Is Jon Stewart too smart for this room?

The host of The Daily Show, back in a tux for the 80th Annual Academy Awards (Sunday at 8 p.m. on CTV and ABC), was seen as the Oscar saviour in 2006. It was widely anticipated that he would add edge and boost viewership among younger viewers. That he would bring down the house.

Did that happen? Not so much. Stewart badly misfired with jokes that landed with a thud on the red carpet. He called the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, for example, Ray with White People.” Cut to a wincing Jamie Foxx. He told audiences to stop pirating movies. “There are women here who could barely afford enough gown to cover their breasts.” Cue crickets chirping in the Kodak Theater.

“I kid because I envy,” Stewart joked, but the Academy audience and viewers at home weren’t laughing. (Read my original 2006 post-Oscar review here.) As for attracting more younger viewers, it was the second lowest-rated Oscar telecast ever.

Washington Post critic Tom Shales suggested Stewart should keep his Daily job. “It’s hard to believe that professional entertainers could have put together a show less entertaining than this year’s Oscars,” wrote Shales, “hosted with a smug humorlessness by comic Jon Stewart, a sad and pale shadow of great hosts gone by.”


That seems a bit harsh. Can anybody remember a single funny line from recent Oscar hosts Ellen DeGeneres or Whoopi Goldberg? Sure, Johnny Carson and Bob Hope had more stature but even they had off nights.
The guy they should have asked is Jay Leno. He’s tight with all the stars and delivers what everybody wants to hear–jokes. Whatever you might think of The Tonight Show and its muzzled, Middle America approach, Leno can still work a room. He’d kill at the Oscars.
In 2006, Stewart made the same mistake David Letterman made before him–he preached to the converted, playing to his usual viewers and not to the room full of stars and celebrities directly in front of him. The No. 1 rule for an Oscar host is this: play to the room and America will follow.
Chris Rock was always screwed. Without his F-bombs he was up there an unarmed man. Nobody wants to see Chris Rock lite. Better to have three minutes of Rock as a presenter, jolting the room like a well-aimed hand grenade.
Billy Crystal, the most successful Oscar host of the past 20 years (of which he’s anchored eight), always says that when you can make Jack Nicholson in the front row laugh, you can make America laugh. He gets that the Academy Awards are a fantasy and for one night. Viewers get to cosy up with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or to at least sit close enough to watch them all squirm.

Stewart’s schtick in 2006 wasn’t inclusive, it was an outsidery. His loyal viewers expect and embrace that, but people who tune in to the Oscars to be in on the party feel excluded by it.

So what to expect this year? Look for Stewart to have learned from his mistakes and to seize his second chance. This time expectations are much lower, which actually helps. How can he be brilliant now that he’s scrambling to catch up with The Oscars after the writers strike came this close to scuttling the whole affair? Another presumed disadvantage: the list of Oscars contenders this year is heavy on the heavy, with grim titles like Atonement, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood–hardly the stuff of comedy, or is it?

Just when you think, how can he be funny? He’ll be funny. He’ll give directions to the big post-Oscar party this year–at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. He’ll hand out the Jean Hersholt lifetime achievement award–to Sofia Milos. (Okay, only 12 people in Canada would get that.) He’ll set up a scene from No Country for Old Men and then cut to shot of Sen. John McCain. He’ll announce a late entry: There Will Be Blood on the Floor of the Democratic National Convention.

He’ll be funnier than that. A bigger question may be this: will viewers starved for some red carpet glitz roar back to the Oscars? Or is everybody still feeling a little blah about the whole deal? I’m guessing Stewart will be better but the numbers will not. Go Juno.

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