The announcement of each year’s Oscar nominees may get the most attention in terms of media buzz and water cooler chatter, but the announcement of the Oscar host (or hosts) takes a close second. It requires considerable charisma and skill to keep the Academy Awards ceremony moving along at a brisk, entertaining pace. The following hosts may not have brought home statuettes of their own, but they can always claim the honor of making Oscar-winners laugh.
If you ask a random stranger to name a single Oscar host, “Billy Crystal” is the name that rolls most easily off most people’s tongues. The comedian has played emcee for the ceremony nine times between 1990 and 2012. Although he’s had some missteps, Crystal also has a feel for the mix of teasing wit and broad humor that works for the awards show. Even straight out of the gate, Crystal showed off his instinctive talent for lampooning both attendants and previous hosts. His first joke as an Oscar host poked fun at the 1989 Oscar ceremony, when Rob Lowe and an actress dressed as a Disney princess performed an infamously awkward musical number. As the audience applauded, Crystal quipped, “Is that for me, or are you just glad I’m not Snow White?”
Bob Hope and Johnny Carson hail from Hollywood eras that are starting to fade into nostalgia. The Oscars tend to have a short shelf life, rich with pop culture references that lose their immediate humor as the years go by. Nonetheless, Hope and Carson are an essential part of the awards show history. Hope hosted twice as many times as Crystal, clocking in at eighteen appearances. Carson hosted five times, but made a big impact during the 1970s and 1980s. Hope was always gracious when sharing the stage with his various co-hosts, and both Carson and Hope were quick with the snappy one-liners. Contemporary hosts could take a cue from both of these legendary emcees.
Whoopi Goldberg knows the thrill of winning an Oscar firsthand, after winning in 1991 for her supporting role in “Ghost” (1990). Three years later, she was back up on the stage, this time serving as the emcee. Goldberg was the first woman and the first African-American entertainer to host solo. Fortunately, Goldberg tackled this historic milestone with aplomb. She would come back three more times. Her most spectacular performance came during the 1996 ceremony, when she was able to diffuse a tense atmosphere with her warmth and sparkling wit. She even made a few well-timed jokes about Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was protesting the show, and David Letterman, who had disastrously hosted the previous year’s ceremony.
Steve Martin hosted the Oscars on his own twice, in 2001 and 2003. The comedian originally became famous for his irreverent and offbeat sense of humor. While wacky, it can hide a bite. This was readily apparent during Martin’s hosting duties, which charmed many viewers and kept the pace clipping along. Though his jokes could be a little harsh, audiences appreciated his willingness to take shots at the rich and famous. One of his jokes involved lampooning a little dinner party he’d hosted with “Mel, Julia, Tom, and Gwyneth.” At another point, he joked, “How are we doing on time? Oh, we’ve got five hours.” His dry, slightly ruthless sense of humor evoked some equally funny reaction shots from the stars who were watching.
Jon Stewart may not have fared very well during his 2006 hosting gig, but in 2008, he came prepared to make the audience love him. As the long-running host of “The Daily Show,” Stewart has a blend of acerbic wit and disarming charm. While the Oscars ceremony was a switch from his usual political focus, Stewart managed the transition to pop culture jokes with finesse. After noticing the somber and violent line-up of Best Picture nominees, Stewart joked, “Does this town need a hug?” This quip proved Stewart’s significant talent for sneaking a little social commentary into even the most innocent joke.
Hugh Jackman has a gentlemanly quality that seems to hail straight from the Golden Age of Hollywood. A true entertainer, Jackman knows how to stay refined and classy while still having fun. Jackman also brought his Broadway background to the show, which was a fitting move for a night that requires a lot of showmanship. After joking that financial cutbacks had left the Oscars ceremony without an opening number, Jackman performed a musical skit with purposefully makeshift props. Some audience members may have missed the ribbing tone that Academy Awards ceremonies often take. Still, there was something slightly refreshing about Jackman’s decision to focus on the light-hearted side of Hollywood. Not going for the usual roast resulted in an interesting change of pace.