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Oscar Rocks

Standup a surprise choice for kudos host

The last time Chris Rock hosted an awards show, Madonna and Britney Spears French kissed during the opening act.

Yet unlike the MTV Music Video Awards — which Rock has hosted three times — the comic’s next gig probably won’t allow for such brazen displays.

On Thursday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced that Rock will host the 77th Academy Awards, airing Feb. 27 on ABC.

Considering Rock’s rep for raunch, the selection seems a little risque for the Academy, whose past picks have tended toward mainstream entertainers such as Bob Hope and Johnny Carson and, more recently, Steve Martin and Billy Crystal, last year’s host. (Crystal will be performing on Broadway in February.)

It is not, however, the first time the Academy has made an offbeat selection. In 1995 David Letterman was an esoteric choice (one that failed when he proved unable to expand beyond his “Late Night” shtick), and recurring host Whoopi Goldberg at times rivals Rock in raunch.

Goldberg and Rock are the only African-American hosts to date.

Rock, a generation younger than any host before, has built a career — from “Saturday Night Live” to his eponymous HBO standup series — on biting, politically incorrect humor that invites as many censor bleeps as it does laughs.

As VMA host last year, he bluntly suggested that Jennifer Lopez take two limos home — “one for her ass.”

Sighting R. Kelly in the crowd (the rapper was nabbed for having sex with a minor), he encouraged the Olsen twins to sit on the other side of the auditorium.

When MTV exec VP Salli Frattini, who exec produces the VMAs, heard that Rock had been tapped Oscar host, she said, “The first question that came to my mind was, Does that mean that the format of the Oscars is going to change? Chris is a really great host, who writes a lot of his own material… I would be surprised if he would tailor it to a more general audience. Maybe the Oscars are changing their format.”

Indeed, considering this year’s five-second delay during the Oscarcast — lest there be any wardrobe malfunctions — Rock would seem to pose a challenge for the show’s organizers. Or at least one would imagine his performance guidelines to be very, very thick.

The Academy says delays this year are ABC’s call. “I hope there’s no delay,” said this year’s producer Gil Cates. “I’m not a believer in delays.”

As for Rock, if the Acad has any worries, it’s not letting on.

Cates — who’s returning from a yearlong hiatus to produce his 12th Oscar ceremony — said of Rock: “He’s hot, edgy and contemporary, and I think he’ll bring extraordinary energy and vitality to the show. I think Chris knows that he’s hosting the Academy Awards show. While he’s edgy, he recognizes what he’s doing. The guy makes G movies. He’s a very smart dude. His humor, if you think about it, is intellectual humor. (But) he presents it with a lot of scatological humor.”

“We like someone who’s a movie star and someone who’s a standup, who can run a room, deal with the unexpected and who doesn’t panic when things have to be speeded up,” Cates continued. “I think he’s one of the funniest comics performing and so does (Academy prexy) Frank Pierson.”

As for loosening the show up to accommodate the performer, Cates insisted, “Of course we’re not changing the format for Chris Rock!” Rock is the fifth Oscar host Cates has introduced. Others are Crystal, Goldberg, Letterman and Martin.

Cates points out that all of his hosts raised skepticism in one way or another when first chosen.

“When Whoopi came to the show, they thought, Oh, wow, that’s strange,” he said. “David Letterman was from the East. Billy Crystal, even. The first time (he hosted) they wondered if he was going to play to Middle America. They thought Steve Martin would be too intellectual.”

Cates says he chose Rock because “he just makes me laugh. It’s as simple as that.”

Rock’s appeal to younger viewers also doesn’t hurt, though Cates maintains that the potential ratings boost in younger demos would be a “byproduct” of having Rock, not the reason he was selected.

Although the Academy Awards show rebounded this year to 43 million viewers after an all-time low of 33 million in 2003 — blamed partly on that year’s pictures (“Chicago” was not as hot with auds as “Lord of the Rings”) as well as a then-struggling ABC — the ceremony’s ratings are generally lower than they were a decade ago.

One reason is the abundance of competing awards shows, from the VMAs to the Grammys to the Golden Globes, all of which have grown in exposure over the last several years.

Rock’s popularity with younger and urban viewers will be counted on to draw more of the 12- to 34-year-old MTV generation, which isn’t necessarily revved to hear more of Crystal’s kvetching.

“His style of production and his association with artists and celebrities reaches very broad audiences,” MTV’s Frattini said. “He’s certainly on the top list of our favorite hosts.”

Rock has won three Emmys, two for his 1996 HBO special “Chris Rock: Bring the Pain” and another in 1999 for “The Chris Rock Show.”

Film credits include a leading role in DreamWorks laffer “Head of State” and Disney’s 2002 pic “Bad Company.” He’s currently shooting Paramount’s “The Longest Yard” with Adam Sandler.

(Justin Chang contributed to this report.)

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