Hosting the Oscars is as thankless a task as performing the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Sure, it’s an honor to be invited, but you have to do an extraordinary job like Prince or Steve Martin to get any accolades at all. Pull off a passable but lackluster Maroon Five- or Neil Patrick Harris-level performance and you’ll receive loads of scorn. It’s no wonder the Academy had such a difficult time finding a host for this Sunday’s ceremony, after Kevin Hart stepped down amid the revelation of some homophobic past tweets. This year, the Oscars will not have a traditional host.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, though. There was a rudderless show in 1939, and after the departure of longtime master of ceremonies Bob Hope, the Academy dropped the host format completely from 1968 to 1970. In fact, we can blame Bob Hope for a lot of this: He set such a high standard for so many years, followed by fellow exemplary emcee Johnny Carson, then Billy Crystal’s somewhat madcap yet still respected approach to the awards. People usually look to these three, the most prolific hosts (19, 5, and 9 times, respectively), as the communal gold standard. Why did they soar when so many before and after them did not?
There’s a specific, tricky alchemy necessary for a successful Oscar host. Here it is.
1. The host must be beloved and respected by not only Hollywood but also the audience
Take Bob Hope, for example. A former vaudevillian and host of his own variety series on radio and specials on television, he knew how to command a stage. Hope was a social Hollywood insider, with the perfect persona for an Oscar host: He was a respected performer who the audience loved, but he had a self-deprecating humor that was never going to overshadow the stars he was introducing. He was also a consummate ad-libber, an ideal talent for the host of the biggest awards show of the year where many unexpected things might happen (we can only imagine what he would have said about the 2017 Moonlight/La La Land mixup). Luckily, a lot of Hope’s Oscars routines are still available on YouTube, where we can enjoy one-liners like “Look at those Oscars, isn’t that something? Looks like Bette Davis’ garage,” and “Welcome to the Academy Awards. Or as it’s known at my house, Passover,” a nod to the fact that he was never nominated for an acting award (though he would eventually receive several honorary Oscars over the years).
Hope was a gimme. Someone like Seth MacFarlane, not so much. One funny throwaway line on a previous awards ceremony led to MacFarlane’s disastrous 2013 hosting gig, which bottomed out with the sexist musical number “We Saw Your Boobs,” referring to the films when certain actresses went topless. The over-the-top humor that (sometimes) serves MacFarlane well on shows like Family Guy and American Dad was not palatable enough for the mainstream Academy Awards. The following ceremony, the Academy asked Ellen Degeneres to come back after a seven-year gap.
2. The host has to be noticeably comfortable on a stage in front of hundreds of millions of people
It’s got to be the most intimidating gig in the world, knowing that even your smallest flub (you had one job, John Travolta) will be pored over for not just days but possibly years to come. Remember how even Madonna clammed up singing “You Must Love Me” from Evita in 1997? The deer-in-the-headlights Oscars debuts from Degeneres and Jon Stewart were understandable, but not that fun to witness. Both hosts were noticeably looser and much better during their second stints. (Notably, Stewart’s return gig opened with a filmed bit about how all the other previous hosts—Crystal, Martin, Chris Rock, and Whoopi Goldberg—turned the gig down.)
Self-assured performances by Carson made it look easy, his monologues filled with jabs at Los Angeles traffic and weather, which landed with the home crowd while making the viewers out there in TV land feel like they were in on the joke. He also played up the vital self-deprecation factor, poking fun at his well-publicized divorces: “You don’t realize what a thrill it is for me to appear someplace without being subpoenaed.” As the longtime host of The Tonight Show, Carson was used to turning the attention over to people even more famous than he was.
3. The host has to be be aware that they are not the star of the show
It’s Hollywood, where the hierarchy starts at the top with movie stars like Julia Roberts and George Clooney and works downward. Carson obviously got that, as have talk show hosts like Degeneres, Stewart, and Jimmy Kimmel. Their main job is to make other people seem more interesting. This makes them solid candidates for awards-show hosting: Though the man currently behind The Tonight Show’s desk, Jimmy Fallon, veers into the making-it-all-about-him territory, his Glee-inspired Emmys opening is still a high-water mark.
But stars are stars, so when you give someone like Jerry Lewis a microphone in front of the whole world, you have to be prepared not to get it back for a while. Lewis’ mid-’50s antics impeded the proceedings, even though he was paired with co-hosts like Celeste Holm who did their best to rein him in. Chevy Chase also made a major misstep on his first and only solo Oscars turn, greeting his audience with “Good evening, Hollywood phonies.” Not a team player? Out of there.
There’s only one successful rogue instance that comes to mind, and that’s Chris Rock’s dressing down of #OscarsSoWhite in 2016. His monologue is brutal, less a performance than a lecture, but in the second year in a row with no black acting nominees, well-deserved. Rock said: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist,” despite being a town “with the nicest white people on earth: They’re liberals.” He called out Hollywood as “sorority racist. It’s like, we like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.” The next year, Moonlight took home the big prize.
4. The host is encouraged to give the stars a light dusting, but there are limits
This is where Ricky Gervais went so wrong at the Golden Globes, steering into mean-spirited territory. He went right after the Hollywood Foreign Press, the organization behind the event, and one of its more inexplicable, category-agnostic darlings in 2010: “I’d like to quash this ridiculous rumor going around that the only reason The Tourist was nominated was so the Hollywood Foreign Press could hang out with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. That is rubbish. That is not the only reason. They also accepted bribes.”
Oscars hosts are a bit more genteel, and usually (MacFarlanes and Lewises notwithstanding) know when to quit. Poking fun at the rich, beautiful, and famous is just part of the fun for the ordinary schlubs like ourselves watching at home. These quasi-pointed comments are better received when they come from a person generally considered the pinnacle of nice, like Degeneres. So when she made a big deal out of Jennifer Lawrence’s falling-down-at-the-Oscars habit in 2014 (on the stairs to the stage the year before, on the red carpet that night), even Lawrence was doubled over. “If you win tonight, I feel like we should bring you the Oscar.”
A well-respected absurdist like Steve Martin also gets a bit of leeway. Like his 2010 dig at frequent nominee Meryl Streep, who usually gets her share of ribbing during the Oscars broadcast: “Everyone who ever works with Meryl Streep always ends up saying the exact same thing: Can that woman act, and what’s up with all the Hitler memorabilia?” A joke at the host’s own expense is always well-placed, and Martin also pulls those off with aplomb, like this closing remark in 2001: “Hosting the Oscars is like making love to a beautiful woman. It’s something I only get to do when Billy Crystal is out of town.”
5. The host should take risks, but only if they’re the right ones
It’s a shame that Neil Patrick Harris, who offered the most energetic hosting opening number in the history of the Tonys in 2013, bombed so spectacularly on the Oscars stage in 2015. He tried hard, but in the wrong ways. His opening number was a tepid version of his Tonys one, he took the stage in his underwear, and he spent way too much time on a magic stunt that involved a locked briefcase. His fellow Oscar writers should have warned him that that laborious gag was doomed from the start.
Oscar viewers like flashy and short; it’s a stumper why producers keep foisting so many extended montage sequences on them. The fearless Whoopi Goldberg—both the first solo black Oscars host and the first solo female host, with the cachet of being an Oscar-winner herself—was able to win the audience over immediately by taking a fashion cue from Queen Elizabeth I on a night when Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench were both nominated for playing the monarch. Her opening remarks: “Good evening, loyal subjects. I am the African Queen.” Another hosting gig in 2002 featured her in Moulin Rouge gear. These costumes were not only fabulous visual jokes—they also carried a bit of the vital “I don’t give a fuck” factor. It’s the Oscars, but so what: Can’t we still have fun with it? Granted, sometimes that “I don’t give a fuck” factor can swing too far the other way, most famously with James Franco’s passive performance and Anne Hathaway’s increasingly frenetic attempts to liven up the proceedings in 2011.
Case in point: Billy Crystal kicked off his Oscars legacy in 1989 by putting a cough drop in his mouth and doing tap-dancing sound effects into a handheld mic. Even Jack Nicholson cracked up. Crystal’s reputation as host is now more closely tied to elaborate filmed intros that insert him into the nominated films, but he clinched the gig by reminding the Oscar audience that they were there to have a good time. In all the pomp and circumstance, sometimes that’s easy to forget. It’s why Hugh Jackman did so well in his sole hosting outing in 2009, just by offering us a surprisingly sincere and energetic pared-down song-and-dance routine in which he admitted, “I haven’t seen The Reader,” due to everyone being in line to see Iron Man again.
Jackman is a perfect example of the many multi-hyphenates in contemporary Hollywood. Any of us could come up with a short list of prospective hosts in a matter of moments: Tiffany Haddish. Kate McKinnon. Donald Glover. Melissa McCarthy. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Maya Rudolph. Jon Hamm. Tom Hanks. Ellie Kemper. Will Ferrell. Billy Eichner. And with only two solo female hosts (Goldberg and Degeneres) and two solo black hosts (Goldberg and Rock) in 90-some years, Oscar hosting could definitely benefit from a more diverse lineup.
Will the Oscars suffer from not having a host this year? Probably not. There likely will still be some sort of opening number (not of the 1989 Snow White singing “Proud Mary” with Rob Lowe variety, hopefully; Crystal started off the show the following year by asking about the applause: “Is that for me, or are you just glad I’m not Snow White?”), but the lack of a monologue will probably make for a shorter show, always a good thing.
After all, most years we don’t see the host much post-monologue, anyway. They introduce a few people after a costume change, and maybe incorporate a cute stunt, like Ellen DeGeneres’ record-setting selfie or Jimmy Kimmel’s running gag of a jet ski being awarded to the person giving the shortest speech. This year we won’t have that touchstone person on the stage at the end, offering some version of the perennial wisecrack, “Wow, those four hours just flew by, didn’t they?” But by that time we’ll likely be asleep/too drunk to care. Or just relieved that Price Waterhouse made sure the Best Picture envelope went to the correct movie.
Of all Oscar-host high points, though, the greatest of all was by no one mentioned above. It was elegant actor David Niven’s shining moment, when a streaker strode across the stage in 1974, flashing a peace sign. After the shock of the crowd subsided, Niven deadpanned, “Isn’t it fascinating that the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.” That kind of grace under pressure is something all Oscar hosts aspire to, and most of us can only dream of.