Smile, David Letterman. You may soon lose your place in the history books as the worst Oscar host ever. The turkey could go to Jon Stewart.
Stewart has the potential of being a catastrophe of Cecil B. DeMille-sized epic proportions when he holds forth on the stage of the Kodak Theatre on March 5. Sure, he's edgy and full of the kind of defiant 'tude that attracts young hip TV viewers, but he's a comic assassin. When Stewart aims his jokes, he goes in for the kill.
That's what Chris Rock did last year when his potshot at Jude Law backfired, causing Sean Penn to rally to Jude's defense by going off script during the ceremony to insist that Jude is "one of our finest actors!" It was a snafu that's still talked about today and one that threatens to haunt Rock for eons.
The reason that Billy Crystal, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson reign as Oscar's greatest hosts is because they joshed affectionately with their peers while never losing a sense of awe for the augustness of the occasion. Can anti-establishment rebels like Stewart, Rock and Letterman get that? It's one thing Chris Rock certainly didn't understand — dismissing the whole occasion as only something those silly gay guys care about.
A great Oscar host is humble while presiding over a moment in history. "Welcome to the Academy Awards," Bob Hope once famously said, "or as it's known at my house, Passover." Another variation on that same gag, but in a different year: "We're all here to celebrate Oscar — or as he's known at my house, The Fugitive!"
Comedians like Jon Stewart exult in their own cockiness, not humility.
A great Oscar host appreciates the fact that he's presiding over Hollywood's family reunion. It's important, for example, to acknowledge esteemed seniors present, like Steve Martin did when he hailed Mickey Rooney in the audience, saying, "Mickey, I'm sorry we couldn't get you a better seat, but Vin Diesel is here."
Ah, just the right touch. An affectionate tweak, not a slap. And the audience — and Mickey — loved it.
When acknowledging the family rascals, it should be done with playfulness. "Roman Polanski's here," Steve Martin once said, "Get him!"
And if certain family members are in a family way, it's important to note so. "As host, I have a lot of duties to do tonight," Billy Crystal said. "If Warren happens to be on stage, if Annette goes into labor, I have to be her Lamaze coach. But she's a pro and I know she'll do it in one take."
Jokes can be savage, even cruel, but only if counterbalanced with affection. In 1981, when the Oscarcast was bumped a day while America waited to see if President Ronald Reagan would survive an assassination attempt, host Johnny Carson took a huge gamble. Knowing that the bedridden ex-actor was watching from his hospital room when the show finally went on, Carson suddenly launched into criticism of Reagan for cutting government spending. He called it "Reagan's strongest attack on the arts since he joined Warner Bros." Shocked viewers watched on in embarrassed silence, which Carson let linger for a painfully long while. Then he winked and said confidentially to the audience, "I'll bet he's up and around now!"
Oscar's chief gag writer Bruce Vilanch once described the perfect host: "It's best to have an insider who the live audience is comfortable with. You don't want them to feel like this is a person you jobbed in."
But that's what Oscar bosses have done this year by jobbing in another cocky New Yorker — much like David Letterman — who has never been chummy with the California film crowd.
Are they crazy?
"Oh, what could Jon Stewart possibly do wrong?" you ask.
Stewart, let's face it, is famous for insulting his hosts — and without an affectionate follow up.
Remember what he said to Tucker Carlson when he appeared as a guest on "Crossfire"? After mocking Carlson for wearing a bow tie, Stewart fumed, "You're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show!"
OK, so Stewart had a private beef with Carlson that fueled his outburst. ("What you do is partisan hackery!" he railed at the "Crossfire" host.) But Stewart had no apparent grudge against the Magazine Publishers of America last September when he agreed to emcee a discussion about magazine humor.
Once underway, no one was laughing when he launched into attacks against Time and Cosmopolitan that didn't end in punch lines.
He told Cosmo editor Kate White, "You clearly have disdain for your readers."
Then he turned on editor Jim Kelly for Time's handling of the Valerie Plame case: "One federal prosecutor says 'let me see your notes' and immediately everyone pulls their underwear over their heads and hands it over! Not only that — Newsweek breaks the story!"
One thousand of those magazines' advertisers watched on in the audience, dumbstruck at the sight of a very unfunny prima donna in meltdown mode.
"I don't consider the print media as relevant," Stewart harrumphed at his hosts who had paid him an appearance fee of $150,000 to lead a discussion about comedy. "I didn't say you weren't important. I just said you were at the kids' table."
Obviously, he wasn't kidding. Stewart's appearance at MPA turned out to be one of the biggest media debacles of 2005.
So considering that, how do you think Stewart will handle his job hosting that big media event out west in March? Can this guy be all warm, fuzzy and cuddly? And convincing at it?
Keep in mind that he didn't do a very good job hosting the Grammys in 2001 and 2002. At least he wasn't too arrogant, though. The Hollywood Reporter described his performance as "hopelessly awkward and uncomfortable."