A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars.
Comedians took over.
And a good thing, too.
For as the Academy Awards evolved from more innocent times into a show that sometimes became a pulpit for political and social views, a deft and light-handed touch was needed to maintain the basic entertainment thrust.
A number of comedians hosted the show even before its 1953 debut on TV – among them, Bob Hope, the granddaddy of Oscar emcees, as well as Jack Benny and Danny Kaye.
And from the launching of Oscar on television, the importance of potent hosts – from actors to quipsters – only heightened.
Reflection of the times
From Hope and Johnny Carson to Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, Academy Award emcees took on a new dimension – often dealing with changing times in Hollywood and the nation, and frequently reflecting them.
* The date was March 19, 1953, and with Hope as host for NBC (Conrad Nagel was his counterpart in New York), old-school Hollywood appeared to be grudgingly giving in to a shotgun marriage to the young and explosive TV medium, as millions tuned in to see their first Oscarcast.
Hope, still the symbol of World War II optimism, seemed a perfect choice for the viewing public. And, although already employed in TV, he mirrored much of what Hollywood was thinking when he cracked: “Television – that’s where movies go when they die.”
* From 1979 through 1984, Carson hosted five Oscar shows. With a rare blend of insouciance and elegance, he seemed at ease with both the old Hollywood and the new power structure that had taken root in the counterculture, thus providing an ideal transition to the contemporary world of Oscar.
That door had been opened wide in 1977, when the co-hosts were Jane Fonda, Richard Pryor, Warren Beatty and Ellen Burstyn.
Of his approach, Carson said: “You want to bring a certain amount of irreverence” to the show, “and I’m not sure some of the older members appreciated it.
In his 1979 debut as Oscar host, Carson suggested to the viewing audience that while Danny Thomas was reading the rules, “this might be a good time to make some dip.”
* From 1990 through 1993, Crystal, who will return as Oscar host for a fifth time in March, also left a vivid mark as host. Aside from his movie-star status, he also seemed a kind of ultimate motion picture insider, clicking with a TV audience that was increasingly hip about the film business and even box office grosses.
Maybe that’s why his 1991 entrance on a horse to promote his new movie “City Slickers” scored a bullseye, besides being just flat-out funny.
“He’s very fast on his feet and very good at reacting to situations,” movie chronicler Leonard Maltin noted.
The Oscars had grown increasingly activist and iconoclastic, and Crystal, like Goldberg after him, was the new generation in charge. Their friend Robin Williams also helped open the door in various memorable Oscar appearances. Like Carson, Williams, in a 1986 turn as co-host, worked over Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
Then there was the 1988 broadcast, in which two-time host Chevy Chase welcomed the audience of showbiz bigwigs with “Good evening, Hollywood phonies.”
“To the extent that anybody would hire me as host,” Chase said, “you’d expect something irreverent. Everybody there has friends in the audience. It should be a loose evening, but it isn’t. It’s fraught with tension. Carson and Hope always had a dignity about them that lent dignity to the awards. I think it needs some of that.”
“You have to be cognizant of what the show is,” Carson said.
Hope, now 93 and the host of numerous Oscar shows during an amazing four-decade run that began in 1940, said: “They’re still selling the same thing. They’re selling the talent.”
Maltin also appreciated the effective, self-deprecating Oscar humor of Hope and Carson and Goldberg’s “classy” performance as emcee this year.
* In 1994 and in March of this year, Goldberg made Oscar history as the first woman and the first African-American to be the sole host of the awards program. During her 1994 outing, she noted simply, “Things are a little different. The host is wearing a dress.”
Of her breakthrough, Gil Cates, who will produce his seventh Oscar show in March, said, “She would never have done it 10 years ago, because she’s a black woman. Having Whoopi do the shows reflects the times.”
“In a funny way,” Goldberg said, “I think I represent a lot of the things movies represent,” such as the fantasy of a young woman who heads out from New York to Hollywood and becomes a well-paid movie star. “And she happens to be black,” added Goldberg, “not kind of black. I’m definitely a black woman.”
As for hosting the Oscar show, she said the job is to “keep it moving. Because people want to know one thing: ‘Is my name in the envelope?’ That’s what’s really going through their heads: ‘Did I get it?’ ”
A flap developed this year when the Rev. Jesse Jackson protested the Oscars, noting that only one nominee was African-American and asking attendees to wear a ribbon showing support.
Goldberg and others, including Oprah Winfrey, felt the move was ill-timed and scored with the audience with a humorous monologue about the deluge of causes. The aftermath brought mixed reviews, but the show was distinctly less of a personal platform than in some past years.
There have been many other instances of using Oscar’s podium for causes. In 1993, Richard Gere talked about Chinese troops in Tibet. In a famous 1978 incident, Vanessa Redgrave criticized “Zionist hoodlums” and was rebuked by Paddy Chayefsky. Heartfelt views about AIDS have been expressed to the worldwide Oscar audience of a billion people.
“The way the show has been used as a kind of political forum reflects a great change from the early days,” said Richard B. Jewell, associate dean and professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television.
“As the show has grown in importance and penetration,” Jewell added, “the position of the host has become infinitely more important from an entertainment viewpoint.”
Said producer Cates, who is also dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film & Television, “I look for someone first who’s a movie star or has some reason for being the host, like Johnny Carson, who was America’s host. Then I look for somebody who can work the room. Someone who’s got experience as a standup has a terrific asset. A billion people are watching, but there are 3,000 in the room.”
In the long history of the Oscars and TV, the rule of thumb for hosts has been simple:
Send in the clowns.