Oscar Hosts: A Short History of the Biggest Comedy Gig on Earth

With the Academy Awards set to go ahead without a host for the first time since the 1980’s, we take a look down through the years to find out why the Oscar hosting platform is equally one of the most revered and capricious comedy gigs on the planet.

The Great Gig in the Sky

Burning cylindrical lighting fixtures gawk down at the stage, merciless in their unapologetic scrutiny. Throngs of anxious, hungry, expecting and familiar faces crane their necks upwards at an uncomfortable trajectory. A plethora of potential vices inherently connected to live television, coupled with the crippling knowledge that this is by far the most revered, historical stage in entertainment, is daunting. While expectations run unnaturally high for those nominated for an Academy Award, many tuning in around the world are there to see how well the host pulls the show together, how they deal with unexpected fumbles and the way in which they manage pressing, politically charged issues. Any of the brave souls that have grabbed those Oscar hosting reigns take the future of their career on to a world stage. Only their performance will decide if this three-and-a-half-hour gig will be a godsend or a curse to the host’s professional career. History has prominently exemplified both.

Bob Gave us Hope

In the early days, when the Academy was just finding its feet, comedian Bob Hope could certainly be credited as being the epitome of comedic calmness. His deadpan humour set up the Oscar-hosting field as a platform to flex your comedic muscles. His approach was highly commendable in bringing self-deprecation to the forefront of awards ceremonies, poking jabs at the ultimate ludicrous nature of decoratively awarding undeniably talented, yet privileged, individuals. Hope’s approach lives on, and his jibes are rejigged year after year, including gems such as “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to… suspense” and “Television: that’s where movies go when they die.”


Give Us A Star

Proceedings turned cloudy and ambiguously charged after Hope called it a day in 1968. For the following three years, the Academy Awards were without a host. This may have been compensated for, in part, when the next trend saw an eclectic bunch of actors and comics hosting the ceremony as a group, which one year saw Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda and Richard Pryor take the reigns. We’re set to witness a similar bunch collectively try their hands at it this year. 

Hope briefly resurfaced in 1978, before late-night host Johnny Carson’s significant run during the 1980s. From there, haziness emerged again and a staple host was desperately needed. It was up-and-coming comic Billy Crystal that lived up to his name, crystallising his hosting duties with every ounce of comedic license he possessed. On the back of the rapturous success of When Harry Met Sally, Crystal truly shined in his new role. His inherent knack for accurately pulling the right strings meant that he demonstrated his role as the most proficient puppet master in entertainment. Crystal’s approach strayed from mimicking Hope, instead he brought his own nuanced approach, astutely taking advantage of the fact that for one night only, a comedian has free reign and can demean and debunk any stars and starlets in attendance. Where Crystal thrived was in his refined comedy, capitalising on the onset of celebrity culture: ‘It’s great to see so many new faces. Especially on the old faces.’

The Less Fortunates

Whoopi Goldberg would follow in later years, her overzealous performances truly nauseating at times. Intermittently, stars would come and go from the podium as the perils of Oscar hosting became more evident. Brave ones soldiered on, but their names are now irrevocably linked to their disastrous hosting stints. Family Guy creator and voice actor, Seth MacFarlane, and the ludicrous pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway are difficult to forget. Notably, MacFarlane’s stardom has waned considerably in the wake of his painful hosting stint in 2013, seemingly attributable to the diabolical tirade of unnecessary, potent jibes. In relation to Daniel Day Lewis’s internalisation of character in Lincoln, nominated that year, MacFarlane apathetically announced, “I would argue, however, that the actor that really got inside Lincoln’s head, was John Wilkes Booth”, in relation to the stage actor responsible for President Lincoln’s assassination. A bad taste left in the mouth of Hollywood’s liberal elite is all it takes.

In 2014, Ellen Degeneres, daytime talk show host and voice of the lovable blue tang fish, Dory in Finding Nemo, bridged the gap between generations. She brought with her a breath of fresh air on both occasions, cementing her status as a solid booking and fortuitously managing to jump on the selfie craze in the process. The following year, it was clear that Neil Patrick Harris’s inflammatory performance was lacking in most aspects, not least lustre. Thankfully, Chris Rock returned to the stage two years ago for the second time, peppering his hosting with acute, observationalist digs, such as his commentary on gender category separation as a lead up to his musings on the racial controversy “It’s not track and field! You know Robert De Niro’s never said, I better slow this acting down so Meryl Streep can catch up.” Just in time to combat the “OscarsSoWhite” controversy, there truly was no better man for the job. In a blinding white suit, he soared in a year marred by lack of diversity infusing his performance with his inimitable, brutally honest and self-aware humour.


Kudos have been granted to last year’s host, talk show veteran Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel’s dry, unassuming wit was welcoming. In times of political unrest and social upheaval, the Oscar platform has been utilised in airing grievances or boosting morale. With overt denouncements of Trump and the Weinstein mess at the Golden Globes and other awards shows in 2017, the Oscars also followed suit and for this reason Kimmel didn’t have a lot of heavy-lifting to do. In terms of memorable hosts, Kimmel will always be remembered as the man who deployed his perfectly timed wit after the Best Picture – Warren Beatty fumble. Last year however, Kimmel seemed to play it safe and one wonders why he wasn’t asked back for a third year in a row.

After Kevin Hart’s announcement was followed by a swift departure, we’re left again without a stable host. We may be a while away from finding someone who can match the reign of Crystal or Hope, particularly as many stars aren’t taking the chance of causing offense or saying the wrong thing on such a high profile stage anymore, others are playing it safe with just two or three years at the helm. Regardless, all the talented stars and starlets set to take to the stage this year, will still have to deal with the perils of live television, political outbursts and comedic performances just like their lone predecessors, all of which cannot be truly anticipated until those famous curtains rise.


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