There have been 88 Academy Awards ceremonies, but only three late-night TV stars have been hosts. The fourth star arrives Feb. 26 at the Dolby Theatre, when Jimmy Kimmel makes his Oscars debut at the 89th Academy Awards.
You’d think “late night” and “Oscar night” would go together, but over the years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has thought otherwise. So as Kimmel steps to the stage, history and tradition are tilted against him.
There’s no reason this can’t be the beginning of a long, prosperous relationship, either.
But Kimmel just might need a little advice first. I’ve taken a look at the other late-night TV Oscar hosts to see what they did right (or wrong). I’ve also sought the counsel of Don Mischer. He’s the legendary director and producer of live events — including three Oscar telecasts — who also produced last year’s Emmys telecast, which Kimmel also hosted.
JOHNNY CARSON (1979-82, 1984)
After Bob Hope (19 Oscar ceremonies) and Billy Crystal (9), Carson (5) was the most successful Oscar host in history. Yes, Carson was a “late-night TV host” but that’s like calling Meryl Streep an “actress” or Tom Brady a “football player.” The job title doesn’t even begin tell the whole story.
By the early ’80s, Carson was a Hollywood meta-figure, much like Hope had been during his long run. He had also transcended TV, much as Hope had long since transcended his old “Road” pictures. He was Johnny. He wasn’t just king of late night. He was king of Hollywood.
As such, Hollywood royalty was being served by Hollywood royalty on those Oscar nights. Carson’s longtime lawyer/manager, Henry Bushkin — with whom Carson had a bitter falling out — wrote in his 2013 memoir that for Carson, the Oscars gig “just reinforced his sense of his own imminence.”
Recall that during a broad span of Oscar history, the host did not arrive on stage immediately, but only after 10 minutes of Academy self-aggrandizement had been served. That typically involved a long opening musical number which preceded a speech by the Academy president. The audience was restless. Carson was primed. He opened the 51st in 1979 with this: “I see a lot of new faces here, especially on the old faces.”
Carson’s reliable go-to joke usually had to do with broadcast length, or “two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show.” He memorably used himself as a punchline, too, and killed with this during the 56th Academy Awards in 1984:
“You don’t realize what a thrill it is for me to be someplace safe without being subpoenaed.” (His third wife, Joanna Holland, had filed for divorce the year before.)
He continued, citing that year’s top films: “It has been a fun-filled year. My personal life has been exactly like this year’s Academy Awards. It started off with ‘terms of endearment.’ I thought I had ‘the right stuff.’ Then came ‘the big chill.’ And the last few months I’ve been begging for ‘tender mercies.’ ”
LESSONS LEARNED Sorry, Jimmy, but there is or was only one Johnny, so you can’t be him. You don’t need to. Here’s why: The key to his success during those years had been refined over many years as “Tonight” host. Carson was first to know if a joke bombed, and knew how to recover effortlessly. (“That joke will be very big in Tunisia, where we are going for the first time tonight.”)
He also understood the night wasn’t about the host, but about the movies. Mischer says, “When you’re producing these, you hope that the comedy is built around things that have happened during the season — the films, the stories in the films. If the comedy can be related, it seems more indigenous to the evening.”
DAVID LETTERMAN (1995)
Letterman hosted just one show and posterity has been unkind. Even Dave figured he had bombed big-time, while some still trace his fall from late-night grace (if only temporarily) to just two words: Uma, Oprah. (Seated in the front row of the Shrine Auditorium were Oprah Winfrey, far to the left, and Uma Thurman, far to the right. Dave thought it would be funny to introduce the two of them from the stage. He later topped the joke with “Does anyone here know Keanu?”)
Dave’s Oscar adventure has been written about endlessly, but journalist Steve Pond, in a 2005 book, “The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards,” did a particularly vivid job of sorting through the dirty linen. Sources told Pond that Letterman and producer Gil Cates hardly interacted, and that Letterman was inaccessible to the rest of the production team. He also refused to use material written by veteran Oscar comedy scribe Bruce Vilanch. Dave wanted to wear a suit, not a tux. He didn’t shave for days before the telecast — with some people doubtless wondering whether he would for the big night. A premonition of disaster gripped the production.
It turns out that Letterman wanted to use his own material (which was his right) and to do an opener that reflected the spirit of his CBS show, also reasonable because that show was a big hit at the moment.
Dave walked out on stage, and within a minute launched into “Oprah . . . Uma . . . ”
It was to become the greatest bomb in Oscar hosting history, but here’s the surprise: It wasn’t a bomb in the moment. The audience politely laughed; even Oprah Winfrey politely laughed. No big deal. What sealed Dave’s Oscar doom is that he assumed it had worked, and then repeated it. And then repeated it a third time.
In hindsight, Letterman’s monologue was good. He had some keepers, including this classic, referring to the nominated movie, “Eat Drink Man Woman”: “Coincidentally, as I understand it, this is how Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Maria Shriver out on their first date.”
LESSONS LEARNED First of all, don’t bother shaving, Jimmy. We’re used to the beard, and have been for years. So that problem’s solved. Second, do return the producers’ calls. Third, use at least some of head writer Jon Macks’ material. (He’s a funny guy, and one of the most facile Oscar writers around.)
Third, no “Uma, Oprah.”
Letterman also made the mistake of transposing the spirit of his show to Oscar night. The poor fit was obvious. There was an even larger, existential problem: He had a well-established and well-advertised disdain for Hollywood. Some of that disdain came through.
That shouldn’t be an issue for Kimmel because “he’s completely comfortable being there,” says Mischer, “and he has a kind of special relationship with the audience in the room because so many have been on his show.”
JON STEWART (2006, 2008)
Admittedly, Stewart was not a late-nighter in the mold of Letterman or Carson, but he did offer a potential solution to a pair of problems. Viewership had been dropping since the 70th Oscar awards in ’98 when “Titanic” won, and the Academy figured this cool/hot star would be able to do something about that. That was a miscalculation. Both of Stewart’s outings delivered some of the lowest numbers in Oscar TV history, while the 80th awards in ’08 remains the all-time low (18.66 million viewers).
What happened? In retrospect, nothing obviously bad at all. Stewart left his “Daily Show” self back at home and brought a more restrained version of himself instead. He had a couple of keepers, including this “Björk couldn’t be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her.” (The vice president had been involved in a hunting accident just weeks earlier.)
In an interview with Newsday just before the telecast, Oscars producer Gil Cates said, “what we try to do is have the show reflect the year that the movies are nominated in, and in this case that’s 2005 [and] the films that are getting critical attention and this year [are] about politics and subjects that were thoughtful. It seemed like a terrific host would be someone who could navigate those waters, and Stewart is a very versatile and thoughtful guy.”
LESSONS LEARNED Could it be that Stewart was actually too restrained both nights? To viewers, or certainly his fans, Stewart was about coiled rage, and the therapeutic release that comedy offered. He was about fury, and injustice, and the avarice of institutions along with their craven leaders. Yet there he was, before one of the world’s most powerful institutions, which itself had no shortage of avarice or craven leaders. Both in style and temperament, Stewart and the Oscars were a mismatch.
Kimmel’s advantage here would seem obvious because he is part of the industry, not apart from it.
But like Stewart, he is also expected to take a scalpel to current politics and a new president. Unlike Stewart, Kimmel is not driven by rage (but like Stewart, he knows good material when he sees it).
Per Mischer, “because of the profile of the election in 2016 and all that followed, it’ll be hard to avoid it because it’s been so much a part of the national conversation. But if I were producing this I would hope it wouldn’t become the only thing in the show.” Besides, he adds, a lot of winners will be making “their own personal observations” throughout the night.
JIMMY KIMMEL (2017)
Well, you made it, Jimmy. Congratulations. You’ve waited for this big moment, trained for this big moment. And if you have been paying attention, you also know that hosting Oscars is one of those double-edged swords that can end up slashing the host. The rewards are significant, likewise the downside.
What should you do? Be yourself, but not too much of yourself. Keep your late night show out of the mix, which means no “mean tweets,” no “lie witness news,” no “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship.”
Sure, go ahead, bring Matt Damon into the show. What’s a running feud if you can’t run with it on Oscar night, too?
And sure, deliver the Trump jokes, just not too many. Overkill on that front already looms. Make more jokes about the movies and hope that viewers have actually seen them. Be topical, not obtuse. Be funny, not bland. No Uma. No Oprah.
Again, be yourself.
LESSON TO BE LEARNED “Just from knowing Jimmy, I know this is something he’s always hoped to have an opportunity to do,” says Mischer. “He’s fully qualified and ready to do a great job.
“So I would say to Jimmy, ‘Know what you want to do and how to do it, and then just go and do it. . . . Walk out there and feel good about being out there. Have a good time.’ ”