There is no tougher room than the Academy Awards. Just ask Jon Stewart, whose stint as Oscar host Sunday night at times drew a chilly reception from the star-studded audience in front of him. For a while, he seemed destined to join an ignominious group: comedians killed by Oscar.
Kind of like Chris Rock and David Letterman.
"I think it's the toughest single gig that a humorist can have," Dave Barry, the former humor columnist for The Miami Herald, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "You have two completely different audiences. Obviously, you have the huge TV audience. Then you have the Hollywood audience, which has its own jokes and touchiness level. The one affects the other."
Barry, who wrote jokes for Steve Martin when the comedian hosted the 2003 awards, said that if the host makes a joke and the Hollywood crowd doesn't laugh, viewers at home pick up the cue.
"Which is what happened to Letterman," Barry said.
The usually on-point Letterman was criticized for his performance as Oscar host in 1995, in part, because of his witless Oprah/Uma bit. There are, however, revisionists who give him credit for being pretty funny otherwise. Rock's edgy performance last year also drew barbs, especially when he slighted actors such as Jude Law.
Then there was Whoopi Goldberg, who hosted the Academy Awards four times, most recently in 2002. An Oscar winner herself -- she picked up the award for best supporting actress in 1990 for Ghost -- she won both plaudits and pans for her efforts.
"This show is a 'no-win,'" she told Parade magazine last year. "The people who are there are going to be polite to you, and they'll laugh. But, really all they want to know is, 'Did I win?'"
While mocking the stars who have gathered for the Oscars is a time-honored tradition, it requires a delicate touch.
"They are not secure people," Barry said. "They don't react like a normal audience. They seem to be glacial."
Movie people, Barry explained, are slow to laugh because they want to see if they should be laughing.
Either way, the demands of hosting the Oscars can be daunting for a comic. The sheer length of the 3 1/2 -hour telecast and its stop-start nature can deflate a comic's momentum.
If it is true that the Hollywood A-list audience has a little trouble relaxing -- especially when career-making awards are in the offing -- then it stands to reason that the audience at home might respond to that less-than-excited vibe.
Steve Chagollan, a veteran features editor at the Hollywood trade paper Variety, said he was "disappointed that the audience was either too uptight or too nervous to enjoy the humor." Stewart, he said, showed guts.
"I thought it was especially brave of him to poke fun at [Steven] Spielberg, the man whose ring everybody in Hollywood seems to think they need to kiss," said Chagollan. The business about Schindler's List and Munich, he said, "had me on the floor howling."
Stewart had said that as a Jew, he couldn't wait to see what Spielberg would do "to us next." Spielberg was apparently amused. He was quoted as saying Stewart "did a fantastic job."
"The only comedian who might have been more funny and more irreverent -- and more dangerous -- would have been Robin Williams, but the Academy would never leave itself open to such ridicule," Chagollan said.
Oscar-watchers of long standing cannot help but be nostalgic about the halcyon days of Johnny Carson and, even further back, Bob Hope. Both hosted the Oscars for years and had an easy connection with Hollywood's A-list, whom Hope worked with in movies and Carson interviewed nightly on The Tonight Show. Because they were considered Hollywood insiders -- unlike the New York-based Stewart -- it did not rankle when they poked fun at the self-important moguls and starlets in the crowd.