No Matter How Well He Does, Is Jimmy Kimmel Ultimately Doomed to Fail at the Oscars?

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I like Jimmy Kimmel. Always have. I think he’s funny and has a solid show. I rarely watch late night talk shows anymore, since David Letterman retired, but when I do, I tend to tune into his.

Also, and this is kind of important, he, like me, worships at the altar of Letterman, so really, how bad can he be?

That’s why I’m a little concerned for him and the big, untenable job he has set for himself two nights hence. Following in the footsteps of his idol, who followed in the footsteps of his idol — Johnny Carson — Kimmel signed on to host Sunday night’s Oscar telecast, which is seen by pretty much everyone as the pinnacle of hosting duties. It’s the apex, the thing to which they all aspire, because it’s the biggest audience and the most publicity and the greatest prestige, and so everyone wants to do it, even though, almost every time, they are doomed to fail, because that’s how all this works.

It happened to Letterman, 22 years ago. He had been triumphant since his 1993 move to CBS, consistently trouncing rival Jay Leno’s Tonight Show in the ratings, until two things happened. The first was that he hosted the 1995 Oscars to almost universally bad reviews, breaking out a lot of his usual schtick, like Stupid Pet Tricks and some video clips, including one in which he and a host of other stars (from Paul Newman to Barry White) recited his line, “Would you like to buy a monkey?” from the seminal film, Cabin Boy.

Also, there was the unbearably ill-considered attempt to introduce Uma Thurman to Oprah Winfrey (“Uma? Oprah!”), a line that, along with his deer-in-the-headlights discomfort running things, was something he would never quite live down for the rest of his career.

(The second thing happened four months later when Hugh Grant appeared on Leno’s show to talk about being picked up for soliciting a prostitute. Leno scored huge ratings, and then capitalized on them with a ton of O.J. Simpson trial jokes, including the Dancing Itos, putting him firmly in the number one spot, which he never really ever relinquished.)

It has happened over and over again ever since. Well-intentioned and talented folks come in and try to steer a ship that is almost impossible to steer. It’s an overlong, bloated, ultimately boring enterprise, and after the first ten minutes or so, once the monologue is finished, it’s incredibly hard to have any kind of real impact on the show.

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And that has nothing to do with the host, more often than not, simply because the way the show is designed, there’s often very little for them to do except to come out, make a one-liner or two, and then get off the stage so that some movie star or another can come out and present an award to an editor or a VFX specialist or a sound technician. Every now and again a phenomenon like Jack Palance will happen, which provides the host with nuggets of gold he or she can drop throughout the rest of the evening. Just as Letterman always carried the baggage of 1995, the 1992 host, Billy Crystal — in his prime, as good as anyone I saw in my lifetime — can point to that as a career highlight, something people still discuss when they talk about the very best hosting jobs anyone has ever done.

But, see, that’s the exception, because more often than not, there are silly gags or gimmicks the host has to try — like Ellen DeGeneres ordering pizza for the audience three years ago — to hold onto people’s attention. Even those who are considered good hosts, like triple-threat Hugh Jackman in 2009, or low key and classy Steve Martin in 2001 and 2003, or the four times that delightfully unpredictable Whoopi Goldberg did it, can only do so much (and even Goldberg’s run was hit and miss). Mostly, in fact, it’s about getting things rolling and then getting the hell out of the way.

That’s a short list, though. Most other hosts are not remembered so fondly, simply because they’re not prepared for the job in front of them. Remember James Franco and Anne Hathaway? Of course you do, because they were embarrassing, as was Seth MacFarlane, a writer and performer I normally find enormously entertaining, but who walked into a situation that was far beyond him. Same goes for Neil Patrick Harris, who had done a fine job with the Tonys and then the Emmys, both of which were seen as sort of auditions for this gig, but both of which were minuscule when compared to this.

Theater is a highly specialized audience, and while television has surpassed film for the sheer quality of content, it simply doesn’t compare to movies when it comes to public perception and glamour. Nobody grows up wanting to be a TV Star, they want to be a Movie Star, which is why the annual ratings for the Oscars regularly dwarf those of the Emmys. Just last year, in fact, 34 million viewers tuned in for the Academy Awards, whereas just over 11 million did for the Emmys.

I’m not great at math, but even I can tell that, while both numbers have been shrinking in recent years, the Oscar viewership is still more than three times that of the Emmys. That’s a lot, I don’t care how you try to spin it.

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There’s another factor here, too, which is the consistently short memory of both the public and the critics when it comes to something like this. It’s similar to the movie studios having to be reminded year in and year out that women like going to the movies, too, in that, every single year, some poor, well-intentioned and indubitably talented schmo tries to reinvent the wheel and prove to everyone that they have what it takes and can win at a job that is pretty much unwinnable, while said public and critics then break out the knives and decry what a lousy job said schmo did and what they could have and should have done differently. It is the very definition of a thankless job, with an admittedly huge upside that is, ultimately, an almost impossible needle to thread.

Which brings me back to Kimmel, a guy who knows his history and is reverent to it. This week, he floated the idea of walking away from his show when his current contract expires, saying he wants to go out on his own terms, before someone else makes the decision for him, and he’s smart enough to know that the odds of him lasting over 30 years like his idol did are somewhere between slim and none.

In fact, I also understand why he took the job because of course he had to. What self-respecting host wouldn’t do it if offered? Why not take that chance that, in fact, you can be the one to thread that needle? If you have risen to that station in your career, it’s an awfully prestigious feather to put in your cap, especially when none of your rivals possess such an honor.

But the thing that concerns me is that, in this particular case, he seems to be ignoring history, and we all know what happens to people who do that. He’s talking about using some of his standby sketches and routines, like reading Mean Tweets and exploiting his fake rivalry with Matt Damon, and that sounds alarmingly familiar.

I hope I’m wrong. I genuinely hope he nails it and, come Monday morning, we’re all celebrating what a brilliant job he did, how he was able to manage the unmanageable, how he somehow kept control of the proceedings and moved things right along, and how people are already calling for him to repeat the job for the 2018 show.

I really hope I’m wrong but, nothing against Kimmel, I’m pretty sure that I’m not.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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