Meet the Host

January 06, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Last year, Chris Rock. This year, Jon Stewart. Next year, who knows? (I'm still hoping for John Cleese.) There's prestige in hosting the Oscars, that's for sure. But once you've done it once, what's the incentive to return? For a while, the Academy had some success bringing back Billy Crystal, but he eventually tired of the gig (although my gut tells me we haven't seen the last of him). For recent hosts, it's a case of "been there, done that." You have to look to the ghosts of Academy Awards past (you know, when they were on Monday and ended before midnight) to find people who viewed this as more than a quick grab at worldwide visibility. (Bob Hope, Johnny Carson)

Will Stewart do a good job? Hard to tell. He has a sharp wit and isn't afraid to use it, and that's a good sign. And it takes a lot to ruin an Oscar telecast. Even David Letterman's infamous flameout ("Uma...Oprah, Oprah...Uma"), seen through the 20/20 lens of a decade's hindsight, seems more refreshing than idiotic. In recent years, hosts sort of blend together. Even Rock did little to set himself apart. Martin, Goldberg, Crystal... they all merge in Oscar's cook pot. Letterman stands apart, although some would argue not for the right reasons.

The problem with hosts being able to distinguish themselves is that, at least in the case of the Oscars, they are superfluous. They open the show with a monologue, then esentially disappear. Once in a while, they'll pop up after a commercial break to offer a quip and introduce the next presenter, presumbably to reassure us that, unlike Elvis, they haven't left the building. But, 20 minutes into the telecast, their job is done. So why bother? If we want monlogues, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, etc. offer us a bunch every weeknight. The equation is obvious: cut out the host, cut down the length of the telecast. Why do the Oscars need to start with a standup routine?

The answer is simple: it's usually the best part of the show. People tune in for the opening monologue, then (if they're still awake) the big awards at the end. If something subversive is going to happen, it will be during the monologue, not during the overproduced, overscripted rest of the program. The Oscars used to be dull, but now they're unbearable. I guarantee I'll sleep through part of the telecast - maybe most of it. (With the Internet providing instantaneous updates of the winners, who cares?)

So, as irrelevant as the host is, let him stay. Give Stewart his shot. But, no matter how sharp his verbal rapier is, don't expect him to make a big splash. Recent history tells us that he won't have the time or opportunity to do more than etch his name as a footnote in Oscar telecast history. Unless, that is, he adapts the Carson/Hope tactic of coming back year after year after year. Or the Letterman tactic, which required only one appearance. Does anyone know if Uma and Oprah will both be there this year?