HAD the Academy Awards people asked, Jon Stewart would have told them how many films he’s seen this year in a theater: “One,” says the host of this year’s Oscars broadcast.
That would be “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” written by and starring Steve Carell, a veteran faux newsman from Stewart’s own faux news show, “The Daily Show.”
“Tremendous film,” declares Stewart. “The acting. The cinematography,” and how it failed to garner major category nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- well, he’ll take that up with them when he gets out there.
Stewart has only the lamest excuses for having gone to the movies once in the last year -- something about having to put on that TV show almost every night while having one little kid at home and another on the way, now just arrived, in fact, the whole Trying to Be a Good Daddy defense.
Stewart’s own film career (“I like to think of it as an oeuvre,” he says) runs the gamut from “Big Daddy” to “Death to Smoochy.” Like one longtime host of the Oscars, Bob Hope -- the first to host it for television -- he does not have a gold statuette to use as a paperweight.
He is bummed too that the academy did not nominate “Grizzly Man” for best documentary, because of the high-concept commentary he might have wrung from Werner Herzog’s existential rumination on the bear lover eventually eaten in the wilds.
Stewart explains, “I very much wanted to do a bit where the bear from ‘Grizzly Man’ and one of the penguins from ‘March of the Penguins’ came out to present best documentary. Only the bear would come out and I would go over and go, ‘YOU PROMISED ME! YOU PROMISED ME! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID IT! WHAT ARE WE GONNA TELL HIS WIFE?’
“But because ‘Grizzly Man’ was not nominated, they wouldn’t let me bring a bear.”
Of course, Stewart hasn’t seen “Grizzly Man” either. “You’d be surprised at the jokes you can write,” he says, “without intimate knowledge of something.”
OK, the man has seen a few more of last year’s films, even some nominated ones (just DVD versions), when certain guests were coming on his show, such as George Clooney, who somehow wrangled the titles of producer, director, writer and supporting actor for “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Syriana.”
Lewis Black, the deranged commentator for “The Daily Show,” thinks Stewart ought to kiss Clooney when he comes onstage Oscar night next Sunday. Indeed, he should kiss every man who walks on, Black says, and make that his bit on “Brokeback Mountain,” the much-nominated film that already has spawned too many gay cowboy jokes from people who haven’t seen it. Black would have Stewart give Charlize the brush and kiss all the dudes, just tell them “I love you” and let the audience figure it out.
Black also might have advised his friend to think twice about taking this gig in the first place. They may go on about how he can bring the more-than-three-quarters-of-a-century-old movie awards his hipness and a younger audience and the cachet of those great reviews he’s gotten for his half-hour fake news show on cable. And maybe he is the one to make sure the Academy Awards show doesn’t follow the ratings slide of another big-ticket spectacle, the Olympics. But he will be the least-known host to the Oscars’ broad audience when he does the show and there will be people lying in wait -- How cruel is our world? -- for the suddenly great Jon Stewart to suddenly fail.
“It’s the sort of job where you go, ‘This is my worst nightmare,’ ” the ranter Black sums up, “but you got to do it anyway.”
Fish in a barrel
THE brain trust of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” was still in full The-Vice-President-Shot-an-Old-Man mode on the Wednesday before last and by early afternoon they had one sure bit for that evening’s show, thanks to Fox News. That network had run a segment to illustrate where fellow hunter Harry Whittington was wounded, except the computer-animated body Fox used looked more like a buff young stud than a 78-year-old Texas lawyer. All Stewart would have to do is show the Fox muscleman graphic, state that the unfortunate Mr. Whittington appeared to be in mighty fine shape and do one of the things he does best -- make a face, or several.
The comic double take has a long tradition. The master of late-night talk, Johnny Carson, spent decades waiting for minor absurdities of life to unfold on his set so he could offer up the reaction shots he’d borrowed from Jack Benny (the slowly turning head), Jackie Gleason (the “whooo”) or Oliver Hardy (the fluttered tie). Carson just preferred that his guests provide the absurdities live, whereas Stewart’s show imports them via videotape from the news -- and the news of the moment was Vice President Dick Cheney’s shotgun, which was providing fodder for half a dozen bedtime stand-ups, or, in Stewart’s case, sit-behind-the-desks.
The point is, if you’re in the late-night comedy business, you have to go after Cheney this week, however much you’re craving to do bits on North Korea or the secretary of Agriculture -- and if you’re writing the opening extravaganza and monologue for the Oscar broadcast, you’ve got to come up with “Brokeback Mountain” stuff and George Clooney stuff, no matter how many others are doing it. The trick is simply to do it smarter and funnier, and that’s the challenge for Stewart and his partners in both endeavors, Ben Karlin, executive producer of “The Daily Show,” and David Javerbaum, its chief writer.
Not that they wouldn’t like to toss in some routines on “movies we found interesting that may be too esoteric for a general audience,” says Karlin, and then he too brings up the academy-snubbed “Grizzly Man.” If Stewart fantasizes about pairing the hungry bear with penguins -- lots of penguins -- Karlin fantasizes about playing off the documentary’s auteur-narrator, Herzog, intoning in his German accent over footage of the deadly grizzlies in the Alaska bush, “speaking very coldly about, like, chaos and life and death and all men are animals,” then looking into the eyes of an enormous bear and, ‘There is no human there. Life is chaos and destruction.’
“If you’ve seen the movie, it’s hilarious,” Karlin says. “If you haven’t ...”
The two men working with Stewart on his material for next Sunday are both 34 and, like their boss, clever suburban boys: Karlin from outside Boston and Javerbaum, like their front man, from Jersey.
Both are veterans of the Onion humor news rag and website and proved that they could venture beyond the comfort zone of their Emmy Award-winning TV formula when they teamed with Stewart to write the bestselling “America (the Book).” Javerbaum writes the lyrics for musicals in his spare time; Karlin has written two screenplays that never made it to the screen, one with other Onion staffers “about a high school where the nerdy kids are the popular ones [and] another about a dog and a dogcatcher ... the greatest idea,” he says, “ever.”
Unlike their boss, those two have done the due diligence of watching screeners of this year’s Oscar contenders, even if they have missed a few from the past. Javerbaum insists that he has never seen “Gone With the Wind,” but has seen, several times, “Quigley,” in which Gary Busey is sent back to Earth as a dog, and the same with “Battlefield Earth,” the John Travolta epic. “Yeah, three times,” he says.
Javerbaum would not want academy members to think that their dues are paying total film ignoramuses to write their annual gala, however, so he notes that he is an aficionado of true moving-picture history such as “ ‘Woman Goes for Stroll.’ 1898. Ten-second film. I walked out in the middle of ‘Train Entering Train Station.’ ”
Karlin insists that he has never seen “The Sound of Music.”
“I hate sounds,” he says, “and I hate music too.”
But both did enjoy last year’s “The Aristocrats,” about the world’s dirtiest joke, except that one avoided nomination too, so if Oscar night is not going well, Stewart will not have the option of grabbing the mike and saying, “This family goes into the office of a talent agent ...”
An afternoon break from putting together the Wednesday “Daily Show” becomes this sort of exercise, a recitation of what they ain’t gonna do that night -- because they ain’t gonna give away the bits they’ve already written for March 5.
They decided early on not to bring the “Daily Show” desk to the Kodak Theatre. No fake news, either. Or fake remotes from the red carpet with leering fake correspondents trying not to stare down actresses’ half-dresses.
“Doing stand-up on the red carpet may have been thrown out” -- and rejected -- “at the very first idea meeting we had,” Karlin recalls.
As their boss says, “Not doin’ the ‘Daily Show’ .... Definitely hosting the Oscars.”
In the tradition of recent years, they are expected to start with a prerecorded audiovisual intro encapsulating the year in film, then launch into Stewart’s monologue, which they assume is what he’ll be remembered for, for better or worse, “because once you get past the monologue the show kind of takes care of itself,” Karlin notes, though the host does have to bring the audience back to the party when the night drifts into the fine points of costume design.
A separate West Coast trio of writers under producer Gil Cates, including 16-year Academy Awards veteran Bruce Vilanch, is drafting the not-so-spontaneous banter among the presenters before the two writing teams gather this week in Los Angeles to cross-pollinate and rewrite.
Stewart’s crew plans to take satiric shots at the Hollywood establishment, naturally, but they have no plans to bite the hand, as Chris Rock may have done last year with his rundown of actors who are not real movie stars, something hard to take as a joke if you’re paying those names $10 million-plus to carry your film.
“We sold out the day we took this job seven years ago,” Javerbaum says, turning that too into a joke. It’s really no different than how Stewart invariably is kind to the guests he invites on his show, even the Republicans -- however much he’s thought of as a bad boy for his digs at the political establishment, or as risque for the liberties allowed on cable, he is far more likely to opt for self-deprecation than the put-down.
“We want the people at the Oscars,” Karlin says, “to be glad that they got into business with us.”
So it’s a fair bet that one thing their man will do is grumble about how could they have done this to him, given him such laugh-riot material as these films about an Olympic massacre and the anti-Communist witch hunts and race relations in L.A. and a tortured gay author and those cowboys who don’t act like John Wayne. Let Billy Crystal try to craft a song out of those suckers. Thank goodness there’s Clooney, who has too much going for him for any human, if you ignore the spinal surgeries, which it’s easy enough to do for a night.
There’s a knock on the glass wall of the “Daily Show” conference room. It’s the boss.
“Some of the snippets are rolling through on the Cheney interview,” Stewart announces -- the VP just gave his version of the events on the Texas hunt, that too on Fox.
“There was one where he said, ‘You know, I pulled the trigger. I saw him fall. It’s an image I’ll never forget,’ ” Stewart reports.
“I was thinking of some idea of, like, ‘For Dick Cheney, in some ways it’s like he’s never left that ranch where they pen-raise quail
BRUCE VILANCH, the wild-haired gag writer and gay activist celebrating his Oscar “Sweet 16,” has his own ideas for a “Brokeback Mountain” bit (“I was hoping for a seminude kick line, but I lost”) and for dealing with Clooney (“With a bottle of wine and some date-rape drugs”).
“The show could end with gay cowboys and Truman Capote and a ‘tranny,’ ” a.k.a. a transvestite from “Transamerica,” Vilanch says. “Not what the red states are used to.”
As for the job of host, and he’s seen them come and go, Vilanch says, “I think if he does a good job everybody will say, ‘Well done.’ If he does not, it will live with him the rest of his life, kind of like being the quarterback who screwed up the Super Bowl. That’s why a lot of people don’t want to do it.”
Stewart says he consulted Crystal, Steve Martin and Rock and all advised him not to try to outthink either the academy or the audience, just trust his instincts and have fun. That and, “Chris said, ‘Go there with a passport, $10,000 and a fake beard. And if you have to head to Mexico, you head to Mexico.’ ”
It was Friday, two days after the “Daily Show” made fodder of Fox’s Cheney interview, and the off-night for the program and its crew. Boxes and gift bags were piled outside Stewart’s office with flowers, dolls, dinosaur finger puppets and other presents “for the world’s most huggable baby.” The one wall of his office given over to photos is all family shots, except for a couple of beach scenes. None of him with celebs or pols.
At 43, Stewart understands that if it doesn’t work, and he becomes the critics’ “bait fish” or “pinata” after his well-documented run of accolades, it’s no big deal in the scheme of things. “There’s a lot of less honorable jobs than pinata,” he reasons.
On the other hand, he could be the Oscar host for a decade and, if so, he might someday make the academy’s “In Memoriam” segment, get his picture flashed up there when he passes. As of now, as he sees it, “No, I won’t make the Oscars’ one, unfortunately. I’m gonna make it if they do a CableACE one. I’ll get on that one. Probably get on the Emmy one ....I got two shots at the ‘In Memoriam.’ ”
“I’m not doing this for posterity,” he says of hosting Oscar night. Stewart leans back behind his desk and explains how these awards are a 78-year-old entity and a pretty sweet franchise and he’ll be borrowing interest from it, not the other way around. Can he bring a slightly different atmosphere? “That may be,” he says.
“My impulse is always to start with absurdity, either the absurdity of me doing it, or whatever the absurdity may be of this year’s films ... I’ll do that or I will come up with a song parody that somehow figures out a way to rhyme ‘Syriana’ and ‘Capote,’ which is not going to be easy,” though that quip comes out a little stale, the line perhaps past its expiration date, just as Cheney bits may be by Oscar night.
“But I’m hoping that the vice president shoots someone [else], probably around March 3, March 4,” Stewart says.
He had a week to go before his scheduled arrival in Los Angeles and pledged to use the time to catch up on his DVDs of the nominees, all the big ones. He promised. But he had already done his homework on another front, watching tapes of past hosts, if not back to George Jessel and Hope, then at least to Carson, who brought a backlog of audience goodwill Stewart cannot count on. Stewart and his crew thought Letterman was better than people remembered, and that there was no need for the academy to run back to Hollywood establishment figures for a few years afterward. But Martin was their consensus favorite when he hosted in 2001, with “Gladiator” and Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts to play with, and his quip about how, “at the end of the evening we’re going to vote someone out of show business.”
And for all the talk of the price of flopping, there weren’t too many such episodes in those tapes, at least not on the hosts’ part that Stewart could see. Jokes without laughs, absolutely. But no “Dukakis in the tank moment.”
The catch is, if that happens to him, he comes out the winner anyway. He doesn’t have to flee in the fake beard to Mexico, just back to New York and Comedy Central, where he can pop a replay onto a screen behind his desk and look at that fool and shake his head.