Similarly, eight-time host Billy Crystal, he of the hilarious song parodies, is considered the modern gold standard of Oscar hosts, primarily because he pays homage to Hollywood's greats and simultaneously refuses to take any of them terribly seriously.

But Stewart received mixed reviews, both inside and outside the industry. While Tom Shales of The Washington Post said Stewart hosted with "smug humorlessness," Gail Pennington wrote in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he "did the Oscars proud ... turning in a four-star hosting performance that unfortunately made the rest of the show seem sluggish by comparison."

For Ken Sunshine, a publicist for Leonardo DiCaprio, Barbra Streisand and Ben Affleck who has attended the Academy Awards in the past, it was the audience more than the host that put a damper on the show. Many who attend the Oscars, he said, are "studio types and veteran Academy big-shots who are not the most demonstrative crowd.

"They're so cool they're not going to laugh really loudly," said Sunshine, who watched Sunday's show on TV with some clients. Sunshine thought Stewart did "spectacularly well in his reactions and his impromptu comments," and that he was especially funny in his opening sketches with Halle Berry and George Clooney in his bed.

"Billy Crystal is probably the best host," Sunshine said, "but he does it the Billy Crystal way -- he does schtick."

Despite the humor, the Oscar show is serious business, although the audience numbers of late have not been stellar. Nielsen Media Research reported about 38.8 million people watched the Academy Awards this year, down 8 percent from last year and the worst showing since 2003, according to the Associated Press. Except for the 2003 count of 33 million viewers -- at the start of the war in Iraq -- the Oscars hadn't dipped below 40 million viewers since 1987, Nielsen showed.

"One reason why the ratings for the Oscars have decreased to such a great degree is that people are so saturated with celebrity magazines and TV shows," said Jenny Hontz, a former executive at the Walt Disney Co. "They don't need the Oscars to see movie stars anymore."

Hontz and other observers were disappointed that Stewart -- who regularly skewers the political establishment on his usual gig, The Daily Show on Comedy Central -- wasn't more political.

"He should have taken more shots at Bush," Hontz said. "Otherwise why have him host the show? It's a little odd because so many of the nominated films were so patently political, and Stewart seemed to play it safe in comparison."

Markus Flanagan, an actor with more than 40 film and television credits, said that what makes a great Oscar host is one who doesn't try to "out self-indulge the Hollywood self-indulgence on their night of desperately grabbing at instant immortality."

"Jon Stewart was great," Flanagan said. "He's a guy who gets the joke the Oscars play on the world and took the opportunity to have fun with it. The fact that Letterman too made fun of it was why the press attacked him. The host will always be second to that one acceptance speech or clothing mishap or accident that makes the show memorable."

Stewart, 43, is no stranger to awards. In the past five years, he and The Daily Show have received 10 Emmy Award nominations and won seven.

But, of course, it is easier to receive awards than to host an awards show.

Sarit Catz, a stand-up comic, screenwriter and voiceover artist, said hosting the Oscars seems like a daunting prospect for anyone.

"You're face-to-face with legends," she said. "You're on a broadcast that's being seen around the globe. Any comic feeds off his audience, and this one is not there to see comedy. They want to see who's going to win. Add to the mix that he's going to be compared to everyone who's gone before him, and they're all brilliant. It's the hardest assignment I can imagine as a comic."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com
rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com