Apparently no one informed Jon Stewart that the Oscars are a big deal and, once tapped to host the broadcast, you're supposed to take yourself very, very seriously. In the days leading up to the 78th annual Academy Awards, held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, the "Daily Show" host took an untraditional tack: self-deprecation and bemusement.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made the announcement, he responded, "As a performer, I'm truly honored to be hosting the show. Although, as an avid watcher of the Oscars, I can't help but be a little disappointed with the choice. It appears to be another sad attempt to smoke out Billy Crystal."
Reportedly both Crystal and Steve Martin turned down invitations before Stewart got the call. But being the Academy's third choice didn't seem to bruise Stewart's ego.
"I don't think there was anyone out there who felt like, 'Hey, do you think the Oscars went to Stewart first?'" he told an interviewer for Premiere, "'or do you think they might have gone with a guy who's knocked it out of the park nine straight times?' I just feel like, Man, they're going to let you host the Oscars. Holy shit. This is fun. I just feel sort of tickled."
If Stewart's pre-Oscar patter was any indication, Sunday was destined to be one of the funniest, unstuffiest nights in the history of the ceremony. The first thing Stewart did was debunk the myth that the Academy Awards broadcast is watched by a billion people worldwide. On one of his last shows before leaving for Los Angeles, he observed, scoffing, "They're asleep in Spain. It's the middle of the night. China? They don't care. It's more like 40 million people in America and maybe 42 million worldwide."
The second thing: He revealed his secret plan for the gig - "I'm just going to make stuff up and read out names."
Additional strategic details were leaked to Zap2it's Jay Bobbin: "I think that for me the key is going to be lack of preparation."
On February 27, Stewart accomplished the seemingly impossible. He made "Larry King Live" worth watching. No matter how many dumb, predictable questions King lobbed at him, Stewart had quick-witted comebacks.
"Are you worried about it not going well?" King queried.
"What's the downside - they stop honoring film?" Stewart quipped.
King: "Do you worry about what happened to David Letterman? He had a hard time."
Stewart: "And yet he seems to have bounced back. He seems to be doing well."
"It could be incredibly fun and funny," Stewart said to Bobbin in summation, "or it could spark international incidents that cause the world to tumble into a death spiral."
Of course, as we saw this past Sunday on ABC, there was a third option. The show could overshadow one of the most entertaining personalities ever to take center stage and wind up pretty much as self-indulgent and longwinded as the 77 before it.
Things started out promisingly enough. The brilliant opening sketch featured previous Oscar hosts who passed on the job this year. Billy Crystal and Chris Rock were seen poking their heads out of a Brokeback-reminiscent pup tent. My favorite was a shot of David Letterman chuckling, "Ah, no, thanks. I want to spend more time with . . . Steve Martin's kids," as he cozied up to two small, white-haired children.
Stewart even managed to maintain momentum through a monologue that concluded with the announcement that, this year, the show's producers were going to try something different: Presenters would appear in order of how talented they are.
Then there was an amusing bit in which Tom Hanks was knocked out by a poison dart shot from a clarinet - a warning to winners who might go on too long in their acceptance speeches. Too bad it was only a joke.
What became painfully obvious as the night dragged on was that the show's producers really didn't intend to try much of anything new or different at all.
The problem? The Academy Awards presentation is about 5 percent host and 95 percent show, and the extravaganza is still being produced by the same over-the-hill Hollywood types who've been at it for decades - old timers like Gil Cates. Attempts to inject new life into the lumbering proceedings are doomed to failure so long as the lion's share of the production remains in the creative control of walking fossils.
Of the three and half or so hours, at least two were deadly dull. Lethal. You could sense viewers lapsing into comas from coast to coast. Even the movie stars looked bored. And they've got open bars. It's obvious which elements of the program should have been retired years ago:
-- Live musical performances
Nothing grinds the fun to a halt as fast as an overblown song-and-dance production. Next on the counter-indicated list are live vocal numbers. Is there any reason Best Song nominees need to be performed during the broadcast? I don't think so. Best Screenplays don't get read. These have got to go. (Though Stewart did manage to squeeze a good one out of the irony afforded by Three 6 Mafia's win for the Hustle & Flow tune, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." "For those of you keeping score at home," Stewart deadpanned, "that's Martin Scorsese 0, Three 6 Mafia 1.")
-- Animated characters handing out awards
OK, it was funny the first time. But Chicken Little fishing an envelope out of his underpants? There was a sketch we could have lived without.
-- Awards we don't care about
Awards for Live Action Short, Animated Short, Makeup, Documentary Short Subject, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, for example, should be given out at that second-tier ceremony where statuettes for scientific achievement are presented. The names of winners should scroll as the show goes to a commercial. Life's too short.
-- Pointless tribute montages
These were taken to new, head-scratching extremes of pointlessness this year: scenes from movies about real-life people, movies in the tradition of film noir, movies about social issues and movie epics. Stewart spoke for all of us when he exclaimed, "I can't wait till later when we see Hollywood's tribute to montages. We're out of clips. Send us your clips!"
-- The academy president's message
Need I say more?
-- Too much thankfulness
The Academy should use its building-security personnel to enforce strict new laws that outline who winners can and cannot thank in their speeches. Family: check. Mentors and idols: check. Jesus: check. Business partners, agents, financiers, assorted studio executives and marketing personnel: police escort.
You couldn't turn on a talk or news show Monday morning without hearing the question, "How do you think Jon Stewart did?" The consensus was that he did OK. And, of course, that the night's biggest upset was Crash as Best Picture. Assessments of Stewart's performance missed the point, however.
When you're allotted just a few minutes of airtime to infuse hipness into three or four hours of old-school TV, the odds are stacked against you. It's hard out there for a host.