He is America’s leading anti-establishment comic, a professional provocateur, chosen to host Hollywood’s biggest insider event. But Jon Stewart knows that he dare not spoil Oscar’s party.
Although he has built his career skewering politicians and the media as anchor of his own faux newscast on cable television, Stewart says he feels genuine empathy for the film industry elite he will entertain Sunday in his first turn as emcee of the Academy Awards.
“I’m not going out there looking to blow the place up,” Stewart said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” this week. “The pressure I feel is for the ... people that are nominated ... it’s their big day, and you don’t want to screw up their wedding.”
That’s not to say that Hollywood pomp and self-importance will be off-limits to Stewart in his opening monologue.
Asked by Oprah Winfrey if he worried about ruffling feathers, the star of cable TV’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” was self-deprecating — at first.
“If I had a movie career, I might worry about that,” he said. “But what can they do to a guy who’s on basic cable? Can they bump me down to public access?”
Then, in a jab at a past Oscar winner who threw a phone at a hotel clerk last year, Stewart added: “I mean honestly, if Russell Crowe gets mad at me, it’s not like I work at the hotel he’s staying at.”
His biggest gig
For all his seeming nonchalance, Stewart, 43, knows the Oscars show will be seen by hundreds of million of people around the world, making it by far his biggest gig.
Just landing the job of Oscar host, one of Hollywood’s most prestigious assignments, has helped fuel his transformation from cult favorite into a mainstream entertainer.
Although his late-night cable TV following averages only about 1.4 million viewers, Stewart and his show have become disproportionately influential in U.S. politics and culture. Young adults, the demographic Oscar organizers are most eager to attract in greater numbers, make up the core of his fans.
Oscar producer Gil Cates undoubtedly took all that into account when he hired Stewart, a man he calls hip and ”with-it.” But Cates denies any intended link between Stewart’s left-leaning political humor and the liberal political and social overtones in many of the films in Oscar contention this year.
Stewart was already mixing politics and the Oscars on the talk show circuit this week, alluding to the furor raised by news that the company managing several major U.S. ports was taken over by a firm owned by the Dubai government.
“It’s very different this year because Price Waterhouse (the firm that counts the Oscar ballots) was bought by a company in Dubai, so the security at this year’s Oscars is going to be handled by an Arab company,” he joked on “Larry King Live.”
Cates told the New York Times recently that Stewart was welcome to be political on Oscar night, so long as he was even-handed.
The comic has critics
Not everyone is convinced that Stewart is the ideal Academy Awards emcee.
Oscar pundit Tom O’Neil calls him “hopelessly miscast,” saying Stewart’s anti-establishment sensibility was likely to backfire the way comedians Chris Rock and David Letterman were widely perceived as having flopped during their turns as host.
“You don’t mock the importance of the event. This isn’t the MTV Music Video Awards,” O’Neil said. “We expect the Oscar host to be like a beloved aunt or uncle on stage playing the ringmaster to a family reunion.”
O’Neil said Stewart drew midling to bad reviews when he hosted the Grammy Awards in 2001 and 2002.
The greatest Oscar hosts have been entertainers who were ”gracious Hollywood insiders,” O’Neil said, citing Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal and Steve Martin.
From a commercial standpoint, however, the success of the Oscars probably hinges less on the host than on the movies being showcased by the awards. TV ratings have tended to be highest in years when the films that packed the multiplexes also figured prominently at the Oscars.
A whopping 55.2 million U.S. viewers watched in 1998 when Crystal hosted and the blockbuster “Titanic” sailed to Oscar glory. He also hosted the year before when just 40 million tuned in to see “The English Patient” win best film.
None of the five movies nominated for the top prize this year made much an impact at the box office, though the prospect of “Brokeback Mountain” becoming the first overtly gay love story named best picture has generated tremendous buzz.
And for the Oscar host, there may a joke or two or three about gay cowboys.