Best hosts balance sly humor with class

Down to the Wire Commentary

HOLLYWOOD — If host Whoopi Goldberg is in dire need of inspiration during this year’s Academy Awards telecast, she just has to ask herself one simple question: What would Johnny do?

Johnny is, of course, Carson, and his five turns as emcee pretty much became the gospel of Oscarcast hosting. Carson understood that a successful Oscar host has to play to two different audiences at the same time. The host can’t come off as too much of a Hollywood insider, at the risk of alienating viewers at home. But the host can’t be too much of a Hollywood outsider, either, or the stars in the audience will show their displeasure by imitating wax dummies.

So Carson appealed to viewers and celebs alike with self-deprecating humor about his lowly status as a “mere” TV talkshow host. And in this way, he winkingly aligned himself with the commoners, while deferring to royalty just enough to get away with mischievous jokes that mocked the inflated importance of Oscar night.

WWJD? That phrase could have been Billy Crystal’s mantra throughout his seven appearances as Oscar host; like Carson, Crystal knows how to poke fun at movie stars without bruising delicate egos (the key is to let them think they’re being flattered).

You could hear Carson’s puckish wit echoing throughout Steve Martin’s spiffy first Academy Awards hosting gig last year. After octogenarian screenwriter Ernest Lehman received a special Oscar in the third hour of the broadcast, Martin ad-libbed, with a straight face, “It’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the evening, Mr. Lehman was 24.” Johnny couldn’t have said it better himself.

Hope and glory

Of course, Oscar viewers with long memories know that Carson learned the insider-turned-outsider approach from Bob Hope, who hosted the telecast a record 18 times. Hope turned the Academy Awards into a rueful, long-running joke about his “bitterness” at never winning a statuette himself. Hope’s formula — self-mocking humor, industry zingers, topical jokes, risque ad-libs — has been followed by Oscar hosts ever since (some more successfully than others). But it was Carson, in his Oscar-hosting gigs from 1979-82 and again in 1984, who attempted to raise the hipness quotient by striking a balance between the decorum that the event demands and the ironic, cynical humor of the times.

“Welcome to the 51st Academy Awards,” Carson quipped in 1979. “Two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over a four-hour show.”

In 1995, Carson’s protege David Letterman tried to take the telecast further into the realm of the ironic. But Letterman made the mistake of thinking he was hired to be Letterman and brought his latenight routines with him — a Stupid Pet Trick, a belabored fixation on the euphonious phrase “Oprah, Uma; Uma, Oprah.” You could practically feel the audience telepathically directing hate vibes at the stage. Letterman’s performance has gone down in Oscar lore as an unmitigated disaster. (However, reviewing the show for the San Francisco Examiner at the time, I praised Dave for being refreshingly irreverent and utterly true to himself. Apparently, I was in the minority.)

Letterman may have been the snarky, scowling king of comedy in New York, but at the Oscars, he was the ultimate outsider.

Mr. Geniality

In the ’90s, Academy Awards viewers and attendees alike found their comfort level in the genial burlesque of Billy Crystal. Crystal stuck with the Hope-Carson formula, but added some stellar shtick of his own through the years, like the spoofy show-opening “Oscar, Oscar” song, the giddy montages in which he’s digitally inserted into scenes from nominated films and, most unforgettably, the restraining mask and straitjacket parody of actor nominee Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (“Silence of the Lambs”) on the 1992 telecast.

Crystal could probably be Mr. Oscar Night for the rest of his life, but he has wisely sat out some telecasts to keep the job from getting stale.

In his absence, Whoopi Goldberg took over in 1994, 1996 and 1999, and she returns this year. But she needs to figure out how to class up her live-wire humor; she made a majestic, in-your-face entrance as Queen Elizabeth I on the 1999 telecast (the year of “Shakespeare in Love”), announcing, “I am the African queen.” But then she started with the “Virgin Queen” jokes and the Oscars suddenly became a bachelorette party.

Goldberg has a difficult task ahead of her — setting the right tone for Hollywood’s highest-profile post-Sept. 11 message to a global audience. Ironically, there’s one former Oscar host who has already proved his ability, in these terrible times, to connect to studio and home audiences alike with mature empathy, honest emotion and cathartic wit. The David Letterman of 1995 wouldn’t have been ready to be entrusted with this first Academy Awards telecast of a changed world. But he’s ready now.

Joyce Millman’s writings on television have appeared in The New York Times and Salon.com.

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