Insiders’ Oscar joke tips

Improvise, be funny early, and other tips for laughs

Oscar writers share some of their secrets for creating a kudocast.

FIRST THINGS FIRST:According to Bruce Vilanch, any material for animated presenters gets written first, since it takes time for the artists to produce the animation. Patter for the four acting award presenters is usually written next, since in most cases the previous year’s winners will be presenting. Then, as longtime talent coordinator Danette Herman books additional presenters, their material is handled.

BE FUNNY EARLY:Comedian Jeffrey Ross put what he learned from writing on Billy Crystal’s 2000 kudocast to the test as the host of this year’s WGA Awards. “The host should do most of his best material in the first hour,” Ross says, “By hour three, nominees are looking for their award, audience members are thinking about the babysitter at home and the parking lot situation after the show.” Overall, he advises, do your thing, get out of the way, and start cutting jokes as the show winds down.

KNOW THE LIMITS:Ross learned this from his mentor, Buddy Hackett. Ross adds “comedy should tease, and not hurt” on the Oscars. Sure, it’s great to poke fun at a celeb, but make sure they have a sense of humor. In the past, jokes about Robert Downey, Jr. have been thrown out to avoid offending the thesp about his drug problem. Any jokes about bigwig industryites are handled with the utmost sensitivity: Careers are involved.

JOKES STICK BETTER WITH STAGE HAMS.Actors used to playing characters are the best guinea pigs for one-liners, i.e. Kevin Spacey, Mike Meyers, and Jim Carrey. Actors possessing a more serious aura, such as Keanu Reeves and Johnny Depp, require greater care.

WHAT GLOBAL AUDIENCE?The Oscarcast may be seen around the world, but the folks who matter are in the audience, and the film fans watching at home. So inside jokes about Harvey Weinstein or Russell Crowe’s demeanor are fine. The hosts are professional comedians, after all, who respond to a lively audience; if viewers in Cairo don’t get the joke, oh well.

BE READY TO IMPROVISE:Clever comedy is great, but often the most memorable Oscar moments are spontaneous. Remember when Steve Martin brought some dip to a surprised, carrot-munching Danny De Vito at last year’s Oscars? So writers and the host need to stay alert throughout the show.

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