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Being an Oscar host is a difficult thing. I’ve never done it, but I’ve met two of the three most successful ones ever, and they both told me it was among the hardest gigs they’d ever done. There’ve been a lot of underwhelming performances by talented people over the years, and Ellen’s, I’m sorry to say, was another one. She wasn’t bold, funny, or controversial, though I’ll grant that she was sincere. She had some cute bits in the audience with Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, but as the show got longer I wished she’d have gotten shorter. She had one decent line: “If there weren’t blacks, Jews and gays, there’d be no Oscars. Or anyone named Oscar.”

While hosting has proved difficult, there’ve been some great one-liners by hosts through the years:

  • “So much mud was thrown this year, all the nominees look black.” –Whoopi Goldberg.
  • “It’s so good to see so many new faces, many of them on the old faces.” –Johnny Carson.
  • “Welcome to the Academy Awards or, as they’re known at my house, Passover.” –Bob Hope.
  • “Good evening, Hollywood phonies.” –Chevy Chase
  • “Probably the only laugh that man will ever get is for stripping and showing his shortcomings.” –David Niven, after a streaker ran across the stage
  • “We have black people, white people, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, Christians, all working together. All because of a single common love: publicity.” –Steve Martin

Last night Ellen joined a long list of hosts who’ve tried and not necessarily succeeded at being a comedic host. Jon Stewart wasn’t bad last year, but the “Brokeback Mountain” jokes got old in the first hour and got tired by the end. Chris Rock was decent, but it obviously was a much tamer atmosphere than he was used to. David Letterman is famous for how badly his “Ooooooomah, Ohhhhhprah” gad went. I think the worst years were when Oscar tried to put groups of people together called “Friends of Oscar.”

Who were the best Oscar hosts of all time? Well, I’d say it’s these:

  • Bob Hope, who hosted 18 times from 1939-1978, kept it light, made it funny and (most important of all) moved it along.
  • Billy Crystal, with the curious off-and-on reign of 1990-93, ’97-’98, 2000 and ’04; he made the opening film segment and opening song medley a true art form, combining overture and expectation creation with humor and music.
  • Johnny Carson, who hosted 5 of 6 years from 1979-1984, calling it “two hours of sparkling entertainment stretched into a four hour time slot.”

I think Johnny, Billy, and Bob succeeded where others have failed came in the freedom to be authentic. We’re all at our best–physically, mentally, socially and spiritually–when we can be real, where we can be ourselves. Ellen wasn’t. Chris Rock wasn’t. David Letterman wasn’t. Chevy Chase wasn’t. Robin Williams wasn’t. I don’t understand why Oscar producers pick hosts that have succeeded with a certain style that has to be tamed down on Oscar night. I hope they’ll keep that in mind when they make their next choices.

No blog posting on this would be complete without mentioning the noble efforts of Jerry Lewis, who tried to fill 20 minutes of empty time after the show ended early, as well as Agnes Moorhead, the first woman host. Perhaps a miracle will someday happen and they’ll return to the format of the first show, when Douglas Fairbanks and William DeMille handed out all of the awards in about 20 minutes. Until we get back to that, I’m hoping Billy Crystal will come back, or some new star will arise. I don’t think it’ll be Ellen.

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