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No doubt you’ve heard this one: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.” You can find a lot of success that way. And you can self-destruct just as easily. The guy who has made a late-life career out of that maxim is Ricky Gervais.
He’s 51 now, but he didn’t get into comedy until his late 30s, creating the original British version of The Office. His humor is acerbic and razor-sharp but delivered with that dry British timing and gentle voice that make it sound—at least to American audiences—funnier than it might if delivered by a stout, 50-year-old comedian from the Sunset Strip.
Nowhere has his adherence to the forgiveness/permission formula been more expertly applied than when he hosted the Golden Globe Awards in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The second year, he delivered sometimes vicious, yet hilarious, one-liners about nominees like Robert Downey Jr. (who later referred to the tone of the show as “sinister”) that made some cringe, most laugh and everyone talk. At times it felt like a roast rather than an awards show.
And the buzz was massive.
In the aftermath, as the Internet lit up and the media world asked, “What just happened?” Gervais became a phenomenon. And his employers, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs the Golden Globes, issued the following statement: “The HFPA would never condone some of his personal remarks. Overall, however, the show was among the best we’ve ever had, and we were pleased.”
The most interesting part about the affair is not that he told some offensive jokes. It’s that he did so without hesitation, without doubt and without permission. (His material wasn’t vetted by producers beforehand.) Ultimately he knew his audience (the folks at home, not in the seats) and went for the throat. And it worked.
How do we know? Gervais was invited back to host the 2012 ceremony amid a naturally built hype that only made more people want to watch. The man came out swinging, of course, drinking beer onstage and making inappropriate cracks about Jodie Foster, Madonna and even the hosts of the Golden Globe award show: “The Hollywood Foreign Press have warned me that if I insult any of you or any of them or offend any viewers or cause any controversy whatsoever, they’ll definitely invite me back next year.”
Yup, he made fun of his employers in public. And chances are, he’ll be invited back next year. Now, before anyone runs off spouting lewd jokes about co-workers or in-laws at dinner parties, don’t miss the point. Gervais was able to pull off his “upsets” (some targets weren’t pleased) because he knew exactly what he was doing, how he would sound and how the audience would react.
Asking for forgiveness later rather than permission now—whether you’re taking a chance on a bold work project or new strategy or even in a professional relationship—is self-destructive behavior unless you know, like Gervais, what you’re doing and how it will be received. There’s deep prep work involved before you step up to the mike.
And if your venture explodes in your face? Well, have the apology ready. Or don’t. Gervais, of course, has an opinion on that: “You shouldn’t apologize for anything you meant to do,” he said about his Globes experience. “You can apologize for things you do when you’re 15, but not when you’re 50.”