For all its advanced billing, endless fashion analysis and overly complex critical discussions, the Academy Awards ceremony itself doesn’t exactly carry its weight in the entertainment department. Despite the best efforts of organizers in bringing it up a notch on the coolness scale, the Academy Awards has consistently seemed about as hip as Jessica Tandy attempting to breakdance.
Nevertheless, if there is one human being with the potential to turn a plodding, multi-hour extravaganza into a breezy, fun-filled evening, it has to be the Oscar host. Undertaking what has been called the “toughest gig in show business,” the comedian who has been bestowed with this blessing and curse has the responsibility of creating life in the driest desert on earth. Through their extraordinary gifts, these high priests have the potential to work miracles and bring joy to the millions of eager Americans hoping for something better from their film industry.
Unfortunately, things haven’t always gone so well. With a general tendency to fall below expectations, our Oscar hosts have rarely had the requisite skill-set to inject the ceremony with a concept largely unknown among attendees: entertainment. The quintessential flopper is David Letterman, whose most memorable moment in his 1995 stint consisted of the repetition of the first names of Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey. Apart from the age three to seven demographic, whose advanced intellects help them understand the humor value of similar-sounding words, critics and audiences alike found Letterman’s performance agonizingly inept.
Things haven’t always been so bad. Bob Hope, the paramount Oscar host, took the stage repeatedly throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s with interrupted success, until audiences realized that he had been replaced by an animatronic body-double. Billy Crystal, the unabashed star of the ’90s Oscars, won over audiences on numerous instances through a series of absurdly over-the-top routines that actually made sense approximately three percent of the time.
What made these comedians so popular in this role was not simply their sense of humor but the manner in which they treated their audience. Unlike those of us who see Hollywood’s biggest night as an unredeemable exercise in self-absorption worthy of our eternal scorn and ridicule, the Oscar’s best hosts always maintained a sense of fondness and respect for the industry, regardless of how much they delighted in skewering it.
With choices like Chris Rock and Jon Stewart as the respective hosts in 2005 and 2006, the event’s producers seem to be aiming for an edgier ceremony that can bring in an increased youth demographic. Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” and pop-culture messiah for millions of college students and 20-somethings, is an intriguing choice for a few reasons.
Apart from the overtly political nature of his humor (and his ability to reach beyond the typical Hollywood depth of “Bush is a terrorist” in his critiques), there is the fact that many of Stewart’s best jokes involve tearing down moneyed, pompous organizations like Hollywood. In contrast to previous hosts, Stewart conceals no sense of affection underneath his layers of ridicule. So while it seems assured that his trademark panache will instill a sense of amusement into a ceremony where it is generally in short supply, it remains to be seen whether his acidic wit will jive well with the sensitive, preening group of celebrities seated in front of him. In short, success is no guarantee – even for a demigod like Stewart.
So to all you hopefuls out there, waiting for the day when you can use your comedic skills to take Hollywood’s biggest night by storm, remember this much – hostin’ ain’t easy. It’s a complex, difficult world, filled with high expectations and low performance levels, dry mouths and sweaty palms and multiple lame references to Brangelina. But with a whole lot of dedication and a little bit of luck, perhaps one day you can become the host we’ve all been waiting for – because you wouldn’t just be hosting for yourself – you’d be hosting for America.