Why no one wants to host the Oscars

Hollywood’s big night is slated to go forward without an emcee for the first time in 30 years.

Barring some eleventh-hour intervention, the host of the 2019 Oscars will be … drumroll please…

Nobody.

While there’s always a chance that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could find someone at the last minute, the previously announced host Kevin Hart definitely won’t be keeping the gig. Hart confirmed as much on January 9, following a weeks-long fiasco involving homophobic tweets and jokes he made in the past, Hart stepping down amid an extended controversy over what many see as his refusal to truly apologize for those tweets and jokes, and a misguided attempt by Ellen DeGeneres to help rehabilitate Hart’s image and reinstate him as host.

(Representatives from the Academy now also say that DeGeneres, who hosted the show in 2007 and 2014, misrepresented her conversation with an Academy official about Hart.)

Meanwhile, the February 24 live broadcast is about six weeks away, there’s no replacement host in sight, and sources close to the process have told Variety that the Oscars’ producers are now planning a host-less ceremony for the first time in decades. Instead of a single host tying the show together, that job will fall to various celebrity presenters who will likely step in throughout the night to introduce segments, hand out awards, and, according to Variety’s sources, perform skits and musical numbers.

Reportedly, “the Avengers will make an appearance, too” — which is perhaps to be expected, given that ABC, the network airing the ceremony, is owned by Marvel’s corporate overlords, Disney.

But has a host-free Oscars ever happened before? Why not just find someone else to helm the show in 2019? And is there any good reason to go host-free, even aside from Kevin Hart’s self-immolation?

Has there ever been a host-free Oscars? Yes, and it was a disaster.

At the 61st Academy Awards, held on March 29, 1989, much of the evening was business as usual. Various celebrities, many of whom were real-life couples, presented the statuettes: Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. There were some family acts, too: Beau, Jeff, and Lloyd Bridges presented, as did Donald and Kiefer Sutherland. Cher gave out the award for Best Picture, to Rain Man. Bob Hope and Lucille Ball — for whom the ceremony marked her last public appearance before her death on April 26 of that year — showed up to introduce a musical number entitled “I Want to Be an Oscar Winner.”

But nobody served as host, opening with a monologue and stitching together the sections with connective patter. The show just moved from one bit to the next. And most of it was fine.

The “I Want to Be an Oscar Winner” musical number, however — along with a much more famous one, a disastrous opening piece that replaced the traditional monologue to have Rob Lowe duet with Snow White — might be part of the reason a host-free Oscars never happened again.

Here’s the Rob Lowe/Snow White:

In the bit, Snow White make the trip out to glittering Hollywood, which she’s been missing since her heyday in the late 1930s. Upon her arrival, she’s shown a good time at a version of the pre-Prohibition Cocoanut Grove club, where Merv Griffin, singing a variation on his hit “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” introduces various old-timey Hollywood celebrity couples who are sitting at the tables, like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Vincent Price and Coral Browne.

Eventually Snow is introduced to her blind date for the evening, Rob Lowe, and they sing and dance their way through an interminable tribute to Hollywood, singing “Rollin’, rollin’, keep the cameras rollin’.”

It was surreal, weirdly scripted, produced badly in spots (the cameras couldn’t quite figure out where to point at times), and it ended with a showgirl-style chorus line of dancing theater ushers, which felt like something right out of a fever dream, but not in a good way. Also, Rob Lowe definitely did not have the range.

The skit is still remembered as an infamous disaster, one that mortified the fresh-faced actress playing Snow White, Eileen Bowman, who was 22 at the time and said she’d just “fallen off the turnip truck” when she auditioned for the role. According to Bowman, she was strong-armed into signing a gag order afterwards.

Lowe was 24, and struggling to rehabilitate his image after a sex tape involving him and two girls, one of whom was only 16 years old, had surfaced. Someone clearly thought that having him play a kind of Prince Charming would help. He’s continued to poke fun at it in the decades since.

(Lowe went on to have a successful career; Bowman, not so much.)

Lily Tomlin came on stage after the sketch and cracked that “more than a billion and a half people just watched that, and at this very moment they’re trying to make sense of it.”

And here’s “I Want to Be an Oscar Winner,” which was supposed to introduce Hollywood’s “stars of tomorrow,” most of whom have more or less disappeared in the years since (Melora Hardin, Patrick Dempsey, Corey Feldman, Chad Lowe, and Ricki Lake notwithstanding):

The number is an unfocused mess that wanders on and on, seemingly as a showcase for various young starlets’ singing and dancing ability, except some of them are definitely better than others. And in retrospect, it feels like a bunch of upstarts begging the Academy to pay attention to them — something the Academy then deigned to do. Yikes.

After the ceremony, 17 Hollywood luminaries, including Billy Wilder and former Academy president Gregory Peck, wrote an open letter to the show’s producer, Allan Carr, declaring that the broadcast was “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry. It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion.”

And Carr never really recovered from it. He’d been a celebrated producer, having worked on the Broadway versions of La Cage aux Follies and the 1978 film Grease, but the 1989 Oscars sunk his career so hard that they’re what he’s most remembered for today. His health declined, he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and he died in 1999 of liver cancer.

So maybe there’s a good reason the Oscars had a host for the next 30 years. Billy Crystal hosted in 1990, and did the job eight more times after that. Whoopi Goldberg took the reigns four times, and Steve Martin three times (once with Alec Baldwin as co-host). Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, and Jimmy Kimmel have all hosted twice. James Franco and Anne Hathaway co-hosted one year. And Neil Patrick Harris, Hugh Jackman, David Letterman, Seth MacFarlane have all hosted once.

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James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosting the Oscars in 2011.

But now, the Oscars are poised to go host-free once again — though not just because of Kevin Hart’s self-torpedo act. There’s actually precedent for what happened with Hart; in late 2011, Eddie Murphy resigned from hosting the 2012 show when its producer, Brett Ratner, stepped down after making a series of inappropriate remarks, including the statement that “rehearsal is for fags.” But in that case, Billy Crystal stepped in to take over the role. This time around, it seems the Academy hasn’t been able to find anyone else who is willing to accept the gig.

Why, though? Shouldn’t hosting the Oscars be a fun and prestigious opportunity? You get to don a tux or a sparkly gown, tell some jokes, maybe sing a song, and celebrate the movies with a big audience — what’s not to like?

Why is it so hard to find an Oscar host?

We can’t say specifically why nobody is hosting the 2019 Oscars, because we don’t know who the Academy asked. Did it plead with Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph to reprise their beloved awards-presenting bit from the 2018 show, only to be turned down? Did it ring up Hugh Jackman to ask for a repeat performance and have Jackman decide against it?

Who knows? But we can reasonably assume that, at some point, the Academy asked someone other than Kevin Hart, and that someone (or someones) said no.

There are a few reasons a person might not want to host the Oscars. One is that the job requires a lot of preparation — working with a writing staff to craft jokes and monologues, rehearsing, shooting promotional videos, maybe giving interviews — and it simply doesn’t pay much money. Jimmy Kimmel said he was paid $15,000 for hosting the 2017 Oscars, and for stars and comedians of the caliber the Academy is undoubtedly trying to hire, people with a high-enough profile to attract a wide viewership, that’s just not enough.

But there are plenty of other reasons, too. Seth MacFarlane, who came under widespread criticism after performing an ill-advised musical number called “We Saw Your Boobs” during his 2013 turn as Oscars host, said in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly that the gig has “all eyes on it,” which makes it a prime target for criticism.

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Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron dance with host Seth McFarlane at the 2013 Oscars.

“When you’re doing something that’s that much in the spotlight, with that much focus on it, that much intensity, you’re going to have a lot of opinions from a lot of people,” MacFarlane said. “I’m trying to think of the last time that I read a review of the Oscars the next day where everyone is raving about it—it’s been a long time.”

Of course, MacFarlane — the creator of Family Guy and The Orville, star of films like Ted, and four-time Grammy-nominated singer who idolizes Frank Sinatra — is not exactly unused to being “in the spotlight.” So it’s probably not the spotlight itself that’s the real problem.

What’s more likely is that the 40.3 million people who watched the Oscars when MacFarlane hosted in 2013 only sort of overlapped with Family Guy’s fan base. The types of jokes that might work in that context (“We Saw Your Boobs” being an excellent example) are less effective with the older audience that the Academy considers to be its core Oscars viewership.

And with the Oscar ratings having taken a nosedive of late — they tend to fluctuate, but 2018’s ratings were the lowest in 10 years — the Academy has been desperately trying to find ways to increase viewership. The two big moves it announced earlier this year — a tight three-hour runtime for the 2019 Oscars and beyond (the 2018 ceremony ran to four hours), and the establishment of a “Best Popular Picture” category (which was introduced for 2019 and then almost immediately postponed until 2020) — are part of an effort to make the live event appealing to viewers. And some media executives are still convinced that the host is one of the main draws of “splashy TV events” like the Oscars. If that’s true, then finding one who appeals to a younger crowd or to people who don’t normally tune in would help — and that, in turn, would help sell ads, especially those targeted at a coveted younger demographic.

But it’s risky to hire someone who’s too edgy, in an attempt to appeal to a younger crowd. After all, 2018’s ratings were the lowest since 2008, when Jon Stewart — then the very popular host of The Daily Show — hosted for the second time. Finding someone more appealing to a young 2008 crowd than Stewart is hard to imagine, but he may have been too political for some, including many of the older viewers in the audience.

And yet it’s not like playing it safe is a surefire strategy, either. A “safe” Oscars ceremony that purposely abstained from edginess, from offering any social or political commentary whatsoever, would keep Hollywood from showing the world the progressive, inclusive image it wishes to project — especially in 2019. And that might be exactly the kind of ceremony that younger viewers would deem “irrelevant” and avoid.

Regardless, the idea that younger people will even watch the telecast seems uncertain at best in the age of YouTube and social media. Sure, the Oscars are still one of the few “event” TV programs that people like to watch live, along with the Super Bowl, and maybe the Grammys.

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Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars for the eighth time in 2012.

But you don’t really have to watch. If you’re curious about who wins, you can just follow along with the winners on Twitter and catch the best bits via video clips online, and spend your Sunday evening binge-watching something else instead. So there’s little impetus for those who are already disinclined to watch the show to suddenly tune in for the full three-hour stretch, just because they like the host, or because they want to see if Black Panther wins Best Picture.

Which raises an important question, one the Academy will be testing in 2019: Why even have a host?

Do the Oscars even really need a host?

The glittery, glompy mess of the 1989 Oscars sure does seem like a cautionary tale for 2019’s expected host-less affair (especially one that is being rumored to rely on “starry skits” and a “high-profile year for music in film”).

But there’s no obvious correlation between a lack of a single master or mistress of ceremonies and a wreck of a show; one data point does not a trend line make. (Sometimes shows with hosts have gone pretty badly, too: consider the widely panned case of James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011, or the famously prickly Chevy Chase in 1988.)

The Oscars have experimented with multiple hosts in the past — in the 1970s, it was pretty common to have four hosts — and typically employ fun pairings of actors to present the actual awards. The job of the main host is to open the show and provide some connective tissue between trophy presentations and segments like the In Memoriam montage, often via lighthearted jokes. But with the Academy’s stricter three-hour runtime in 2019, there probably wouldn’t be time for any novelty bits, like Jimmy Kimmel surprising random people with movie stars.

Furthermore, there’s a danger in hiring one single host (or even a pair) for the Oscars in 2019. Part of the job of the Oscar host is to represent Hollywood to the world — to project, in tandem with the Academy’s chosen winners, how Hollywood sees itself, and what it aspires to be.

Much of the chatter in 2019 Hollywood — particularly in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and amid the ongoing #MeToo movement — centers on diversity, inclusion, and re-envisioning a business that has long been dominated by white men and characterized by workplace practices that are frequently exploitative and sometimes downright abusive. At festivals and in backroom conversations, in interviews and at cocktail parties, plenty of people are talking about broadening who even gets to tell stories in Hollywood.

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Host Hugh Jackman performs at the 2009 Oscars.

Change comes slowly — though there was an uptick in films by black filmmakers last year, women actually directed fewer films in 2018 than in 2017. But Hollywood wants you, and the rest of America, to know that it wants to lead the way toward a brighter, more diverse future. There’s a good chance that message might be more clearly communicated through a vibrant array of Oscars presenters, rather than one person popping up to crack some jokes.

And, in truth, there’s a charm to a host-less Oscars, even if the 2019 edition doesn’t end up going well (and even if Disney leveraging its corporate synergy to have the Avengers make a cameo seems, um, kind of desperate and maybe not great). Who knows who will show up? I have to watch the Oscars anyhow because it’s my job, but I’m suddenly a little more interested in how the night will unfold, who will stop by, and what they will do. Not playing by a decades-old book could make for much better television — or at least an entertaining trainwreck worth talking about for years to come.