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Oscar's choice

Jon Stewart may inject relevance into the show, but does it matter?

January 06, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

OSCAR'S desperate search for relevancy continues. With the choice of Comedy Central's Jon Stewart as the next Oscar host, the film academy has apparently opted for the host most like the films that presumably will be nominated for the award itself -- small, literate, political-ish, gems like "Brokeback Mountain," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Capote."

Did we say "small"?

Indeed, none of the critical darlings has yet to break the $100-million barrier, and for all people in Hollywood say they care about "quality," what really matters is "quantity" -- of cash, that is. But what about the host? Since the departure of Billy Crystal, who's been in the hot seat eight times, does having a great host, a bland host, a somewhere-in-the-middle host, even matter anymore?

The liberal Stewart, the bestselling author and host of the satiric newscast "The Daily Show," is certainly the Oscar host most Oscar voters would most like to eat dinner with. They TiVo his show daily, and many directors jockey to get on it.

As news of Stewart's coronation spread through Hollywood, people were cheered for just the potential break in the increasingly staid, self-important, Oscar glopfest.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Jon Stewart -- An article about Jon Stewart in Friday's Calendar section said the comedian, as host of the Grammy Awards in 2001, was met by a security guard on stage and was strip-searched down to his skivvies. That comic sketch occurred when Stewart hosted the Grammys in 2002.

"I'm excited about it," says "Chronicles of Narnia" producer Mark Johnson, an academy member and former member of the organization's board of governors. "There's such a need for relevancy in the world at large, and not just the movie business. You want to make the Oscars as relevant and sexy as you can be, within the guidelines. I have [nothing against] bad taste and vulgarism in a lot of what I listen to and see, but in the Oscars there's no place for it."

Others hope that the irreverent Stewart will cut loose a little. "The Oscars have grown into this appalling circus," says film historian and critic David Thomson. "We're trapped with it, and very often the films are not worthy. I don't think the host is terribly important, but to the degree that we're fed up with the show, a new host is fresh meat.

"A new host can say, 'I'll only do it if I can do it my own way.' That's the real bargain -- whether the real host is given liberty or the academy sits on him. If they give Jon Stewart his freedom, it would be a merciful touch. He's always against pomp. Maybe he can be fun."

Inside the insular showbiz world, what is termed an Oscar faux pas can be stunningly small. Part of Oprah Winfrey's feud with David Letterman stemmed from his stint as Oscar host when he made a bad joke about her and Uma Thurman's names -- "Oprah, Uma, Uma, Oprah...." Last year, Sean Penn felt the need to defend Jude Law's honor after host Chris Rock riffed on his dubious career choices.

Still, the choice of Stewart, cerebral and dry, carries none of the frisson of potential verbal danger that Rock brought to the job.

"I can't believe how lucky they are to get him," says director-producer Lili Fini Zanuck, who's actually produced the Oscar show in the past. "It's a very hard thing to talk anybody into. Every year, they sweat out can they get Billy Crystal." By the time they usually announce a host, it feels as if the academy has gone through a long list of possibilities, says Zanuck. Not with Stewart, she suggests. "This really feels like a first choice to me."

Sid Ganis, the academy's president, says Stewart's name came up as soon as Gil Cates was announced as the show's producer on Nov. 16. "In the very first discussion, we talked about Jon doing it," says Ganis, who had produced 1999's "Big Daddy," in which Stewart co-starred.

Cates usually refrains from accepting the job of producing the show unless he has a host in place. Not this year. He did know that Crystal and Steve Martin, past Oscar hosts, were busy, but he declined to say whether he asked anyone else.

"I never talk about who I ask and who I don't ask because I think that would be the kiss of death for me." He says he had talked about having Jon Stewart in the past, but "his time had come" this year.

The academy approached Stewart during the Christmas holiday and wrapped up the deal in a matter of days.

While Stewart is certainly popular inside Hollywood, his cable show is an acquired taste for most of the country, pulling in only about 1.5 million viewers a night, a far cry from even a routine ESPN football game, which can draw 7 million beer swiggers. Or Oscar, which even in a bad year draws 33 million viewers.

In the past, Cates said he has worried whether the host he selects will have broad appeal but is confident Stewart is "great" choice. "If we do a show that is fun and interesting and spiffy and moves along and honors movies, people will come to watch," Cates says.

Generally, the show's viewership is directly proportional to the popularity of the films nominated, highest for instance when "Titanic," the top-grossing movie of all time, was nominated.

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