By Andy Dehnart
Updated: 12:42 a.m. ET March 6, 2006
Judging by the Kodak Theatre audience's reception to Jon Stewart, he will find his place in Oscar hosting history alongside Chris Rock and David Letterman, both of whom were judged to be poor hosts, either for their celebrity-bashing jokes (Rock) or their immature antics (Letterman). Despite the fact that Stewart (like Rock and Letterman) did an admirable job, the audience didn't seem to like him.
Coming back from one break, Stewart pretended to be in mid-sentence. "And that is why I think Scientology is right, not just for this city, but for the country," he said, clearly mocking some stars' commitment to Scientology. Hollywood sat silent.
An admitted and unashamed progressive himself, Stewart later made fun of the film industry's perceived liberalness, telling viewers the Oscars are a chance to "see all your favorite stars without having to donate any money to the Democratic party." Our favorite stars barely chuckled.
Instructing the audience to not pirate films, Stewart referred to the rich and lavishly dressed audience and said, "These are the people you're stealing from." Those people did not find his remark funny.
As with many of Stewart's lines, the laughter for these jokes was mostly distant, perhaps coming from the high balconies, far away from the celebrities. When we saw the faces of the stars, they were blank, or awkwardly smiling, perhaps pretending to chuckle.
A few got it: the cameras kept returning to Jamie Foxx, probably because he was laughing along with viewers. By comparison, Joaquin Phoenix looked dreadfully constipated every time a camera found his face, completely unmoved.
As Jon Stewart closed the show, he said, "I hope you had a nice night," and the audience hesitated before clapping politely. His interaction with the theater's crowd was going so bad that at one point, he said, in his usual self-deprecating way, "I am a loser."
One of Stewart's few big laughs came when he suggested Bjork, whose swan dress was a standout of the 2001 Oscars, was unable to attend because she had been shot by Dick Cheney. But the audience laughed most uproariously as Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin introduced honorary Oscar recipient Robert Altman. They pretended to go off-script, offering meandering dialogue in an Altman-style tribute/joke. The theater's audiences of celebrities laughed almost too hard, as if to prove that, finally, there was some intelligent, sophisticated humor for them to appreciate.
The audience warmed up a little, particularly to the fake "Daily Show"-style ads that used the format of political attack ads to mock the campaigning for Oscars that occurs. Stewart also got some traction out of the Three 6 Mafia's energetic acceptance speech for best song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," which, as Billy Crystal did for Jack Palance's acceptance speech, he used to construct a fictional what's-happening-backstage narrative.
For the most part, however, the audience at the Oscars seemed to find Stewart's performance to be more humorless than not.
The opening sequence predicted this, suggesting that Stewart was the last possible choice for host, asked even after the voice of Moviefone. Showing a parade of former hosts refusing the job (Whoopi Goldberg said "oh hell no"), the segment asked who would want this thankless job, and the three and a half hours that followed proved that question to be a valid one.
The Academy Awards were clear to demonstrate, however, that they are not a dreadfully serious affair where humor doesn't belong.
Two CGI characters, Chicken Little and Abby Mallard, presented an award, and Ben Stiller dressed in an all-green unitard to introduce the special effects Oscar. Later, Will Farrell and Steve Carrell introduced the makeup award while wearing awful makeup, Carell looking like a drag queen without his wig or gown, and Farrell appearing as if his face had been dragged along the red carpet.
Those moments evoked smiles and giggles. But that humor is safe, easy, and non-confrontational. It does not require the stars to laugh at themselves or their hypocrisy.
Exposing hypocrisy while being self-depreciating is what Stewart does best; in fact, it's basically all he does. Those who believe "The Daily Show" is actually "fake news" don't understand either satire or the exceptionally smart, informative humor that the show invokes on a daily basis. Stewart and "The Daily Show's" team emphasize and demonstrate the importance and gravity of the day's news by making fun of it.
But that sort of contradictory, somewhat nuanced humor didn't work well for the Oscars' audience. The theater audience's lack of laughter was judgmental and was odds with viewers who were laughing because this was the funny Jon Stewart we know from cable.