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Chris Rock: Not sanitized for your protection

Oscar takes a chance by putting Rock in charge of their self-aggrandizing evening. By Linda Holmes

The question that naturally arises from the choice of Chris Rock to host the 2005 Oscars on February 27th is the same one that arose in the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercials of old: Will there be more of the Oscars in Chris Rock, or will there be more of Chris Rock in the Oscars?

In some ways, Rock is an easy choice. Entertainment Weekly named him the nation’s funniest person in 2004, and it isn’t as if Billy Crystal can keep coming back to distract attention from some of the other less successful hosts of recent years. But Rock has already offered some surprising comments about the job, including that he doesn’t watch the Oscars himself for the most part and that he expects — practically demands — a Jamie Foxx victory. Anyone who believes that you really know what you're getting when you throw Chris Rock into a nearly live broadcast hasn't seen his standup stuff.

Rock is the first truly new blood at the ceremony in a very long time. Hosting the Oscars is a task that has gone to members of a single cohort for nearly 15 years. With the exception of David Letterman's historically disastrous 1995 appearance, the only people who have hosted the show since 1990 are Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg. All three are essentially the same person in one key respect: they had grown into safety by the time they were asked to host.

Billy Crystal came to prominence playing one of television's first gay characters on “Soap,” but by the time he hosted the Oscars for the first time in 1990, he had already appeared in “When Harry Met Sally,” the quintessential edge-free date movie of its era. Similarly, when Whoopi Goldberg hosted in 1994, she was long past her one-woman-show days and had already been in two “Sister Act” movies. Steve Martin hosted in 2001, long after making the transition to Funny Warm Dad roles.

Not sanitized for your protectionChris Rock, on the other hand, has done nothing that makes him all that familiar or comfortable for, say, your grandma. Even with a lot of mainstream success under his belt, he maintains a cutting sensibility and has yet to choose to settle thoroughly on any particular family-friendly image. In fact, that's what may make the task so challenging for him. It is the job of an awards show host to be funny but not objectionable, which is why the experience tends to be so neutering in the first place.

And it’s not that good comedy can’t be clean — Rock wouldn’t be where he is if he couldn't be funny in settings where the FCC has to be reckoned with. It’s more that hosting the Oscars is an exercise in being in a ridiculous situation and correctly reading how much you’re allowed to make fun of it. Everyone has seen the moment during an Oscar broadcast where someone makes a joke at the expense of a particular actor, and that actor is then shown in the audience chuckling indulgently. The effect is to actually glorify the actor for being such a fine person as to tolerate mockery like a good sport. Jack Nicholson has made an entire second career out of giving that ambiguous look — that look like, “Heh-heh, I’m laughing, but I’m gonna kill you, but not really, but kind of — just kidding!”

In fact, one could argue that an inability to read the room and know that you can’t really make fun of it in a way that actually makes anyone look bad was what sank David Letterman. Letterman isn’t really capable of pretending not to think anything is stupid, and the Academy Awards were no exception. So the audience of pampered celebrities didn't take to him, so they didn't laugh, so it seemed like he was bombing.

In-joke lovefest
Billy Crystal, on the other hand, can play the game. There’s a good reason why Crystal’s opening medleys were what made him most famous. They were a clever way of allowing for something funny that didn’t require him to make fun of the preposterous display of ego that is a room full of people preparing to hand out awards to themselves for how wonderful they are. After all, the stupidest thing in attendance at any awards ceremony is the idea itself — the idea of a bunch of rich and famous people spending obscene amounts of money on self-celebration and expecting anyone else to care. A comedian like Crystal needs something like those medleys that can get him laughs without the awkwardness of the monologue in which yes, you can make the occasional joke about Jack’s young and pretty girlfriend, but no, you cannot point out that many of these people have spent enough money on clothes to feed a poor family for a year and their future charity work will come off just a little hollow as a result.

Yes, every host tries to do a little obligatory skewering of Hollywood, but it tends to be so toothless and obviously in-jokey that it doesn’t really satisfy. How can Billy Crystal make fun of Hollywood? How can Steve Martin? They’ve both utterly embraced images that have made them rich within their comfort levels and everyone else’s. No recent host offers anywhere near the potential for actual hostility toward the institution that is presented by Chris Rock. His recent public comments about Foxx are probably very telling in this regard — when he says he’s going to mention it on the show if Foxx doesn't win, what he’s really signaling is a willingness to question the legitimacy of the awards themselves and of the Hollywood scene, rather than just tease the audience about the day’s Page Six headline about who got drunk and hit on Hilary Swank.

The people behind the Oscars apparently decided they wanted someone who could deliver a younger crowd — the same crowd that has made a hit out of “The Daily Show” and doesn't have much interest in seeing that old guy from “Analyze This” make more Marlon Brando jokes. Will it work? It’s hard to say. What’s clear is that for the first time in about 15 years, nobody really knows what the Academy Awards are going to look like, and that can't help but be an ultimately good thing.