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Comedy's crosshairs

As host, it's often hit-or-miss. Can Jon Stewart kill the crowd or will he be the quail?

February 26, 2006|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — HAD the Academy Awards people asked, Jon Stewart would have told them how many films he's seen this year in a theater: "One," says the host of this year's Oscars broadcast.

That would be "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," written by and starring Steve Carell, a veteran faux newsman from Stewart's own faux news show, "The Daily Show."

"Tremendous film," declares Stewart. "The acting. The cinematography," and how it failed to garner major category nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- well, he'll take that up with them when he gets out there.

Stewart has only the lamest excuses for having gone to the movies once in the last year -- something about having to put on that TV show almost every night while having one little kid at home and another on the way, now just arrived, in fact, the whole Trying to Be a Good Daddy defense.

Stewart's own film career ("I like to think of it as an oeuvre," he says) runs the gamut from "Big Daddy" to "Death to Smoochy." Like one longtime host of the Oscars, Bob Hope -- the first to host it for television -- he does not have a gold statuette to use as a paperweight.

He is bummed too that the academy did not nominate "Grizzly Man" for best documentary, because of the high-concept commentary he might have wrung from Werner Herzog's existential rumination on the bear lover eventually eaten in the wilds.

Stewart explains, "I very much wanted to do a bit where the bear from 'Grizzly Man' and one of the penguins from 'March of the Penguins' came out to present best documentary. Only the bear would come out and I would go over and go, 'YOU PROMISED ME! YOU PROMISED ME! I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU DID IT! WHAT ARE WE GONNA TELL HIS WIFE?'

"But because 'Grizzly Man' was not nominated, they wouldn't let me bring a bear."

Of course, Stewart hasn't seen "Grizzly Man" either. "You'd be surprised at the jokes you can write," he says, "without intimate knowledge of something."

OK, the man has seen a few more of last year's films, even some nominated ones (just DVD versions), when certain guests were coming on his show, such as George Clooney, who somehow wrangled the titles of producer, director, writer and supporting actor for "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Syriana."

Lewis Black, the deranged commentator for "The Daily Show," thinks Stewart ought to kiss Clooney when he comes onstage Oscar night next Sunday. Indeed, he should kiss every man who walks on, Black says, and make that his bit on "Brokeback Mountain," the much-nominated film that already has spawned too many gay cowboy jokes from people who haven't seen it. Black would have Stewart give Charlize the brush and kiss all the dudes, just tell them "I love you" and let the audience figure it out.

Black also might have advised his friend to think twice about taking this gig in the first place. They may go on about how he can bring the more-than-three-quarters-of-a-century-old movie awards his hipness and a younger audience and the cachet of those great reviews he's gotten for his half-hour fake news show on cable. And maybe he is the one to make sure the Academy Awards show doesn't follow the ratings slide of another big-ticket spectacle, the Olympics. But he will be the least-known host to the Oscars' broad audience when he does the show and there will be people lying in wait -- How cruel is our world? -- for the suddenly great Jon Stewart to suddenly fail.

"It's the sort of job where you go, 'This is my worst nightmare,' " the ranter Black sums up, "but you got to do it anyway."


Fish in a barrel

THE brain trust of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" was still in full The-Vice-President-Shot-an-Old-Man mode on the Wednesday before last and by early afternoon they had one sure bit for that evening's show, thanks to Fox News. That network had run a segment to illustrate where fellow hunter Harry Whittington was wounded, except the computer-animated body Fox used looked more like a buff young stud than a 78-year-old Texas lawyer. All Stewart would have to do is show the Fox muscleman graphic, state that the unfortunate Mr. Whittington appeared to be in mighty fine shape and do one of the things he does best -- make a face, or several.

The comic double take has a long tradition. The master of late-night talk, Johnny Carson, spent decades waiting for minor absurdities of life to unfold on his set so he could offer up the reaction shots he'd borrowed from Jack Benny (the slowly turning head), Jackie Gleason (the "whooo") or Oliver Hardy (the fluttered tie). Carson just preferred that his guests provide the absurdities live, whereas Stewart's show imports them via videotape from the news -- and the news of the moment was Vice President Dick Cheney's shotgun, which was providing fodder for half a dozen bedtime stand-ups, or, in Stewart's case, sit-behind-the-desks.

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