America’s generation born in the last ten to twenty years have only known the idea that any televised award show requires a comedian to host in order to be halfway palatable for three or four hours. In fact, even well-worn showbiz veterans attending award shows have managed to assimilate the idea that anything other than a snarky comedian can make it better than a slumberfest with occasional luxury food and champagne. Or, based on how some recent award show hosts have evolved into anti-comedy roast hosts (you’re hired, fired and re-hired, Ricky Gervais), perhaps both generations would prefer going with a no-host policy.
If you think that’s a strange idea, the Academy Awards had no hosts seven times in its history. Mind you, this only occurred in the late 30’s and 40’s, again in the late 60’s and most recently in 1989. Nevertheless, the idea that things have to keep rolling in order to prevent viewers from turning over to Puppy Oscars on Animal Planet has led to finding alternative hosts when the comedian well runs dry.
And when you consider that Billy Crystal apparently doesn’t want to end his career hosting an Oscar telecast every year, the Oscars are now having a hard time finding a comedian they can fall back on. Many comedians now consider the Oscars to be too stressful of a gig to the point of self-destructing in the vein of Christina Aguilera losing her National Anthem concentration at the Super Bowl.
No, nothing is more painful than seeing Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin or even Billy Crystal get too overwhelmed in the moment or knowing they can never top their previous hosting efforts.
That leaves only one type of host that never seems to get over him or herself: Actors.
It may be why the Academy Awards are deciding to use James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts for this year’s show. But before these two prospective comedians look at the script given to them and think it looks brilliant, they should study how other actors fared hosting the ceremony going back to the very first one in 1929.
If you think it was a mistake for the Oscars to use a roundup of staid actors as hosts during the 1980’s, then you may be surprised to learn that two dramatic Hollywood legends were picked as hosts for the first ceremony 82 years ago. While no evidence exists of how good or awful the first ceremony was, Douglas Fairbanks and director William C. DeMille (older brother of Cecil B.) hosted with presumably no comedic script in hand. In fact, the Oscars used nothing but serious hosts until dryly satiric Will Rogers hosted once in 1934.
One gets the feeling that Will Rogers would have been the longest-lasting and most essential Oscar host had he not have died in a plane crash a year later.
Enter the age of the one-liner comedians, namely Bob Hope…
It wasn’t until 1939 when Bob Hope was brought in to finally force the Oscars to take itself less seriously. This was just one year after the Oscar tried a no-host policy that apparently didn’t work for the age of radio using dramatic actors stiffly reading presentation speeches. Bob Hope would ultimately become the longest-lasting host of the Oscars into the TV era. Nevertheless, he had to sometimes share the stage with other comedians and actors, including Donald Duck (with four serious actors) during the 1957 show. Jack Benny and Danny Kaye were also squeezed in three times during the 40’s and 50’s Hope era.
The experimental late 60’s and 70’s were when the Oscars must have been assimilated by a restless and incense-inhaling creative force. After a pointless three years of no hosts in the late 60’s and a spate of 70’s telecasts using a stiff, four-host policy with serious actors, Oscar had to learn how to get off its high horse all over again. The only exception to this in utter hilarity would be when David Niven hosted with John Huston, Burt Reynolds and Diana Ross in 1974.
Niven’s classic quip about the “shortcomings” of a streaker running behind him on stage is the stuff of legend in the annals of TV guffaws.
But it was in the pre-Crystal era of the 1980’s when the Oscars decided to go with mixing up actors who had no real comedy experience hosting an award show. This was right after experiencing the success of Johnny Carson hosting in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Carson was one comedian who could have successfully done what Bob Hope did and kept hosting for decades. Instead, that was all broken when Jack Lemmon hosted in 1984, followed by the most notorious and disparate hosting lineups of the 80’s: Alan Alda, Jane Fonda and…yes, Robin Williams in 1986.
If you wanted to see the widest chasm between calm and insanity for hosts of an Oscar telecast, that was your year. It’s also one reason why Robin Williams hasn’t been asked to host the Oscars alone. Or, arguably, the only reason is because the Oscars would become the Robin Williams Marathon.
After Chevy Chase brought too much misunderstood sly subtlety to the comedic host in 1987 and 1988, it likely explains why 1989 had no host whatsoever. It also meant an evening of award presentations using the now much-maligned practice of actors stiffly reading comedic banter on the teleprompter with a fellow eye-rolling actress.
Now that the streak of Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Martin and Jon Stewart hosting the Oscars seems to be on hold, is it safe to say evolution has evolved America’s stiff actors into a better understanding of comedy?
When you go by someone such as Alec Baldwin, it may be possible. That decreases slightly when you seem superfluous doing comedy with Steve Martin as what happened in the 2010 show.
It increases when you can get an actor like Hugh Jackman who has experience mining for laughs on a Broadway stage. Yet we’re finding out today that many actors have a better sense of irony in comedy, which the Oscars require in order to create the biggest laughs without turning into a roast.
James Franco and Anne Hathaway have shown some of that in their hosting duties on “Saturday Night Live” or as guests on talk shows. How that translates for a four-hour, live awards show, however, will require a sequel here to find out whether comedic evolution really has gone as far as I hope.
As with the cottage industry of remakes, Hollywood likely will re-use the concept of actors as hosting comedians again. It won’t necessarily be because Oscar has a razor-sharp memory of what’s happened before.