Like all award shows, the Oscars is inherently dull, yet on television dull equals death.
Johnny Carson, one of the most successful Oscar hosts, said it best. He called the Academy Awards “two hours of sparkling entertainment, spread out over a four-hour show.”
Although Carson is best remembered for his four-year run of mild snark, self-deprecating humor and witty ad-libs, comedian Bob Hope set the gold standard for Oscar shows, hosting a record 18 times.
Both shared a light touch when it came to humor and both were comfortably viewed as Hollywood insiders, which probably made their gentle kidding of stars easier to swallow.
Carson often joked about his failed movie career and Hope never let the academy forget it never gave him an Oscar for a movie role. Still they had their gaffs as well.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Oscars became politically charged as the nation went through the throes of the Vietnam war and the rise of counter-culture social consciousness. The watershed was 1975.
The old guard, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine, and Frank Sinatra were called on to host the show one last time. It turned into a fiasco when anti-Vietnam War film “Hearts and Minds,” won for best documentary. Sinatra went off-script and lambasted the new generation of filmmakers.
That year, a young Dustin Hoffman made it hip to hate the Oscars. He saw it as a symbol of false Hollywood values and the intransigent establishment. To him, the show was “garish and embarrassing.”
The Oscars went with multiple hosts up through the mid-80s, but the program hit a nadir in 1985 when the ratings fell to the lowest level in history. After that, the Academy became obsessed with ratings and attracting younger viewers. Jack Lemmon was the last of the old guard to host the show in 1984.
Peaceniks Alan Alda, Jane Fonda and a snappy, young comedian, Robin Williams (the first baby boomer), were brought in the next year.
In 1989, Billy Crystal finally became the first baby boomer (born in 1948) to host the show solo, followed by Whoopie Goldberg (born 1955). Crystal hosted nine times; Goldberg four. Generation X took over with James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2010.
The formula for using multiple Hollywood stars as hosts had modest success in the ’80s but failed miserably this time out. The academy retreated to safer waters and went with throwback Crystal last year. But he was showing his age.
So MacFarlane was tapped as host. Is there anything cooler on television than “Family Guy?” He pulled the biggest audience in three years, but the criticism has been unrelenting for his frat boy humor and misogynistic and racist jokes.
The snooty New Yorker magazine labeled it a “hostile, ugly, sexist night.” Will the Oscars ever be cool, again? Not this year.