It’s a skill set only a few entertainers have mastered: Keep the night moving; put everyone at ease; make the jokes funny, not only for the room, but for a broad, global TV audience of millions; put up with glaring scrutiny afterward.
“There are only a few people who can do this job — it’s hard to do,” concedes comedian Ellen DeGeneres, about to give it a go herself as Oscar host.
In the last two years, both Chris Rock and Jon Stewart — popular comedians with plenty of youth-market cachet — were accused by critics of not being able to satisfy all the aforementioned job demands.
While perhaps not as edgy a choice as Rock or Stewart, the 49-year-old DeGeneres boasts as strong an awards-hosting resume as can be found outside of gig regulars Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg — qualifications highlighted by the successful high-wire act she negotiated during the 2001 Emmy telecast.
Hosting the TV biz’s big kudocast less than two months after 9/11, DeGeneres was lauded for establishing a subdued tone to the evening and keeping everything appropriately funny. Among those who noticed this nuance was Laura Ziskin, producer of the 79th annual Academy Awards.
“I was invited to sit in the truck when they did that Emmy show, and Ellen blew me away. It stuck in my head — if I got asked to do the Oscars again, I’d ask her to host,” says Ziskin, who was particularly impressed with DeGeneres’ ability to somehow make an anxious group of trophy hopefuls chill out.
“If the night fails, it’s not just the host, but on what the winners say and what they do,” Ziskin adds. “She’ll help those people relax. The more comfortable the environment, the more likely we are to see people as they are.”
DeGeneres was waiting on the call.
“I’d been wanting to do this for a while,” the comedian says, noting she’d been turning down Emmy encores in recent years in hopes of such an Oscar request. “It was definitely something I had been dreaming about for a while.”
The gig comes at a challenging time, with her Warner Bros. syndie strip in the midst of sweeps. “It’s not nothing,” quips DeGeneres, who’s managed to cram in additional writing time for the Oscar telecast into her daily grind in recent months.
Asked if she’s freaked out by the scrutiny endured by colleagues like Rock, she replies: “Everybody approaches this differently — Chris Rock is a totally different comedian. I don’t think there’s only one way to do this. I thought David Letterman was hilarious, even though the (negative) press (regarding his 1995 hosting turn) has built upon itself over the years.”
She adds that she’ll stay away from jokes “that make fun of the business”; she’ll also pay close attention to pacing, “trying to not make the show just really funny at the beginning, but spread it out throughout the whole night.”
Asked if she’s examined any of her predecessors to provide a template, DeGeneres cites Johnny Carson, who hosted the Academy Awards five times from 1979 to 1984. “I don’t look at anybody and say, ‘This is how I want to be,’ ” she asserts, “but Johnny Carson had such a calm confidence, a classiness about him. I just like him a lot.”