Sharpening Oscar’s edges

As Cates' stand-up choice to host this year's show, Rock aims to lure a new male demo

After the announcement in October that Chris Rock would serve as host of the Feb. 27 Oscar telecast, producer Gil Cates constantly found himself being asked how he would “control” the Emmy- and Grammy-winning comedian.

Rock, whose razor-sharp social commentary in HBO specials and live concerts has often been augmented by language unsuitable for primetime television, seemed a risque choice.

Reflecting on those misplaced concerns with a laugh, Cates says he has no idea what people are worried about.

“I have always been a fan of Chris Rock and I think he’s one of the funniest guys working,” explains Cates. “He’s also very thoughtful and intelligent, a very interesting man. … His humor is basically intellectual humor. He deals with race and business and politics, all stuff that’s funny from the head.

“He was on ‘Saturday Night Live’ for five years, and he’s done a lot of network television, so there wasn’t a question that he could work without language.”

Not an easy gig

There was also no question, for Cates, that with former Oscar hosts Billy Crystal starring on Broadway in “700 Nights” and Steve Martin working on his upcoming pics (“Shopgirl” and “The Pink Panther” come out later this year), Rock was the right person for what is one of the highest-pressure jobs in network television.

“The principal requirement of a host is that he or she be a standup comic, someone who can really run a room, someone who feels comfortable with things that happen that aren’t planned,” says Cates. “We also love it when that person is a big movie star, because that’s the family Oscar deals with. When you think about movie stars who have that ability, it’s a very small pool.”

According to Cates, Rock has thrown himself headlong into preparation for his hosting duties, moving out to Los Angeles to begin working with writers a month earlier than hosts normally have in previous years.

Another unspoken job for Rock is attracting young viewers who have grown up with his comedy specials and watched him through the years as host of MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Record holder

At 39, Rock is the youngest person to host the Oscars since Whoopi Goldberg in 1994, and he’s close to 20 years younger than Martin and Crystal.

While Cates is quick to point out that he chose Rock solely for his abilities as an emcee, the star’s appeal to a young male demographic is seen merely as an added bonus.

“I was very enthusiastic about Chris because I thought he would be a very good host for the show. I’ve never seen someone so totally in command. His energy and drive and youthfulness on the show should be great.

“At the end of the day, if the host is not good for the job, if he’s not cast well, all the youth appeal and demo appeal doesn’t mean a thing.

“Ultimately, the host has got to be able to do the job. The fact that he will more than likely bring in a large demographic of young men in the audience is like a cherry on the sundae. That wasn’t the reason we went after him, but it’s certainly something that’s there, and we’re all pleased with that.”