The Catch-22 of Oscar Hosts

Kevin Hart Oscars

Until yesterday, the 91st Academy Awards did not officially have a host. The announcement that Kevin Hart will assume the role came exceptionally late compared to other years–perhaps indicative of the conundrum which was the focus of a Hollywood Reporter piece published yesterday (before the announcement was made) entitled “Why Oscar Host Has Become the Least Wanted Job in Hollywood.” 

Essentially, hosting the Oscars has become a thankless job for the people who are the exact demo the Academy seeks out when selecting a host. First, it’s a big commitment that requires a lot of work for comparatively low pay (going by what these people are used to raking in). Second, it exposes the host to boundless criticism from both professional media and social media, who will pick apart everything they do (or don’t do) in real time. Third, the host is inevitably blamed when the Oscar ratings are lower than they have been historically–even though the Oscars do better than most televised award shows and despite the fact that TV ratings have been declining across the board in the last twenty years. The days when there were only three networks to choose from are long gone, but ABC’s insatiable drive for ratings hasn’t accounted for the deflation. Why would an established television comedy presence volunteer for that? Say you’re part of the current late night crop–why not just stay in your lane and avoid the hassle? 

On the flip side, both ABC, which has committed to being the Academy’s home for a long time to come, and the Academy itself severely restrict the talent pool they are willing to consider in the first place. ABC’s interests lie within its own brand and the money it will make from advertising–which, of course, requires ratings. This means they have little interest in recruiting a host from another channel and even less interest in hiring someone without an established name to sell the show to potential viewers. The Academy, meanwhile, has a rep to protect. They won’t approve of any host who might be controversial and sully their respectable brand. That means the smaller late-night hosts like John Oliver or Samantha Bee are also off limits. 

And there’s the conundrum: the people both ABC and the Academy would agree on don’t want the gig, but they’re unwilling to think outside the box. I can think of several lesser-known comedians who would do a fantastic job (my ultimate wish would be for a 2 Dope Queens reunion with Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson hosting, but I know that will never happen). Hosting the Oscars would be a game-raising thrill for comedians like them–and well worth the risk of criticism. 

If not a comedian, why not an actor? This is something the Academy has tried before with varied success. Comedic actors are, obviously, the preference (Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, and now Kevin Hart, just to name a few), but they aren’t necessarily the rule. Think of how wonderful Hugh Jackman was as a host and what a thrilling surprise his interpretation of the role was. 

Of course, actors are probably just as reticent as late-night hosts–especially after the debacle of the James Franco-Anne Hathaway Oscars. Franco and Hathaway have endured not-so-gentle criticism for their performance ever since–and even though Hathaway won an Oscar shortly after, she has often been forced to shoulder the brunt of the complaints. Why would another actress want to have the same experience? 

If the Academy wants to rectify its host problem, it needs to either address some of these concerns or stop thinking along the same lines year after year after year. Kimmel was largely a good host but the show stalled every time he and the producers tried to manufacture a moment that everyone would talk about on social media (a problem I’ve written about before). In his first year, he surprised a tour group of so-called Oscar superfans by bringing them into the auditorium–or at least, it was supposed to be a surprise. Conveniently, all the superfans had their smart phones at the ready to record the moment (and why would Oscar superfans be on a tour bus during the ceremony anyway?). His second year was worse, when he gathered a group of celebrities to interrupt a showing of A Wrinkle in Time (a movie made by Disney, ABC’s parent company, of course). Ellen Degeneres excelled at these moments in her second gig as host, but not everyone has her skill set. 

Getting away from cheap stunts would be a thrill, which is why a respite from late-night hosts is actually a good idea. Maybe Kevin Hart will be great. I doubt it, but I might be wrong–if nothing else, hopefully his hosting gig will signal a sea-change in the type of person hired for the job. 

Remember how great Hugh Jackman was? I guess it wasn’t exactly a surprise since he had already successfully hosted the Tony Awards several times by then, but wasn’t it a thrill to have a showman instead of a quipster? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have variety like what he brought to the table? Think about this: Rita Moreno stole the show last year when she presented. Wouldn’t she make a fantastic (and unpredictable) host? 

It’s not just the landscape of television and film that has changed dramatically–audiences have changed, too. We don’t want speech after speech after speech broken up only by Bob Hope throwing out a couple of one-liners. We need better representation and solid dashes of surprise. And until ABC and the Academy are ready to give them to us, their hosting problem isn’t going to go away. 

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