his belt – one minute, Gervais was letting movie stars laugh at themselves, the next minute, he was mocking them mercilessly on prime-time television. And just because comedians make a living from biting the hand that feeds them and spitting out the gristle doesn't mean the owner of that hand has to enjoy the whole process.

As for Morgan, there is something particularly strange about his American rebirth: could CNN not find a home-grown interviewer? And to have him interviewing two iconic (albeit wildly differing) American talkshow hosts – Oprah Winfrey and Howard Stern – as his first two guests is really rubbing salt into a proverbial wound.

It's hardly a surprise that critics pointed out that his rather fawning style was a bit much. The Hollywood Reporter ungenerously, if accurately, described Morgan's Oprah interview as "two self-important rich people talking to each other".

No wonder the Americans are feeling short-changed: they gave us Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and House, and we have given them the bloke from Britain's Got Talent. We seem to be importing quality drama and exporting lame reality programmes. But perhaps America will warm to Piers Morgan – and other pesky Brits – over time. Since he has both Ricky Gervais and Colin Firth booked for interviews later in the series, his producers must be hoping so.

www.nataliehaynes.com

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