Jimmy Fallon (Jennifer S. Altman/For…)
The page was barely loaded on my colleague Nicole Sperling’s scoop about Jimmy Fallon potentially hosting the Oscars when the debate began.
On one side: those who asked why the film world couldn’t find one of its own to preside over moviedom’s biggest night.
On the other: those who pointed out that a personality who simultaneously holds the room and a TV audience five times a week is best suited to do the same for one of the country's most-watched live TV shows.
There are arguments for each side. But for all one's feeling that an A-list actor would make a fine and classy choice, the data suggest that it’s a comedian or TV host we most want to see as Oscars host.
Here’s how it breaks down over the last 30 years.
Tossing out the years when people who are both stand-up personalities and veteran actors stood on the podium (most prominently Billy Crystal, but also Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg and several others), you're left with some pretty lopsided evidence.
There were three years when pure actors hosted, and five years when a pure stand-up or television host took the stage. (Jack Lemmon, Hugh Jackman and the pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway for the former, and David Letterman, Jon Stewart (twice), Johnny Carson and Ellen DeGeneres for the latter). How did they do?
The first group was hardly a stand-out: Jackman and Frathaway yielded the third- and fourth-lowest number of total viewers of the entire 30 years, and the reviews were hardly great for any of them.
Lemmon did a little better — he was a dignified choice, having won a couple of Oscars — but his was hardly a memorable telecast. The most cited moment had nothing to do with the host (it came from Sally Field and her "you really like me"). Perhaps its great achievement was that it showed that an Oscars telecast could be short. (At 3 hours and 10 minutes, it’s the second-briefest of the last 30 years.) Acting is a particular skill, and it doesn’t necessarily translate to hosting.
Things have been rosier when a stand-up or TV host takes the mic.
Johnny Carson, as late-night as they come, is considered one of the best Oscar hosts in history with his sharp timing and just-edgy-enough humor ("I see a lot of new faces, especially on the old faces"). There was a reason he was asked back so often, the last time in 1984.
He was not the only late-night host to fare well on at least one count. Even when ratings were shaky — as with Jon Stewart’s two hosting gigs — reviews were solid. And when reviews were iffy, people still watched (like Letterman, who garnered nearly 49 million viewers to make it the second-most watched Oscars in the period).
There’s no guarantee Fallon will host a great show, or, given the network politics, even get the gig. But if you’re playing the odds, his late-night chops give him an Oscars edge that an A-list actor only dreams of.