AWARD ceremony or TV show? The Oscars continue to try to be both and continue to end up as neither. It's become this odd mix of reverence and irreverence.
And then in the middle of it you put a comic. Jon Stewart's presence made the telecast feel even more openly conflicted between satire (an extension of the audience at home, yelling at the TV) and sanctimony (an extension of the audience in the house -- the people who show up specifically to win and generally to perpetuate the mythology of their craft, or the actor's art).
Stewart was there, of course, to say that none of it mattered. In the end, I think, he won himself a position as permanent host. He came out and did a stiff monologue, one that included a kind of "band joke" (no Bjork this year -- "she was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her"), then proceeded to slowly take over the tone of the whole enterprise.
Say this: As a host choice, Stewart changed the show's tone, made it more of an ongoing spoof. He was slyly political, importing his "Daily Show" audiovisual aids -- a clip package, for instance, spliced together to suggest that westerns have always had gay undertones.
Taking a look at the giant Oscar statuette as part of the set, he asked: "Do you think if we all got together and pulled this down, democracy would flourish in Hollywood?"
It wasn't so much that he was funnier than Chris Rock or Steve Martin or Billy Crystal, but that the voice of his comedy is different -- different in its scorn of Hollywood, and certainly disdainful of a three-hour-plus exercise in cinematic idolatry.
Stewart lives to mock to within an inch of its life the day's news, mostly out of Washington, on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." But he goes after things like Senate filibusters and Scott McClellan's daily White House media gaggles; he rarely bothers with Hollywood.
In this way, he's training a generation to react to the world with mockery-as-knowledge. It's both a good and a corrosive thing, better for another discussion, but it was this approach that the Oscars decided to import, to get better ratings and to make, one supposes, a better TV show.
As TV comedy, anyway, the gambit worked, even if you couldn't help notice the look of vague comprehension on the faces of the stars themselves. Stewart's monologue might have played as a kind of well-written chore, but then he hit his stride as the show went on, mostly by doing what he does so well on his own program -- jokes out of videotape.
"And none of those issues were ever a problem again," he deadpanned after a montage of issue-oriented movies like "Silkwood," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "In the Heat of the Night."
Satire or sanctimony -- the twin themes battled it out to a draw, Oscar in conflict with itself. And so there were two audiences Sunday night -- the people in the house, the stars, whom the cameras repeatedly found looking perplexed or frozen by the show's best bits (the faux anti-Dame Judi Dench campaign ads, voiced by Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report") and the audience at home.
Stewart wears his ego differently from other big-name comics; he keeps insisting he's this nobody from basic cable, this little Jewish guy (he loves to call attention to his Jewishness, all the time, as if he knows it makes him more huggable).
But if, in their monologues, previous hosts took cutting jabs at the celebrities in the front row, their jabs nevertheless retained a certain awe for the collective craft in the house. It was beautifully captured Sunday night by honorary Oscar recipient Robert Altman's art-as-sandcastle-being-taken-out-with-the-tide metaphor.
Stewart was smart enough not to touch Altman's moment. He'd shipped in from New York with his culture-steeped head writers and his basic-cable outsider-ness and proceeded to make the event better TV, a lampooning of the Oscars that was repeatedly interrupted by the Oscars, or the other way around -- after a while, it was hard to tell which.
OSCARS ACCORDING TO JON
"Tonight is the night we celebrate excellence in film -- with me, the fourth male lead from 'Death to Smoochy.' "
-- Explaining his place in the film pantheon
"Both films are about determined journalists defying obstacles in a relentless pursuit of the truth. Needless to say, both are period pieces."
-- Referring to best picture nominees "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck"
"Bjork couldn't be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her."
-- Referring to the singer's 2001 swan dress