“Like a supermodel’s vagina, let’s all give a warm welcome to Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Anyone who buys into the myth that the success of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as Golden Globes hosts lies in their warmth would do well to revisit the introduction they chose for the world’s most famous film star, back in 2014 (he took it well, by the way, flashing them a slightly creepy thumbs up as he walked out onstage).
In a world where little feels comforting or familiar, there is something glorious about the prospect of the Saturday Night Live alumnae and virtuoso comedy partnership returning this Sunday night to kickstart Hollywood awards season with the weirdest of all the ceremonies, five years after their triumphant 2013-2015 inaugural stint.
The Globes are certainly in need of some magic. After Ricky Gervais’ fifth and (mercifully) final booking last year – in which he managed to lecture the stars, repeatedly remind everyone how little he wanted to be there, and generally sap the energy level of the room – and the uproar surrounding this year’s even-wackier-than-usual nominations (including a rumour that Emily in Paris literally paid its way onto the list) many film fans are questioning the point of the event.
But on Sunday evening, Fey and Poehler will show up in drop-dead gorgeous couture, wielding jokes like grenades, and remind everyone. Covid restrictions mean that the ceremony won’t have anything like its usual party-atmosphere: guests will collect awards virtually, while Fey and Poehler will perform from different ends of the country, as part of a new “bicoastal” initiative. But judging by past form, it will take more than a global pandemic and putting a few thousand miles between them to take the edge off these two maestros.
In their previous three appearances at what is generally understood to be the starriest stop on the awards season train – the Hollywood Foregin Press Association, which runs the Globes, has a reputation for putting guest list glitz over performance quality in their nominations – the pair perfected what has become the art of awards season hosting: how to lampoon the celebrities arrayed before them without sounding nasty, sanctimonious, or dull.
Much has been made of their “warm” style of comedy, a myth that arose partially from Poehler’s iconic performance in Parks and Recreation. She played Leslie Knopes, the earnest, bureaucratically-bent lead of a passionately uncynical show. But before she was a sitcom star, Poehler spent seven years alongside Fey as a cast member on Saturday Night Live.
It was a gig Fey personally scouted her for in the late Nineties, after seeing her doing improv in New York. Together, as co-anchors of the Weekend Update, they became one of the show’s most recognisable duos – and “warm” is not in SNL’s vocabulary. Most famously, their Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton parodies hit so close to home that one of Fey’s lines – “I can see Russia from my house” – is still often attributed to the real Palin. Fey is also the backstab-sharp pen behind Mean Girls, the iconic 2004 comedy that turned teenage girls into monsters. Anyone who thinks that film is notable for its cuddliness should revisit the scene where Regina George prank calls a classmate’s mum pretending to be from Planned Parenthood.
The warmth myth is also a consequence of sexism. However progressive we are, because of the reality of the world we live in, when two beaming bombshells in haute couture walk onto a stage, it’s hard to find them particularly threatening. But that’s the thing about beautiful women – they lull you into a false sense of security. Then they start talking: at the 2014 awards, the applause for their entrance had barely died down before Poehler was welcoming “everyone in the room, and all the women and gay men watching from home.”
The most enduring target of their Globes jokes was the sexism of Hollywood – funny, almost like they were onto something – and they were merciless in its pursuit. They congratulated Matthew McConaughey for losing 45 pounds for Dallas Buyers Club “or what actresses call, being in a movie”; they listed the astonishing professional achievements of human rights lawyer Amal Clooney as the introduction to presenting her husband with a lifetime achievement award; they saluted Meryl Streep’s performance in August, Osage County as definitive proof that “there are great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”
Unsurprisingly, their efforts to call out the film industry’s race problem were less assured and less successful, and the awards circuit is desperately in need of some more racially diverse hosts. Their last stint also took place just on the cusp of the MeToo movement and it is grimly fascinating to see Harvey Weinstein laughing good humouredly along. How will Fey and Poehler approach their favourite material now that the soft target of structural sexism has been given a human face?
The difficulty lies in what has previously been the pair’s greatest strength as a presenting partnership – the ability to mock without appearing self-righteous. Ricky Gervais’ uncharacteristically terrible performance in 2020 was a masterclass in how not to do this: “Remember, they’re just jokes” he told the audience at the start of his monologue, in a toe-curling display of condescension, before resorting to a straightforward sermon that made no attempt at humility or self-awareness. “You’re in no position to lecture the public, you know nothing about the real world,” he told them, to a cringely self-castigating round of applause. Only Tom Hanks had the honesty to look annoyed.
Fey and Poehler, however, are intelligent enough to never put themselves far from the firing line. Their great skill is character work, and the women who appear in front of the cameras on Sunday night will never be straightforwardly themselves but heightened, slightly breathier, shallower, and more fame-thirsty versions.
In 2014, when Poehler was nominated for Parks and Recreation, she turned the cameras on Jennifer Lawrence, ran her own name along the bottom of the screen, and asked the audience to agree that “It’s hard to believe she’s a 42-year-old mother of two!” Every time they call Joaquin Phoenix a hypocrite, or Matt Damon a nobody, they are laughing at themselves too. The idea is: we will mock you relentlessly, but since we’re also up here in ballgowns, we’re in no position to sermonise.
It is this technique that might come under strain if they try any MeToo jokes – it’s not funny to be complicit in the Weinstein cover-up; just ask half the actors and actresses in the audience. But on safer territory and in less fraught times, implicating themselves in the Hollywood takedowns has proved hypnotically effective. It is what enabled them to stride onto the stage back in 2015 with the greeting “Welcome you bunch of despicable, spoilt, minimally talented brats” and still be met with raucous applause.
And while 2021 feels centuries away from that moment, and the usual sense of jubilation will be missing this weekend, there is no doubt at all that if anyone can make this awards season funny, it is a couple of loud-mouthed, glossy-haired, stiletto-witted women. Their names are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s funniest Golden Globe jokes
“For his role in Dallas Buyers Club, [Matthew McConaughey] lost 45 pounds. Or what actresses call being in a movie.”
“Kathryn Bigelow is nominated tonight. I haven’t really been following the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty, but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron.”
“The Hunger Games is being recognised tonight, which is also what I call the six weeks I spent trying to fit into this dress.”
“Ben’s [Affleck] first two movies took place in Boston, but he moved this one [Argo] to Iran because he wanted to film somewhere that was friendlier to outsiders.”
“We’re back because this is Hollywood, and if something kind of works, they’ll keep doing it over and over again until everybody hates it.”
“Like a supermodel’s vagina, let’s all give a warm welcome to Leonardo DiCaprio.”
“[Gravity] is the story of how George Clooney would rather float away in space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age.”
“The Wolf of Wall Street showed us Jonah Hill masturbating at a pool party. If I’d wanted to see that, I’d have gone to one of Jonah Hill’s pool parties.”
“A lot of nominated shows tonight are actually on Netflix this year – House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black. Enjoy it while it lasts, Netflix, because you’re not gonna be feeling so smug in a couple of years when Snapchat is up here accepting best drama.”
“I can honestly say after watching 12 Years A Slave, I will never see slavery the same way again.”
“Matt Damon is here for Behind the Candelabra. Matt, on any other night, in any other room, you would be a big deal, but tonight, and don’t take this the wrong way, you’re basically a garbage person.”
“Meryl Streep, so brilliant in August Osage County, proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”
“One of my favorite films this year is the movie Her, which takes place in the not-so-distant future. Which is perfect, because so does Joaquin Phoenix.”
“George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin this year. Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an advisor to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person U.N. commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award.”
“Boyhood proves there are still great roles for women over 40, as long as you get hired when you’re under 40.”
Joaquin Phoenix is nominated for Inherent Vice, but obviously he isn’t here tonight because he has said publicly that - quote - award shows are total and utter bull- Oh! Hey Joaquin!”