Tuesday, February 28, 2006

OSCARS....all about Jon

A First-Time Oscar Host in Search of That Fine Line
Five years ago, when the staff of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" gathered for the first time to watch the Academy Awards together, the writers spent three hours shouting jokes at the television and lampooning the self-congratulation on display EDITOR'S NOTE: WOW. SOUNDS JUST LIKE OSCAR NIGHT CHEZ QOTD!, all in the service of feeding their own show the next day.

Virtually the only person they spared was the host, Steve Martin, who had impressed them with one-liners "that had some teeth to them but didn't necessarily make him an unwelcome guest at the party," recalled Ben Karlin, then Mr. Stewart's head writer.

In two weeks, like a gadfly who rails against City Hall for years, only to wake up and find himself elected mayor, Mr. Stewart will stand where Mr. Martin was that night, armed with punch lines drafted in consultation with Mr. Karlin and six other "Daily Show" writers, among others.

The assignment, which includes writing and delivering a monologue, is among the most daunting in show business, even in a good year for Hollywood. But while Mr. Martin had blockbusters like "Gladiator" and "Erin Brockovich" as fodder in 2001, Mr. Stewart and his rookie Oscar-writing staff have been laboring to extract humor from somber, little-seen films like "Munich," "Crash" and "Capote." Not to mention sifting for something fresh and funny to say about "Brokeback Mountain" that hasn't already been done on "Saturday Night Live."

"To not talk about 'Brokeback Mountain' at the Oscars would be like going to the White House correspondents' dinner and not talking about the president," said Mr. Karlin, who also hinted that he was sharpening a few presidential — and, perhaps, vice presidential — barbs. "We're doing it. Same goes for 'Herbie: Fully Loaded.' " EDITOR'S NOTE: DID HE JUST COMPARE "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN" WITH "HERBIE: FULLY LOADED"? OR WAS HE COMPARING THE PRESIDENT TO "HERBIE"? (EITHER WAY WORKS...JUST ASKIN)

Asked if any particular celebrity should fear the wrath of Mr. Stewart's tongue, Mr. Karlin warned: "Meryl Streep has gotten a free ride for too long. She's going down."

For Mr. Stewart and his "Daily Show" staff, landing the March 5 Oscar gig is by far the most high-profile assignment in a meteoric, 18-month stretch that began with a ratings surge in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election and has continued with a spinoff ("The Colbert Report") and a best-selling parody of a social studies textbook, "America: (The Book)."

But while those efforts have largely been fueled by poking gentle fun at the establishment (especially the government and the news media), Mr. Stewart has, at least for one night, signed on to lead the establishment's ultimate talent show, transforming himself from class clown to head of the class, and from Hollywood outsider to A-list insider.

In that vein, the selection of Mr. Stewart brings with it some risks — for him and for the producers who chose him, and not least for ABC, the television network that is trying to reverse a slide in Oscar viewership. Somehow, Mr. Stewart and his writers must be arch enough to bring along the 1.4 million viewers who lap up "The Daily Show" each night on Comedy Central, while being broad enough to win over perhaps 40 million other people who typically watch the Oscars but may never have seen "This Week in God," a sendup of religion that is a "Daily Show" staple.

"We're hoping to disappoint fans of 'The Daily Show' and similarly disappoint new fans who had no idea who Jon was," Mr. Karlin, now executive producer of both the Stewart and Colbert shows, said in an interview.

Turning serious, Mr. Karlin, who previously worked as an editor of a satirical newspaper, The Onion, said, "When you step outside the process and think about it, you realize that the thing you're working on is going to be seen by more people than anything you've ever done."
"That's a great motivator," he added. "I would put that second to fear."

If Mr. Stewart is feeling any preshow jitters, he did not betray them in an interview last week.

"So you give up a home run in the All-Star Game," he responded when asked if he feared bombing in front of tens of millions, to say nothing of Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks. "You're not risking anything. This is a reward. If I made my living hosting awards shows, then this would be a perilous track, I guess."

Mr. Stewart and his team of writers (including four others hired in Hollywood) are responsible for perhaps 15 minutes of a show that often exceeds three hours: an opening that will be assembled in advance, the monologue, and a handful of bits that will be inserted throughout the evening.

And yet, perhaps even more than the performances that win some awards, Mr. Stewart's work that night is what could be remembered for years to come. Billy Crystal's medley of phony best-picture themes ("It's a Wonderful Night for Oscar, Oscar, Oscar") has become ingrained in the collective memory, as has David Letterman's infamous attempt to introduce "Oprah" and "Uma" from the stage in 1995 — a bit that actually got a big laugh, at least the first time he said it, for its forgotten punch line ("Have you kids met Keanu?").

"It's really live television, the way God meant it to be," said Bruce Vilanch, a writer on 15 previous Oscar broadcasts who is returning this year, after a two-year hiatus, mostly to write introductions in various award categories.

He added, more ominously, "A joke you could throw away on 'The Daily Show' will resonate for the rest of your life." EDITOR'S NOTE: UMMM...YEAH. NO PRESSURE, THOUGH.

So as not to spoil the suspense, Mr. Stewart and his team — including David Javerbaum, another Onion veteran who is head writer of "The Daily Show" — were understandably reluctant to give away much of their game plan. But they did offer some clues.

They are working closely on their opening with Troy Miller, the veteran producer who helped Mr. Crystal, an eight-time host, create those technologically seamless openings in which he appeared as a character in various movie scenes.

As for Mr. Stewart's Oscar sensibility, the writers said they were trying to replicate the tone set by Mr. Martin in that first year they watched him, when he somehow told fresh jokes about the stars' obsession with plastic surgery and giveaways, but also zinged a few actors sitting only a few feet away.

"Ellen Burstyn did something not many actresses would do for a role in a movie," Mr. Martin said that night. "She made herself look 30 pounds heavier and 20 years older."

"And," he added, after a pause, "Russell Crowe still hit on her."

From the audience, the camera showed Mr. Crowe glaring menacingly.

However much he seeks to poke fun at black-tie Hollywood, Mr. Stewart is expected to pull up well short of the line trampled by last year's host, Chris Rock. He told the crowd in his opening that "there's only four real stars" and the remainder of them were "just popular people."

In terms of political satire, Gil Cates, who is producing his 13th Oscar telecast, said his host was welcome to take on the Washington establishment, "as long as it's evenhanded." EDITOR'S NOTE: WELL WHERE'S THE FUN IN THAT!?

Mr. Cates said he selected Mr. Stewart, 43, in consultation with the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Asked to synthesize Mr. Stewart's appeal, Mr. Cates, 71, said, "He's hip, he's with-it, he's 'today.' " EDITOR'S NOTE: I'M PRETTY SURE IT'S AGAINST THE LAW FOR MR. CATES TO USE THE TERMS 'HIP', 'WITH-IT', AND 'TODAY'. (AND JUST IN CASE, HE SHOULD PROBABLY STAY AWAY FROM 'YESTERDAY' AND 'TOMORROW' TOO).

As a fringe benefit, Mr. Cates said he hoped that Mr. Stewart — whose show attracts a viewer whose average age is just over 41 , according to Nielsen Media Research — might attract younger people to the Oscars, whose typical viewer last year was 47. EDITOR'S NOTE: SO NEXT YEAR WE HAVE TO START TELLING PEOPLE ABOUT THE PARTY ON THE QT? SO AS NOT TO BRING UP THE AVERAGE? (DRAT).

Because he has not had much of a movie career — beyond small roles in comedies like "Death to Smoochy" and "Big Daddy" — the selection of Mr. Stewart had surprised some in Hollywood. Asked if he had approached other potential hosts, Mr. Cates declined to comment, citing a longtime policy of reticence on such matters.

"I can tell you," he said, not so cryptically, "that I did know that Billy Crystal was doing '700 Sundays' and was not available." EDITOR'S NOTE: OOOH. COLD. POOR JON.

Asked if he feared being rejected as an outsider by the nominees arrayed in the first few rows at the Kodak Theater, Mr. Stewart said he was at peace with his relative station in Hollywood.

"If I had the kind of movie career they had, I'd be sitting in the audience," he said. "I wouldn't be the jerk onstage directing traffic."

"They need a tummler," he said. "They need a social director."


By Sandy Cohen
Jon Stewart just won the Heisman -- the comedians' version. As host of the Academy Awards, Stewart joins an elite group that includes Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson.

"It doesn't mean you're going to have a good pro career, or even do well in the bowl game," Stewart says, sitting in his Manhattan office behind a desk cluttered with papers. "But to get to that point means something. Now you're in the club."

Membership requires entertaining a television audience of more than 40 million, plus getting laughs from some of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Stewart's up for the challenge. It's why he took the gig. The huge audience. The intense glare.

But between preparing for the Oscars, hosting Comedy Central's award-winning fake news program "The Daily Show" and caring for his newborn daughter and 19-month-old son with wife Tracey, Stewart is going for a record-breaking season.

Punctuated with a smirk.

"Some people will burn themselves to the nub," says the 43-year-old. "I've decided to exist in a sea of mediocrity. That's allowed me to do all my tasks, but to in fact do them poorly."

He's even allowed his familial obligations "to suffer and absolutely corrode."

"What we're hoping is, in my daughter's first two weeks, she's not going to remember a whole lot of this," he says. "So instead of me being there, I just take my deodorant and jam it in her crib. She'll have the faint smell of me but won't really know I haven't been an influence."

In reality, Stewart and his "Daily Show" writing team are putting on the nightly program while preparing material for the big night on March 5. They'll do that until the week before the Oscars, when Stewart will land in Los Angeles with just a handful of writers in tow. He hasn't even had time to see all the nominated films yet. EDITOR'S NOTE: WELL, NEITHER HAVE MOST OF THE WORLD...OR PROBABLY EVEN MOST OF HOLLYWOOD....SO HE WON'T STAND OUT FOR NOT HAVING SEEN THE FLICKS, I GUESS.

But if he's nervous, he's not showing it.

"If I had to go out there and surf, that would be a problem," Stewart says. "But you know, it's just comedy."

The New Jersey native started doing stand-up in New York in 1986. He moved to television in 1990 as host of Comedy Central's "Short Attention Span Theater." Stewart also hosted his own show on MTV and appeared in such films such as "Half Baked" and "Big Daddy" before taking on hosting duties at "The Daily Show" in 1999. Since then, the program has become a cultural touchstone, even the main source of news for many young people.

"Hopefully I've done enough things that prepare (me) to walk out in front of an (Oscar) audience and do the jokes," he says.

Besides, what he's really excited about is "getting to use the same bathroom Steve Martin did" and enjoying "refreshments" in the green room.

"My sincere hope is that there are some fun-size chocolate bars backstage, in say, a wicker basket," Stewart says. "Whether they be Musketeers or Milky Way, not really the issue."

Though he's known for his irreverent approach to comedy and current events -- Dick Cheney's recent shooting incident was like "a gift" -- Stewart says he won't get too topical, even in this year of highly political Oscar contenders.

It's not "The Daily Show," he says. Accepting the gig means abiding by Oscar convention.

"He's 78, I'm 43, I will defer," he says. "I'm not an anarchist. I'm a comedian."

Stewart and his staff have free comedic rein and plan to focus their jokes on the Oscar pomp, he says. But the serious subject matter of the year's best-picture candidates -- revenge, racism, injustice, murder and doomed romance -- could present some challenges.

"You're gonna see a ton of 'Munich' stuff. Lots of hilarity to be mined there," Stewart deadpans. "This would not be the easiest song parody in the world to pull off. Not a whole lot rhymes with 'Syriana' or 'Capote.'"

The comedian's reputation for cracking wise on political affairs adds interest to the Oscars, says Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, who called Stewart a "public intellectual." EDITOR'S NOTE: IN AN ERA OF SO FEW EVEN PRIVATE ONES.

Time magazine named Stewart one of its most influential people of 2005. Outside the United States, "The Daily Show" is broadcast on the news channel CNN International.

"To have a public intellectual host the Oscars, that doesn't happen too much," Thompson says. "My biggest worry would be that he'd upstage the entire night." EDITOR'S NOTE: GIVEN HOW HEAVY THE NOMINATED FILMS ARE, THE ACADEMY WOULD PROBABLY BE FINE WITH A LITTLE COMIC UPSTAGING. (A SORT OF 'BAIT-AND-SWITCH')

Stewart says he's just hoping to deliver a competent performance. He hopes to avoid "doing something so screwy," a la David Letterman's infamous Oprah/Uma, that it's repeated every year as Oscar lore.

Besides that, even bombing would be OK, he says.

"I've bombed in front of many fine audiences filled with many talented people," he says. "And if this is that night, well, that's the way it goes."


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