'Daily Show' star plays it safe as Oscar host

Jon Stewart played it right down the middle, avoiding sharp political humor, steering clear of biting industry riffs and even firing off some one liners that could have easily have been said by consummate emcee Bob Hope.

In doing so Stewart ignored the advice of political guru Karl Rove: Shore up the base.

Viewers of his popular “Daily Show” may have been a little put off that he was so restrained, even though one of the reasons he was picked as host was precisely because he had that political sensibility in a year of socially conscious movies.

Led by an opening clip segment that had past hosts Chris Rock, Steve Martin, David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Crystal explain why they couldn’t host the show, Stewart launched into the monologue with a quip, “Ladies, gentlemen, Felicity…”

The monologue played very well at the Kodak Theatre, but onscreen Stewart felt out of his element. It had its moments, but his delivery was slow, as if every joke was a bit overthought. His exclamations — “There you go, now you’re talking!” — were awkward, as if he was trying too hard to force some excitement on the ceremony.

Stewart avoided President Bush and ports and wiretapping and Hurricane Katrina. He steered clear of political darts, save for a Dick Cheney joke. “Bjork was not able to be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her.”

Instead, he went for George Clooney jokes. ” ‘Good Night, and Good Luck.’ It’s not just Mr. Murrow’s sign-off. It’s how Mr. Clooney ends all of his dates.”

Stewart’s reticence to go further could perhaps be pinned on David Letterman, who in 1995 may have gone a bit too far in introducing Stupid Pet Tricks to the show. After that, the general rule of thumb for emcees became, You’re hosting the Oscars; You’re not bringing your show to the Oscars.

It’s the trap that every host faces. Be classy. But be irreverent. The problem is that the show’s constraints and expectations have become so great that it is hard to break out of the box.

Given the build-up to this year’s ceremony, with mainstream media weighing in on every nook and cranny of the telecast, you would have thought that his mission was no less than to save this year’s event television. Stories focused on the fact that Stewart was an outside-of-Hollywood host from a niche cable network in a year of niche political films. So great was the speculation on what Stewart would do that one pundit concluded that Stewart was hopelessly miscast.

The irony, however, is that Stewart seemed to get his best laughs when he was the a wry, detached outsider, who could say what everyone else must be thinking.

That happened outside the confines of the monologue. Pointing at a giant stage statue of Oscar, he said, “Do you think that if we all got together and pulled this down that democracy would flourish in Hollywood?”

It was one of the only allusions to Iraq, and the Bush administration. As the night wore on, he got more comfortable, and reverted back to his own kind of humor. After what seemed like the umpteenth clip package saluting such things as biopics and film noir, Stewart finally laid down the gauntlet and said, “Holy crap! We are out of clips.”

What also played well were “Daily Show” inspired packages, like clips from classic Westerns given a homoerotic twist (John Wayne: “I’ll have you spread eagle down the wagon wheel.”) and another that imagine what Oscar best actress campaigns would be like were they run with Swift Boat style attack ads (British woman: “Judi Dench took my eye out in a bar fight!”).

Oddly, so much time was devoted to the clip packages, not enough to the actual opportunities for spontaneity, like acceptance speeches. Bill Conti’s signature melodious music played over many, as if to remind awardees of their limited time. But it also made you start to hate strings.

Finally, when 36 Mafia collected their Oscar for original song in “Hustle and Flow,” Stewart quipped, “How come they’re the most excited people here tonight?”

In the weeks before the Oscars, Stewart told more than one interviewer that he felt like he was next in line for a “good old fashioned show business ass kicking.”

He need not worry. He could do another outing. But in a year in which the niche pic reigned, he’d be well served not to forget his own niche.

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