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Joke's on them

For reasons historical and hysterical, stand-up comedians don't stand out at Oscar hosts.

By Nick Madigan and Rob Hiaasen

Sun Reporters

March 7, 2006

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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.

Why is it so hard to host the Oscars?

"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.

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