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Some have criticized the Academy’s choice as a little safe and unoriginal in light of the fact that Harris has previously hosted the Tonys four times (2009, 2011 through 2013) and the Emmys twice (2009 and 2013). I get what they’re saying, but I still think that it was the smartest move that the Academy could have made — even if they approached Ellen DeGeneres (2007 and last year’s Oscars host) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus first.
Why? Because the fact of the matter is that Harris is a member of a very small group that one might call the “Professional Hosts Club.” Its current members — Harris, DeGeneres, Hugh Jackman (the 2009 Oscars), Chris Rock (2005 Oscars), Jon Stewart (the 2006 and 2008 Oscars) and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (2013- Golden Globes) — are people who can always be counted on to anchor an entertaining, well-run, crowd-pleasing awards ceremony that will appeal to a sizable number of the population, and if you can get one of them you should. (Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg used to belong to this club, but the harsh reality is that they have aged out of it; one can only maintain a real pulse on the zeitgeist for so long.)
When the Academy has gone outside of this box, attempting to appear younger and edgier (with Seth MacFarlane in 2013) or hipper and more insidery (James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011), it blew up in their face. And while they might have been tempted by someone like Dreyfus — a woman who is incredibly funny when working with a script or giving an acceptance speech, but perhaps not over the course of three hours, as she herself may have realized — I think they basically learned their lesson.
Hosting the Oscars is, we’ve learned, not a job that just any funny or famous person can do. It requires catering to the taste and humor of film industry insiders in the room (many of whom are on edge about awards for which they are nominated or have already lost), simultaneously playing to the hundreds of millions watching on TV (who are more interested in the entertainment than the outcomes), as well as knowing when to make the show about yourself and when to yield the spotlight to others. Also integral are a degree of unflappability, speed of mind and level of energy that will keep viewers tuned in to a show that inherently isn’t all that interesting to most people, in the sense that it is structured around the presentation of 23 awards — the nominees for which most of the audience hasn’t even seen. (The Oscars were created, after all, by the studio chiefs to serve as a promotional opportunity for their movies.)
Nobody fits this bill better than Harris. His humor is taste-tested with both the industry (he’s revered by his colleagues and nobody’s work as a Tonys or Emmys host has ever elicited fewer complaints in the room) and the public at-large (check out the ratings of the recently ended How I Met Your Mother). In the great old show business spirit, he is willing to do anything for applause or a laugh, and his stamina is unequaled (you’d know this if you saw him performing on Broadway, or at the most recent Tonys while inhabiting the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch). And he actually knows and cares about theater, television and film (that became very clear to me when he joined me for THR‘s inaugural Tonys Actor Roundtable last spring).
See more Oscar Hosts Through the Years
The fact that he’s an openly and vocally gay person isn’t likely to deter many who would ever consider watching the Oscars from doing so; it certainly didn’t keep DeGeneres from growing the show’s ratings last year. Meanwhile, the fact that he is coming off a Broadway hit and plays a key supporting role in a current box-office hit (that might be nominated for a few Oscars) could actually lure in a few more viewers.
Could the Academy have gone with someone outside of the “Professional Hosts Club” and made it work? Sure — the current members only got in because somebody gave them a chance. The person who would have made the most sense is Jimmy Kimmel, the capable host of the 2012 Emmys whose Jimmy Kimmel Live! airs on Oscar broadcaster ABC, and I wouldn’t blame him for being irked if he was passed over. But really, other than Kimmel who outside of the club should the Academy and ABC have gone after? Proponents of Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers and Conan O’Brien have to understand that it would be foolhardy for ABC to promote its late-night competition, so look beyond that pool. Coming up with many names of people who would have been better received than Harris? I thought not.
The funniest thing is that, in the end, the Oscars telecast’s ratings appear to have very little to do at all with the work of the host or the length of the show, the two things that people bitch about the most the day after every ceremony. Instead, they seem to be tied much more closely to the popularity of the nominees. Check out the ratings history: if a film that many people have seen is in the running (Titanic in 1998, Avatar in 2010 and Gravity in 2014), then many people feel that they have a horse in the race and tune in to see the results. And if one isn’t, then they usually do not.
So, for the sake of those of us who are going to tune in no matter what is nominated, I thank the Academy for picking someone who can put on as entertaining a show as anyone.
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