Oscar’s fluctuating ratings aside, the televised glam-fest remains for its hosts an unparalleled opportunity to either showcase their impeccable wit or bomb on the biggest stage in the world.
The list of hosts for the Academy Awards, whose 94th edition airs live Sunday (ABC, 8 EDT/5 PDT), is long and legendary, including nine-time master of ceremonies Billy Crystal as well as two-time hosts Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres and, most recently, Jimmy Kimmel.
But Kimmel’s 2018 show was the last to have a host, when 2019’s choice, Kevin Hart, stepped down after his past homophobic tweets were resurfaced. This year, the position has been reinstated and it falls to three talented women, only the second time a trio has done the honors: Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall.
While there is no guaranteed route to Oscar Hosting Fame, there are guidelines for avoiding Oscar Hosting Infamy. We offer up some do’s and don’ts for this year’s quick-witted stars:
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DO: Something wildly unexpected
The possibilities are endless, as long as you add a pinch of good taste.
In 2014, DeGeneres minted an Oscars Moment by cramming a gaggle of beaming stars, including Bradley Cooper and Meryl Streep, into her wide-angle phone lens for a selfie.
During a number of hosting gigs, Crystal created a clip reel where he popped himself into iconic movies and mind-read what the stars were thinking. (In 2000, Jack Nicholson’s face loomed on a large screen as Crystal mimicked: “You know what? I’m still the coolest guy in the room.”)
And in 2017, Kimmel surprised out-of-towners on a Hollywood bus tour by bringing them into the Dolby Theatre during the telecast. He told one dazzled fan from Chicago: “This is Ryan Gosling. He’s very handsome. Don’t look into his eyes!”
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DON’T: Offend the celebrities in the room
Walking that tightrope between being saying clever and offensive things to A-listers requires a deft mix of room-reading acumen and your own Hollywood star power.
There are been a number of uncomfortable moments, many courtesy of fearless comedian Rock, who in 2005 took a swing at Jude Law (“Who is Jude Law? You want Tom Cruise and all you can get is Jude Law? … Why is he in every movie I have seen in the last four years?”).
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But the all-time most offensive moment award goes to Oscar host and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who in 2013 tried to hitch his brand of racy humor to a classic Hollywood musical – and failed.
His song-and-dance number “We Saw Your Boobs,” in which MacFarlane runs down a painfully long list of female stars who bared their breasts in movies, was intercut with images of none-too-amused stars.
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BUT DO: Poke fun at Hollywood in general
In the early days of the Academy Awards, there was a palpable sense of reverence if not self-congratulation for the craft of moviemaking.
That hasn’t vanished, but in recent decades hosts have viewed the entire Tinseltown machine as fair game. “By the way,” joked host Steve Martin as the 2003 show opened, “the proceeds from tonight’s Oscar telecast, and I think this is so great, will be divvied up among huge corporations.”
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But no one was more pointedly merciless about Hollywood’s shortcomings than host Rock, whose apex tell-it-like-it-is moment was his opening monologue in 2016, when #OscarsSoWhite was trending and the lack of people of color in movies was being acknowledged as an addressable failure.
“I’m here at the Academy Awards – otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards,” Rock cracked. He added that Black actors were pushing back only now because in the ’60s, “we had real things to protest at the time, you know? … We were too busy getting raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.”
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DON’T: Be lazy (Hint: Viewers expect you to do more than just show up)
James Franco teamed up to host with Anne Hathaway in 2011, and that resulted in what many critics dubbed the worst Oscar hosting job ever.
The problem was the vast disconnect between the two actors. Hathaway looked almost too excited to be there, but at least everyone loves someone who tries. Franco, on the other hand, seemed at best like he was doing a dress rehearsal of the show, and at worst like he had just been woken up from a dead sleep.
DO: React to what just happened
Kimmel had perhaps the most difficult job ever as host in 2017, when the final award of the night – best picture – was given to the wrong movie.
Chaos unfolded as the producers of “La La Land” graciously informed the audience that they had not won: The real winner was “Moonlight.” While stunned, Kimmel immediately riffed. “Personally, I blame Steve Harvey for this,” he said, referencing the time Harvey infamously crowned the wrong Miss Universe. “Why can’t we just give out a whole bunch of them?”
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DON’T: Persist with a joke that falls flat
In 1995, a nervous David Letterman thought he had a solid gag in hand when he peered into the famous crowd. He found Oprah Winfrey and said “Oprah.” She waved at the camera. Then he walked over to the other side of the stage, spotted Uma Thurman, and said, “Uma.” Then, “Uma, Oprah. Oprah, Uma.” Then, “Have you kids met Keanu?”
The faux introduction joke fell flat, but Letterman carried on with it throughout the show. Ultimately, that did make “Uma, Oprah” a well-known gag but one synonymous with a failed effort.
DO: Use your superpowers for good
The Academy Awards notoriously run long, putting pressure on hosts to keep the festivities moving along at a clip.
That’s why it was all the more surprising when 2008 host Jon Stewart went off-script and brought back a winner who had been played off before saying a word. Later in the show, Stewart surprised the crowd by giving Marketa Irglova, who shared the Oscar for best original song with Glen Hansard for “Falling Slowly” (from “Once”), her moment at the microphone. Classy.
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