Judging by the Kodak Theatre audience's reception to Jon Stewart, he will find his place in Oscar hosting history alongside Chris Rock and David Letterman, both of whom were judged to be poor hosts, either for their celebrity-bashing jokes (Rock) or their immature antics (Letterman). Despite the fact that Stewart (like Rock and Letterman) did an admirable job, the audience didn't seem to like him.
Coming back from one break, Stewart pretended to be in mid-sentence. "And that is why I think Scientology is right, not just for this city, but for the country," he said, clearly mocking some stars' commitment to Scientology. Hollywood sat silent.
An admitted and unashamed progressive himself, Stewart later made fun of the film industry's perceived liberalness, telling viewers the Oscars are a chance to "see all your favorite stars without having to donate any money to the Democratic party." Our favorite stars barely chuckled.
Instructing the audience to not pirate films, Stewart referred to the rich and lavishly dressed audience and said, "These are the people you're stealing from." Those people did not find his remark funny.
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As with many of Stewart's lines, the laughter for these jokes was mostly distant, perhaps coming from the high balconies, far away from the celebrities. When we saw the faces of the stars, they were blank, or awkwardly smiling, perhaps pretending to chuckle.
A few got it: the cameras kept returning to Jamie Foxx, probably because he was laughing along with viewers. By comparison, Joaquin Phoenix looked dreadfully constipated every time a camera found his face, completely unmoved.
As Jon Stewart closed the show, he said, "I hope you had a nice night," and the audience hesitated before clapping politely. His interaction with the theater's crowd was going so bad that at one point, he said, in his usual self-deprecating way, "I am a loser."
When all else fails, try the Cheney joke
One of Stewart's few big laughs came when he suggested Bjork, whose swan dress was a standout of the 2001 Oscars, was unable to attend because she had been shot by Dick Cheney. But the audience laughed most uproariously as Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin introduced honorary Oscar recipient Robert Altman. They pretended to go off-script, offering meandering dialogue in an Altman-style tribute/joke. The theater's audiences of celebrities laughed almost too hard, as if to prove that, finally, there was some intelligent, sophisticated humor for them to appreciate.
The audience warmed up a little, particularly to the fake "Daily Show"-style ads that used the format of political attack ads to mock the campaigning for Oscars that occurs. Stewart also got some traction out of the Three 6 Mafia's energetic acceptance speech for best song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," which, as Billy Crystal did for Jack Palance's acceptance speech, he used to construct a fictional what's-happening-backstage narrative.
For the most part, however, the audience at the Oscars seemed to find Stewart's performance to be more humorless than not.
The opening sequence predicted this, suggesting that Stewart was the last possible choice for host, asked even after the voice of Moviefone. Showing a parade of former hosts refusing the job (Whoopi Goldberg said "oh hell no"), the segment asked who would want this thankless job, and the three and a half hours that followed proved that question to be a valid one.
The Academy Awards were clear to demonstrate, however, that they are not a dreadfully serious affair where humor doesn't belong.
Two CGI characters, Chicken Little and Abby Mallard, presented an award, and Ben Stiller dressed in an all-green unitard to introduce the special effects Oscar. Later, Will Ferrell and Steve Carell introduced the makeup award while wearing awful makeup, Carell looking like a drag queen without his wig or gown, and Ferrell appearing as if his face had been dragged along the red carpet.
Those moments evoked smiles and giggles. But that humor is safe, easy, and non-confrontational. It does not require the stars to laugh at themselves or their hypocrisy.
Exposing hypocrisy while being self-deprecating is what Stewart does best; in fact, it's basically all he does. Those who believe "The Daily Show" is actually "fake news" don't understand either satire or the exceptionally smart, informative humor that the show invokes on a daily basis. Stewart and "The Daily Show's" team emphasize and demonstrate the importance and gravity of the day's news by making fun of it.
But that sort of contradictory, somewhat nuanced humor didn't work well for the Oscars' audience. The theater audience's lack of laughter was judgmental and was at odds with viewers who were laughing because this was the funny Jon Stewart we know from cable.
Welcome to the circus
On the days before the Academy Awards, the block of Hollywood Boulevard between Highland Avenue and Grauman's Chinese Theatre was a bizarre sort of circus. Closed from traffic, half of the street was lined with the red carpet, which, covered in plastic to prevent damage from the feet of tourists and workers, takes a hard right into the Kodak Theatre's promenade. Behind bleachers that lined the street, huge pallets of bottled water and Coca-Cola products were stacked next to port-a-potties, all guarded by crowd-control gates.
Breezing by tourists snapping digital photos of the commotion were men and women with ID badges that announced their jobs or importance with words such as "lighting" or "all access."
Pedestrian detours force tourists to walk in access corridors, where back entrances to stores that line the red carpet are sealed with red tape that says "A.M.P.A.S. Security." Guards, often looking like teenagers wearing Halloween police costumes, lined the carpet and the backstage areas, a more visible security presence than is found outside most federal buildings in Washington, DC.
All of this is to say that it's impossible to just walk past the Kodak Theatre, which was custom-built for the Academy Awards, without getting a sense of the occasion's importance and solemnness. Walking down the red carpet — after the plastic has been removed — and then entering the theater itself must be exceptionally intimidating, giving the stars a vast feeling of importance.
Perhaps, then, we can't blame the crowd for being so humorless, so completely unclear about what's funny and what is not, and so unwilling to laugh at themselves, the chosen few.
Hollywood is often accused of being "out of touch with mainstream America," as Jon Stewart said during his opening monologue. He specifically pointed out that "this town is too liberal," joking that it's "a moral black hole where innocence is obliterated." As George Clooney pointed out while accepting the Oscar for best supporting actor, Hollywood's progressiveness often means that its films have often led the country before it changes for the better.
The real way that Hollywood is out of touch has to do with its inability to laugh at itself, and the Academy Awards are the best example. Films are important, whether they are everlasting works of art or audience-pleasing thrillers. As Jon Stewart demonstrates every Monday through Thursday evening, appreciating something's consequence and weight while laughing at it is possible, just maybe not for an audience that is too caught up in its biggest moment.
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