When Twitter isn’t busy being funny ha-ha, it kills time being funny strange. Soon after Ellen DeGeneres announced that she was hosting the Oscars for the second time, the disgruntled murmurings began. Most of these groans, it’s worth noting, came from people who are generally more invested than average civilians in Twitticising the internal goings-on of the Oscar telecast. I mean, I guess, obviously, right? Why would anyone else be bothered?
The comments ranged from mild cluck-clucks (“she’s such a safe choice”) to borderline ugly (“She’s old, so she’s perfect!”). Of course, to those complaining, the selection of Ellen DeGeneres as host could never be credited to her hard work over several decades, her rise through the ranks of comedians to become America’s most popular daytime TV personality, or her tireless efforts as gay advocate for celebrities and teens coming out confidently and without fear of repercussions. Ellen led the way and cleared a safe path for many to follow.
And it couldn’t be that she’s so comfortable in front of a crowd her contagious good nature puts audiences at ease (part of the reason she’s maintained her successful talk show for years now and won or shared a total of 20 Emmys since 2004. Count ‘em up). And it could never be that she is one of the few people who knows how to be funny without being offensive — and if there’s one thing we learned from last year it’s that offensive doesn’t fly with everyone involved with the Academy. Jamie Lee Curtis was one of many who voiced her outrage at Seth MacFarlane’s hosting job. The Academy needed someone who could boost ratings, but not scrape up those ratings at the expense of their respectability.
This has already been a landmark year for gay rights in this country, given the recent Supreme Court ruling to uphold gay marriage. Ellen and her wife Portia were among the earliest gay couples to wed in a public way. That makes her an ideal role model and trailblazing embodiment for the right here, right now Oscars. Sure the Academy could also have brought back Whoopi Goldberg to help drive home their visible effort to be more diverse (assuming she wanted the gig). Or they could have gone with another straight white guy to ensure the most cozy Oscar night for straight white guy Oscar viewers. Good vibes on Twitter might not translate to good ratings — although ratings were stellar for her previous stint in 2007 — and then there’s the morning-after sneering to contend with.
To get it out of the way early I’ll just say that the very last thing I care about when it comes to the Oscars is who’s hosting. Even after the outrage last year at Seth MacFarlane, the only thing I could think about was the hypocrisy of an industry that is driven by sexism, where so few films starring women were even able to enter the race at all. Getting angry about a few off-key jokes would miss the bigger picture.
The truth is, though, despite wanting to lure the fratboy demographic, “edgy” is never a good tone to carry throughout a very long, mostly tedious show. It’s perhaps a better match for the sloppy and dirty Golden Globes — but even the HFPA felt Ricky Gervais trampled the tightrope of irreverent sophistication that Tina Fey and Amy Poeler balanced so beautifully. Maybe Seth MacFarlane would have brought the house down at the Globes, but the Mean Girls duo were edgy enough without being offensive — so no one complained. Gervais seemed to regard his invitation as a dare and apparently took it too far for the Hollywood foreign press, which makes it even more improbable that he could ever be trusted to host the Oscars.
Just look at their Best Picture winners. Do you think the crowd that picked Argo, The Artist, the King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire could handle anything even the slightest bit edgy? And if that crowd can’t handle it, they aren’t going to laugh. And if they aren’t laughing, the host gets nervous and the TV audience can smell blood in the water.
Did you know that in all of Academy history only two women have ever done the job alone? Two. Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen DeGeneres. Women have sometimes co-hosted but they never gave the job solely to a woman until Goldberg did it in 1993.
Carrying the whole show solo demands the ability to bring so many elements together at once. It isn’t just about being funny or having good comedy writers to back you up. It isn’t just about being a big star and drawing the eyeballs of pre-packaged pockets of fans. It’s about the ability to carry off an opening number so solid that the audience feels they’re in good hands — and then to hang in there, popping in and out for reassuring guidance for the duration of the show. To my mind, Ellen DeGeneres has what Billy Crystal had: a natural knack for wry friendly humor. That rare gift of people who keep coming back to the mic and each time they step on stage we’re glad to see them again — we’re already smiling in anticipation of what they might say next. They both have warmth, humanity and don’t have to be mean to sell laughs with gasps.
So, you might think Billy Crystal wasn’t the greatest host, or Bob Hope wasn’t either. Maybe you liked Jon Stewart/Steve Martin/David Letterman better — I loved them all in their own way. I would love to see Bill Maher host. But that’s because I’m a contrarian. I like to see people kick up a fuss politically. But I honestly can’t imagine Maher going there. Why would he want to host in the first place? Why would Seth MacFarlane or Ricky Gervais want to host the Oscars if it means watering down the acidic attitude that made them famous in the first place?
That gets us back to why anyone would complain about the Academy hiring a gay woman who is in her 50s and still working at the peak of her career. Does everything that happens in Hollywood need to have a cock-handle attached to the rudder? With DeGeneres in place, the very least we can expect is a pleasant ride with a few amiable laughs along the way. No one will complain the morning after and the ratings will be decent — especially if the Academy picks popular movies as they did last year. A plus if they can somehow wrangle Jennifer Lawrence into the ceremony. Who are we kidding, Lawrence could snart on screen and she’d still get a nomination. Having Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Julia Roberts in attendance certainly won’t hurt.
The choice for this year’s Oscar host was one of the first things Cheryl Boone Isaacs did once she took her place as the new Academy President. It wasn’t her idea but she approved it immediately. One of the great things about having a woman in charge? She won’t say no to another woman just because she has long since passed the age 25.
Getting people to watch the Oscars would never be a problem if their choices become more interesting, as we’ve seen from ample evidence whenever that ‘if’ became ‘when.’ Sure, audiences will tune in when the movies they pay to see are honored — and that pile is getting smaller and smaller as the years wear on. The Academy probably isn’t going to change their own insular tastes any time soon. To many younger viewers, the members of the Academy are viewed as old and out of touch — and they’re not tricked into thinking otherwise if there’s a trendy host pushing the wheelchair.
The Oscars are an annual extravaganza of conspicuous excess. In recent years Oscar nigh has become an experience we share as a community huddled around the fire — as millions of live-tweet hecklers throw sticks and stones at those being celebrated. People are tuning in mostly to see the prettiest apes all dolled up in their finery. We coo at some and throw handfuls of poo at others. Ellen will be funny. She’ll be charming and maybe even a little moving because she is one of the few who can mix humor with sensitivity. I applaud the Academy and Cheryl Boone Isaacs for this decision — I don’t think they will regret it.
Now, let’s just make sure some excellent films make it to the Big Show so we have more to get worked up about than the opening monologue.