Bill Carter on #OscarsSoWhite: Chris Rock Will "Take Shameless Advantage of a Shameful Situation"

BILL CARTER Ready to Rock - Illustration - H 2016
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

With Beyonce's Super Bowl show and Kendrick Lamar's Grammys performance, political statements at major TV events are in vogue. The comedian is now given the biggest opportunity to address the controversy.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The 88th edition of the Academy Awards will arrive Feb. 28 on ABC carrying with it a can't-miss comedy premise: Black host meets all-white — and red-faced — roster of nominees.

Chris Rock, the mind-bogglingly (if accidentally) prescient choice for host of this year's show, probably would generate a massive initial laugh just by walking out onstage and shaking his head dolefully at the flinching audience. Of course, he's going to do a lot more than that. With an issue fraught with racial hypocrisy hanging over the night — heart-on-sleeve liberal organization disses every minority performer in the business in favor of a cast of characters as white as the Klan heroes of Birth of a Nation — Rock can use his eight to 10 minutes onstage to play whack-a-mofo to his heart's content. The audience is going to consist of sitting ducks — the white-feathered genus.

"I can't remember the last time I was this excited to watch an awards show," says comic Jeff Ross, who has written for several of them, including the Oscars. "Hosting the Oscars is usually a thankless job, but not this year. Comedy brings people together. Comedy heals wounds. Chris is in a unique position to do that."

For that reason alone, it never made much sense for Rock to join the boycott of the event by black figures like Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee. As tweeted by Ricky Gervais, perhaps the host most attuned to the art of awards-show audience-skewering: “If I were @chrisrock, I wouldn't be considering boycotting The Oscars. I'd be thinking: ‘this shit is live. I can do some serious damage.’”

I spoke with former hosts and writers for the Oscars and other award shows, and all reached the same conclusion: No host has ever been more ideally placed to take shameless advantage of a shameful situation (though the issue remains sensitive enough that they preferred to comment on background).

One frequent host told me: "Chris is great at taking the air out of the room — and the controversy. He will make it easy for them to cut to Cate Blanchett laughing, and it will be clear that everyone in the place agrees with what he is saying. Everyone already knows this was wrong. Chris doesn’t really have to steer them there"

The show almost surely will start with a certain awkward anticipation in the air. Previous Oscar shows have addressed social issues in the news — civil rights, wars, sexism — but mainly obliquely. When Rock hosted in 2005, he took some shots at George W. Bush over the war in Iraq, but the audience was totally outside that line of fire and mostly disposed to those views.

Host monologues have occasionally touched on important but hardly boycott-worthy in-house subjects. During his long run as host, Billy Crystal liked to slam studios over the oldest of issues: money. Typical line: "There were 330 films in that opening montage, and what's amazing is, according to Paramount, not one has gone into profit yet."

The only reasonable comparison to the squirmy expectations for Rock's performance was not a previous Oscar show but the memorable Emmy Awards in 2001. In the aftermath of 9/11, the telecast was postponed twice and nearly abandoned. Finally, it was staged in November with Ellen DeGeneres as host. She overwhelmed the mood of sadness and tension with honesty and warmth, building flawlessly to her killer joke: "What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?" But in that instance, the audience in the arena could share in mocking the butt of the joke; this time their own butts are going to get kicked. And probably they are going to like it.

The Oscars did once face the potential of canceling the ceremony because of outside events. The 1981 show took place on March 31, one day after President Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt. It only went forward when it was clear Reagan would recover. Host Johnny Carson had planned many of his monologue jokes around Reagan and, given the positive news, he felt safe to include a few of the more gentle ones, like: “Reagan cut $85 million from the arts and humanities. This is his biggest assault on the arts since he signed with Warner Bros." Carson then added the kicker: "That should get him up and out of bed."

Even in noncontroversial years, it's never a breeze to persuade a performer to host. Less than an honor, most potential hosts see the assignment as a gantlet — with good reason. Many hosts have been savaged in next-day reviews. David Letterman seemed never to recover from his 1995 ("Uma ... Oprah ...") effort: For years, he used comments about bombing that night as a kind of on-air therapy. Seth MacFarlane, selected to be hip and edgy in 2013, was blasted in many quarters for a sexist tone, set by his production number "We Saw Your Boobs" and jokes like one about Jessica Chastain's Zero Dark Thirty character's dogged pursuit of Osama bin Laden: "A celebration of every woman's innate ability to never let things go."

Even Rock's first hosting gig in 2005 was greeted with many jeers, especially for his odd fixation on Jude Law. "If you want Tom Cruise, and all you can get is Jude Law: Wait!" The Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron told THR in 2014 that finding a host was the hardest part of the job. "Whether you do a brilliant job, do a mediocre job or a terrible job, you always get bad reviews," said Zadan. "It's a blood sport."

Still, if any host went into the event with the odds stacked in his favor, it is Rock. Eric Deggans, the TV critic for NPR, says: "Chris Rock has already been tacitly given license to go at this issue as hard as he wants to. If anything, the people are going to be ready to laugh at it." About the biggest risk Rock will run is letting the ritual flogging get out of hand. After he lets loose his opening comments on the matter at hand, he still will have three hours of show ahead of him, marked by the usual melange of clips, speeches, memorials, tears and shout-outs to family members and agents. "It's tough to sustain an anger vibe over that whole ceremony," notes Deggans.

Besides, Rock may have other points he wants to make. And not just about the movies and stars. The timing of his Oscars appearance is intriguing because it comes in the aftermath of other celebrated black stars using the occasion of massively seen events to make pointed, accusatory, even ferocious statements about the issue of racism in the U.S. Within the past month, we have seen first Beyonce puncturing some of the histrionics of the Super Bowl halftime show with her choreographed references to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and the Black Lives Matter movement. (Inspiring some — ineffective so far — calls for boycotts of her tour.) Then at the Grammys, Kendrick Lamar stopped the show with a pulsating rap melody backed by images of bondage and cries of anguish over the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Will Rock have something of his own to say on the race-related headlines from the platform of the most watched entertainment show of the year? He is a smart, experienced performer with a well-established point of view on the topic of race and Hollywood — and he surely knows a cultural moment when he sees one. The urge to say something that makes some noise may be inescapable.

It probably will be memorable — as long as it's funny. "Even though he's beloved, the controversy sets Chris up as the ultimate fish out of water," notes Ross. "I hope he strolls out on stage like Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles — 'Hey folks, there's a new sheriff in town.' "

Carter, a THR contributor, has covered TV for 40 years, mostly at The New York Times.