The 2015 Oscars bordered on self-parody, so perhaps the Academy is hoping to get on the right side of the joke by hiring Chris Rock to emcee the show in 2016. The last few years have seen a slew of mediocre performances in the much scrutinized job, considered a poisoned chalice by most comedians. But Rock, who hosted the ceremony in 2005, has the experience, the acidity, and the big-ticket presence to take the gig, and on paper seems like one of the wiser hires made in recent years. One thing’s for sure: There will be 100 percent less magic tricks than the last go-around.
It’s perhaps unfair to pin the hiccups of the last Oscars entirely on Neil Patrick Harris, who got caught up in a mirthless bit about some “Oscar predictions” he’d put in a sealed envelope onstage. But Harris’s performance underlined a larger problem the Oscars has repeatedly experienced in recent years: The awards show is best in the hands of a tried-and-true host, rather than an actor relying on scripted gags. There are exceptions to this rule—Hugh Jackman caught lightning in a bottle in 2009, and Billy Crystal’s vaunted return in 2012 was a dud—but in general, it’s safest to go with an A-list comedian. In the last 10 years, the best hosts have been Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart, and Rock, and Rock is the only one who’s yet to repeat his stint.
Recent duds included the Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (the less said about his song-and-dance numbers, the better); the stiff combo of Anne Hathaway and James Franco; and Harris, who did fine work hosting the Tonys and Emmys but was caught flat-footed on the Dolby Theatre stage. Stewart (who hosted in 2006 and 2008) and DeGeneres (2007 and 2014) both did well their first time around and even better the second, assisted by their own stable of joke-writers. Rock’s work in 2005 was praised but some of his jokes certainly bruised egos in the room—Sean Penn memorably insisted on praising Jude Law as “one of our finest actors” onstage after Rock mocked the Brit’s dim star power.
Still, that caustic edge may be just what the Oscars needs. The last ceremony came under fire for an unfortunate combination of optics—the snubbing of Selma in several major categories and the fact that all 20 acting nominees were white. The announcement that the Best Picture winner was Birdman provoked insta-scoffs, and the show got its lowest ratings in six years. Harris even admitted he had done a poor job hosting on Twitter, and the show’s producer, Dave Hill, said that he was eyeing “a team that’s already well-known” for the 2016 ceremony.
Perhaps he meant Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, whose work at the Golden Globes had routinely eclipsed every Oscar host in recent years, or a more a left-field choice like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. In the end whomever Hill was thinking of didn’t come to fruition, but his choice of Rock is the perfect mix of a safe pair of hands and a necessary shake-up. No doubt Rock will tell the same kind of confrontational jokes that earned him plaudits and criticism in 2005, but he’s proven that he’s comfortable on the biggest stage of awards season.
Still, the announcement represents a holding pattern of sorts. For years, the Oscars functioned with a strong rotating stable of hosts: Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Steve Martin. All three are now semi-retired, but a new group hasn’t yet been anointed. DeGeneres will always be a solid bet. Stewart is certainly free, but he may not be available (his career plans post-Daily Show remain unclear). Other talk-show hosts like Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon would be solid picks, but the hosting network, ABC, has seemed reluctant to promote its rivals’ stars. The Academy is still looking for fresh talent, and should maybe follow Rock’s example—he recently directed Amy Schumer’s HBO comedy special, and loaded his 2015 film Top Five with young up-and-comers. If only the Oscars could be so forward-thinking.