But Gervais and the show seemed tamer and more predictable this year, not quite living up to outrageous reputations. Even the winners themselves, including "The Descendants" and its star, George Clooney, were predictable.
The victory for "The Descendants" in the best drama category sets it up in an expected battle at the Academy Awards with "The Artist," which won the award for best musical or comedy. Both had been frontrunners all along among people who are the business of prognosticating these things; Oscar nominations will be announced Jan. 24, with the ceremony itself coming Feb. 26.
Clooney won for his portrayal of a middle-aged husband struggling to raise his two daughters while their mother is in a coma. Jean Dujardin won the same award in the musical or comedy category for "The Artist" as a silent film actor whose career derails with the arrival of sound. ("The Artist" won the most film awards with three total, including one for Ludovic Bource's original score.)
It took the presenters and winners themselves to liven up the program — and that includes Uggie, Dujardin's scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier in "The Artist," who performed some of his signature tricks on stage toward the end of the night.
While Gervais dropped an F-bomb a couple hours into the broadcast — likely an accident after some imbibing on and offstage — he also took aim at easy targets like Kim Kardashian. Later, wine glass in hand, he emerged from the wings to express delight in having "a job where you can get drunk and say what you want, and they still pay you."
After he introduced Madonna with a series of hackneyed puns about her song titles, including "Like a Virgin," the pop star shot back.
"If I'm still just like a virgin, Ricky, then why don't you come over here and do something about it?" she deadpanned. "I haven't kissed a girl in a few years — on TV."
Male genitalia was a frequent theme. Tina Fey and Jane Lynch teamed up to make a penis pun inspired by "Hung" star Thomas Jane. Seth Rogen, taking the stage with the gorgeous Kate Beckinsale, cracked: "Hello, I'm Seth Rogen, and I'm currently trying to conceal a massive erection." And Clooney, in accepting his best-actor award, made a joke about fellow nominee Michael Fassbender, who plays a sex addict in "Shame."
"I'd like to thank Michael Fassbender for taking over the full-frontal nudity responsibility that I had," and Clooney then went on to suggest Fassbender could play golf with his hands behind his back.
Even Meryl Streep — the grand dame of them all who won for best actress in a drama for her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" — let an expletive slip during her acceptance speech. Streep got flustered when she realized she forgot her glasses at her table; instead she winged it, giving a rambling (but gracious) speech praising other actresses' performances, including some who hadn't even been nominated that night.
Two of Hollywood's most veteran and esteemed directors also were winners Sunday night, both of whom were venturing into 3-D for the first time: Martin Scorsese for best director for the family fantasy "Hugo" and Steven Spielberg for best animated film for "The Adventures of Tintin." Meanwhile, Woody Allen won for his screenplay for "Midnight in Paris" — but naturally, he wasn't there to accept the statue in person. The comedy is his biggest hit in decades but he's typically reluctant to attend awards shows.
Things were much more fresh and inspired on the television side of the ceremony, with daring shows earning honors and longtime stars going home with statues for new roles.
"Homeland" on Showtime, which explores terrorism and an Iraq war veteran, earned awards for best drama and best actress in a drama for star Claire Danes. It was Danes' third Globe; she won her first when she was just 15 for "My So-Called Life."
Former "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer won best actor in a drama for Starz's "Boss," while former "Friends" star Matt LeBlanc won best actor in a musical or comedy for Showtime's "Episodes."
ABC's "Modern Family" was the big winner among commercial broadcast networks, following up its Emmy for best television comedy by winning the Golden Globe. Creator Steve Levitan and actress Sofia Vergara accepted the award with a comic riff in which she spoke in Spanish and Levitan "translated."
Let's hope the after-parties got wilder.
AP Television Writer David Bauder contributed to this report.