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Oscar Show Promises Lots of Funny Business : Awards: Comedy’s the theme, from Letterman to Stupid Pet Tricks to film clips loaded with historic laughs. But will it come in under the time limit?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When, back in January, David Letterman committed to host the 67th annual Academy Awards, he issued a press release making two promises--to bring the show in at under 45 minutes, and to give away a brand new automobile as part of the proceedings.

Facetious as those two vows seemed to be, Letterman actually will be keeping his word on one of them tonight. Which one? Hint: If you’re taping the show for next-day viewing, you’ll probably still want to use the EP speed.

Tonight’s telecast promises to be different from your father’s Oscars, as it were, though comparisons to the Johnny Carson era can’t be helped. For Letterman’s highly anticipated debut Oscar-hosting stint, a little bit of “Late Night"--and a lot of the show’s writing staff--are being imported for the occasion.

A Top 10 list is inevitable. Video clips will, of course, bring the street-level commentary of Times Square Everymen into the glitzy Hollywood proceedings. And--notwithstanding last year’s appearance by a St. Bernard and pups during a “Beethoven” production number--1995 will go down as the year when more than a billion people worldwide shared the global-warming experience of a live bone-a-fide Stupid Pet Trick.

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“It’s spinnin’ dog time,” said Letterman, welcoming a woman and her canine onto the Shrine Auditorium stage during rehearsals Saturday night. It wasn’t clear without benefit of a script that the doggie stunt being practiced had an ostensible movie tie-in, although obsessive-compulsive animal behavior may have some symbolic value for an industry audience.

So, it may be irreverent but it won’t necessarily be inappropriate. The theme for this year’s Oscar-cast is “Comedy and the Movies” (or, as Letterman is slated to put it as the film clip-filled evening progresses, “all those moments of pain and anguish that make us laugh when they’re happening to someone else”).

Even the oft-dreaded production numbers this year, once again choreographed by Debbie Allen, will be dominated by no small amount of mirth. Opening the show is “Make ‘Em Laugh” with Tim Curry, Kathy Najimy and young Mara Wilson in high-tech interaction with film clips put together by Chuck Workman. (What happens in that number is one of the academy’s well-guarded secrets, but no one denies the suggestion that it might involve some wall-walking, a la Donald O’Connor.)

And, in the big mid-show production number--a medley of two very different “Lion King” tunes, with a singing and dancing cast of dozens--the Afrocentric solemnity of “Circle of Life” momentarily gives way to the farting-wart-hog goofing of “Hakuna Matata,” featuring the gag team of David Alan Grier and the movie’s Ernie Sabella.

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Comedy, certainly, is a can’t-miss, compared to some previous Oscar themes, like the controversial “Women and the Movies” of two telecasts back.

“Oddly enough, I felt that the ‘Year of the Woman’ was great,” said producer Gilbert Cates, overseeing the preparation of his seventh Academy Awards behind the boards Saturday afternoon.

“Because the country was very much attuned to women’s issues and here in California with Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, it seemed an appropriate year to celebrate women in movies, even though that particular year did not have many great women’s roles.

“This year, because of the earthquakes and floods and Bosnia and Rwanda, it was a (terrible) year,” continued Cates, using a choice word for the general climate--"and therefore seemed a great year to celebrate what movies can really give us, which is an opportunity to go for two hours in the dark and laugh together. Even with television, it’s not a community experience unless you have a very big family. So it’s unique to movies and theater, and it’s this very human thing. I mean, animals don’t laugh or smile, that I know of.”

Letterman’s Stupid Pet trickster, already trotted offstage, had no opportunity to take issue. Farther out in the Shrine seats, filmmaker Chuck Workman, oft-hired by the Oscar producers in recent years to put together rapid-fire clip compilations, added his approval of comedy as the evening’s light-motif.

“I think this is the most thematic of any Oscars show,” said Workman. “Usually they pick a theme like Westerns or the 100th anniversary of film or women, and then just do a little bit with it. This one, they seem to have taken it all the way through. Even to the point of that set,” he said, pointing upstage, “with the iris that opens and closes.”

Said set--dominated by a jagged-edged, neon-lined porthole--is the brainchild of production designer Roy Christopher, doing his ninth Oscar-cast.

“The show’s theme doesn’t always relate to how the set looks, except subliminally,” said Christopher. “But when Gil said comedy, I immediately thought of the opening and closing of the iris of the camera, like in the silent comedies, when they would dissolve from one scene to another with those optical effects.”

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The set is classy by any standard--monochromatic, curvy, full of frosted glass and mirrors and neon, decked out with timeless deco-cum-moderne touches and surprisingly asymmetrical in every aspect.

And, on this glass-riddled set, Letterman was perhaps tempting fate by throwing a football up and down in the air, occasionally lobbing it to a crew member, as is his legendary off-camera wont. In rehearsals, Letterman’s ball was virtually always in nervous motion, except when he would retreat to a huddle with his omnipresent head writer, Rob Burnett, and other staff members.

Each host has a different take, but few, if any, have brought so many of their own people to the proceedings as the mercurial Letterman. This is the first year in memory that the official telecast writers haven’t worked with the show’s host on a monologue and ad libs.

“It’s basically--and I don’t mean this confrontationally--his people and our people,” said longtime Oscar-show writer Buz Kohan. “It’s pretty separate. David is bringing a skeleton staff of nine writers. They know how he thinks, what he wants, how to deal with him. It seems to work out best, because he’s comfortable with what he’s used to. We’d have to break down a barrier and prove ourselves before we’d even get in the door, and there’s enough else going on with the presenters and special awards that we certainly don’t feel left out.”

Kohan doesn’t have any delusions that the bits he writes will have any bearing on what people remember about the show. “The edict is: short-short-short. Cut it down to the bare bones. The things that stand out are the spontaneous things that were never on the page. That’s what makes the Oscars exciting--and terrifying, for a host.”

On stage, special honoree Clint Eastwood was feigning accepting his Irving G. Thalberg Award from presenter Arnold Schwarzenegger, making a few spontaneous remarks of his own.

“I will now go to the gym and pump me up,” quipped Eastwood, taking hold of his trophy.

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He added some off-the-cuff appreciation to his stand-in: “Thank you. You did a great job. In fact, you did such a great job, I think I’ll let you accept for me and stay home and watch this thing on television.”

Doesn’t he wish. What are the chances of the awards being merciful on those tuxedoed who must stick it out in the Shrine seats, sans pillows, let alone grumpy Easterners who find things winding up past midnight? That is, the chances of the show coming in at its allotted slot for the first time in even the most ancient living academy member’s memory?

“The show is planned out at three hours,” insisted director Jeff Margolis, straight-faced. “But the acceptance speeches are so unpredictable. . . . Listen, we always have a little prayer session on Sunday night before the day of the show.”

Fruitless, always, these appeals; can it be helped if the Almighty likes the winners, he really, really likes them?


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