'Only Ricky Gervais can save Oscars'

Oscar hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway congratulate each other at the close of the 83rd Academy Awards in Hollywood. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Oscar hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway congratulate each other at the close of the 83rd Academy Awards in Hollywood. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
New York – Maybe it was inevitable that on such a predictable Oscar night - the acting awards and even the best picture win for The King's Speech were widely anticipated - attention would focus on the show itself, especially the hosting.

And many did see the charm in hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco, for whom the adjectives "young" and "hip" seemed to become part of their very names during the run-up to the Oscars - especially in their clever Inception-inspired opening montage.

But Oscar producers must have known their telecast was running into trouble when the night's biggest laughs went not to the newly minted hosts but to former host Billy Crystal - and even to the vintage clip he presented of the dear departed Bob Hope, with classic Oscar jokes that never grow old.

And it wasn't lost on some that even the hosts' best bit, the montage in which they inserted themselves into nominated films, harked back to Crystal's own introductory gags during his eight years as host.


No wonder Hathaway seemed so admiring of Crystal when he showed up. Not as much as the crowd, though - it leaped to its feet even before he said a word. "So, where was I?" he quipped.

So did the Academy, in its zeal to reach a younger demographic, overreach? And do the Oscars need a single, solid comedian to hold the night together?

That was certainly the case many were making online. "It looks as if the Academy will have to give the hosting honours to Ricky Gervais next year," wrote Toby Young on the website of the Daily Telegraph of London. "It's the only way to save the Oscars from certain death." On Slate.com, a headline said the decidedly laid-back Franco "Might Have Been Reluctantly Emceeing a Distant Cousin's Bat Mitzvah."

And comic Andy Borowitz tweeted during the show: "This is riveting television. By the way, I'm watching the Knicks and the Heat now."

Jamie Masada, co-owner of the Laugh Factory comedy club in Hollywood, watched the show with a group of comics including Dave Chapelle. "It got boring very quickly," he said - until Crystal came on. They all applauded.

Classic Oscar quips

"Finally somebody great! He was wonderful," Masada said in a phone interview just after the show. The Oscars, he argued, need a comedian, full stop. "A comedian keeps you connected all evening long," he said. "You wait to see what he or she is going to say about what's happening. It gives the show heart."

Masada said he especially enjoyed laughing at Hope's famous joke, in a clip introduced by Crystal Sunday, about the Oscars, "or, as they're known at my house, Passover." So did film historian Leonard Maltin, who calls it "one of the greatest jokes ever written."

But you don't have to be a comic to make a great host, or deliver a classic quip. Actor David Niven will long be remembered for his stellar response to the streaker who sped by him in 1974: "Isn't it fascinating to think," Niven noted drily, "that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"

Likewise, actor Alec Baldwin was a hit when he hosted alongside Steve Martin last year, as he was in Sunday's opening montage. As Franco and Hathaway tried to figure out whose dream they had invaded, Inception-like, Baldwin assured them it wasn't his. "If this were my dream," he said, "I'd be hosting the Oscars again." (From Baldwin's dream to producers' ears?)

Bad reviews

You can also be a popular comic and bomb at the Oscars - David Letterman has made a running joke about the bad reviews he got for his one Oscar gig.

The comic best known for his yeoman Oscar duties was Hope, who hosted the first of his 18 shows (not consecutive) in 1940, and the first televised show in 1953. Others included Johnny Carson, of course, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres.

"Standup comedians do know how to handle a room," said Jonathan Kuntz, a professor of film and Hollywood history at the University of California, Los Angeles. "They know how to handle all kinds of situations. They seem so much more confident."

This year's hosts, according to Kuntz, were not terrible and not great - just OK. "They did look like they were reciting lines," he said. "They didn't provide any classic moments."

Ratings down

But maybe that's a little much to ask. After all, the Oscars are a key marketing vehicle for Hollywood. "And Hollywood's core audience is younger people," Kuntz says. So the hosts were chosen to appeal to that demographic.

It's not clear yet how they fared - an estimated 37.6 million viewers watched this year, down nearly 10% from 2010 (but up from 2008 and 2009). Preliminary Nielsen ratings said that numbers in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic were down only 2%.

Kuntz says it's not as easy as assuming that a comic would be better. With all the comics who have hosted, he says, the next great host has not been found.

"They haven't found a Bob Hope or a Billy Crystal for the 21st century yet," he says. "You just never know until they try it. You just have to throw them out there and see what happens."
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