When Oscar producer Gil Cates offered Jon Stewart this year’s hosting gig, the host of “The Daily Show” replied, “Are you sure?”
It was an answer of typical Stewart wit, a type of humor that Cates characterizes as “irreverent but not impolite.” While Stewart’s daily dose of fake news and political satire has made him a cable can’t-miss, the big question is whether that translates to the Kodak Theater stage, where he faces a savvy industry audience and inflated expectations.
“You know, I did think that the Oscars, in recent years, has been an invitation for a good old show business ass-kicking for the host,” Stewart says, only half joking. “I thought to myself, ‘Who is in line for an old-fashioned show business ass-kicking more than me?’ It really was a question of being at a point where I could do it without that fear. If that happens, OK. I’m fine. It was one of those things where I thought, ‘This is an opportunity that may not come around again, that doesn’t come around very often.'”
Like past emcees Johnny Carson and David Letterman, Stewart, 43, is a latenight mainstay with a scant film industry track record. (Credits include “Big Daddy” and “Death to Smoochy”). He’s been to the ceremony only once — to cover it for MTV — and even then he was confined to a spot behind the ropes outside the theater. And he admits that as a kid, he was more into sports than things like the Oscars.
But in a year of politically charged Oscar contenders, from “Good Night, and Good Luck” to “The Constant Gardener” to “Crash,” his selection makes sense.
His background in standup is a great asset, Cates says, “because you have to control a very big room and there are a lot of things happening.”
Stewart also has kudos experience. He hosted the Grammys twice and both gigs showed him “what it was like for 15,000 people not to laugh. I didn’t think that could be done,” he deadpans.
“I think the Grammys are more like a celebration of music, so you are really the guy who is up there while the roadies are resetting the stage between U2 and Bob Dylan,” he says. “On this (Oscar) night, I think there’s more of an expectation of an entertaining monologue and a bit more piloting of the ship, hopefully.”
What will serve Stewart well is his ability to roll out quick comebacks. Some of the more memorable moments — from David Niven’s response to a streaker to Steve Martin’s quip about Michael Moore’s acceptance speech — are purportedly done on the fly.
For example, Stewart’s plans for preparation: “Probably the same way that Sylvester Stallone prepared to fight Drago. I will probably carry a lot of logs up a snowy mountain.”
His proposed Oscar opener: “Just show five minutes of a recent ‘Daily Show.’ I think it’s just easier because we have already produced it. And at a certain point, I will come out and say, ‘All right, everybody had enough?’ Let’s start the show.”
With weeks before the telecast, much of Stewart’s concern was on the birth of his and wife Tracey’s baby daughter. (Maggie Rose was born on Feb. 4.) The last week of February, he and his writing staff plan to travel to Los Angeles, prepping for the telecast while “The Daily Show” goes on hiatus.
” ‘The Daily Show’ I will just phone in,” he quips. “And the parent thing, I will probably just phone in as well. Because really, you have got to have your priorities in order. Because as anyone with children would know, clearly the Oscars are more important.”
Just how much of the tone and feel of “The Daily Show” make it to the Oscarcast remains to be worked out. “The issue is not to bring your show to the Oscars, but to come and host the Oscars,” Cates says. In 1995 Letterman was panned when he brought his trademark Stupid Pet Tricks to the Academy Awards, but Stewart did elicit great laughs when he used “Daily Show”-like news segments at the Emmys a few years back.
“It’s not a question of doing political versus nonpolitical humor,” Stewart says. “You are hosting a specific event. You are hosting the Oscar show, not a political event. It’s not an election; it’s not a fund-raiser. Whether the films are political or not, they are films, and you have to respect that and go after it from that perspective.”
Rest assured, he says, he’s not looking to parlay his hosting gig into a movie career “to make sure I can get into ‘Death to Smoochy 2.’
“I am just going to go into it and enjoy it as best I can,” he says. “It really is such a great distance from my actual world and place. I just think, man, how can I not? It is an exciting opportunity. All you can ask for is the chance to fuck things up.”