Because his "grass-roots run for governor didn't take hold," veteran shtick comedian Billy Crystal has agreed to return as host of the 76th annual Academy Awards. It will be the eighth Oscar gig for Crystal, who last hosted the ceremony in 2000.
Crystal, who was on hand for the announcement Wednesday at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, was asked by first-time Oscar producer Joe Roth to be the emcee.
Crystal, who follows last year's host, comedian-actor-playwright-novelist-art collector Steve Martin, said he decided to return to the show because doing live gigs in cities like Atlantic City made him realize he "wanted to get back in front of an audience" again.
Standing between two replicas of the golden Oscar statuettes in front of reporters in the academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Crystal said he was eager to return to the show despite the "cluster headaches" caused by the stress of performing a live show broadcast to millions worldwide. He first was host in 1990.
"It's a big show; it's a big responsibility," he said. "It's not just the audience [in the theater] -- the world is watching and the world is a rough room."
Although Roth has produced and directed feature films and is a partner and head of Revolution Studios, he has never produced a television show.
He said the show would be particularly challenging because of the compressed time frame for the awards season.
In an effort to rein in studio spending and publicity stunts to win nominations, the academy pushed the date of the show ahead from late March to Feb. 29, 2004.
The nominations are scheduled to be announced Jan. 27 -- leaving less than five weeks for Roth and Crystal to shape the show according to the nominated films and entertainers.
Roth acknowledged that it will be challenging to put together a show in such little time. He said he will try to keep the show tight but doubts its running time can be shortened to less than 3 1/2 hours.
Roth faces another challenge. While the Academy Awards telecast is one of the most watched television shows in the world, its ratings have been dropping, although the popularity of the nominated films is a factor in viewership.
This year's show, with Martin as host, saw a historic low of 33.1 million U.S. viewers, when the musical "Chicago" was named best picture of 2002, a year that featured only one real blockbuster among the best picture nominees, "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
In 2002, when "A Beautiful Mind" was chosen best picture of 2001 and Whoopi Goldberg was the host, 41.8 million people tuned in, compared to the all-time high of 55 million in 1998 -- when "Titanic" swept the awards and when Crystal was host. The next-highest rating in recent years was 48.3 million viewers when David Letterman played host of the 1995 ceremony in which "Forrest Gump" was named best picture.
Roth said he hopes to use the show's date during the climax of TV's February sweeps as a platform to publicize the show. He also hopes to raise awareness about the show by staging Oscar events, the details of which have not been worked out.
Roth succeeds Gil Cates, who after 11 years of producing the Academy Awards, decided to take a break.
Over the next few months Roth will be lining up music and art directors to start planning some aspects of the show.
The ceremony will be held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood and telecast live on ABC.