Poor Seth MacFarlane. Until Sunday night, hosting the Oscars must have seemed so easy. What did he have to do, really, to shine? Avoid inexplicable cross-dressing and increasingly slurred words à la James Franco, try not to pull a Ricky Gervais and openly offend half the nominees, and he'd be a hit. It's such an impossible task, hosting an awards show; the best you can hope for is not to bomb.
Then Tina Fey and Amy Poehler took the stage at this year's Golden Globes. Lovely, brilliant and utterly fearless, they made awards-show hosting an art form again, helming three hours of occasionally hilarious, occasionally emotional and surprisingly enjoyable TV.
The Golden Globes, man; who knew?
The show's opening dialogue had only one flaw — it had to end. Introducing the Globes as the only awards show in which "the beautiful people of film rub shoulders with the rat-faced people of TV," Poehler and Fey, both nominated for actress in a comedy or musical series, never stopped smiling even as they confused the acronym for the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. with a disease and, within the first few minutes of the show, brought audible gasps from the audience by effectively ending the controversy regarding "Zero Dark Thirty."
"I haven't paid much attention," Poehler said, "but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron."
Poehler has the best deadpan in the business, wide-eyed and enthusiastic, responding only to the alternate universe occurring within her brain; Fey is a close second, somehow managing to project both oblivious security and hyper-alert insecurity with the same expression. "Anne Hathaway is here for her performance in 'Les Misérables,'" she said, adding that she "had not seen anyone as alone and abandoned since you were on stage with James Franco at the Oscars."
Fey also gave a shout-out to "Jennifer Lawrence, star of 'Silver Linings Playbook,' and Quentin Tarantino, the star of all my sexual nightmares," while Poehler announced that Meryl Streep, though nominated, was not present because "she has the flu. And I hear she's just fabulous in it."
Seriously, they could have done an hour set and everyone would have been happy. Not since Jimmy Fallon hosted the Emmys three years ago has an awards show been this much fun.
Not only did the quality of the hosting further legitimize an event that the entertainment media inevitably go out of their way to disparage even as they grant it Oscar-like coverage, Poehler and Fey proved once and for all that the choice of host really does matter.
Beyond providing specific hilarity throughout the show, they infused the telecast with a sharp professionalism that made room for a surprise visit by former President Bill Clinton, a show-stoppingly hilarious set by presenters Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell (front-runners for next year's hosts) and a deeply felt but undeniably strange speech from Jodie Foster.
By deftly trodding the line between audacious and sarcastic, the hosts sustained an atmosphere that was both inclusive and sharply comedic, relying on their improv skills and longtime friendship to help the telecast live up to its reputation as the loosest and most revelatory of the awards shows.
Clinton's unprecedented appearance to introduce the clips of "Lincoln" (not to mention Steven Spielberg's undeniably smug little salute of welcome), a win by "new mum" singer Adele and the introduction of Foster's at times baffling speech by her much more lighthearted friend Robert Downey Jr. didn't hurt either, giving the show a "what next?" quality rare to the genre.
So when Paul Rudd and Salma Hayek gamely endured a broken teleprompter, when Hathaway thanked Sally Field for providing a "Flying Nun" to "Norma Rae" career trajectory, when Jennifer Garner took time out from her role as presenter to thank the folks (George Clooney and Grant Heslov) that her husband, Ben Affleck, had just left out of his acceptance speech for directing "Argo," when Lena Dunham of HBO's "Girls," winning for actress in a comedy or musical, thanked her fellow nominees for helping her surivive middle school, the show did feel like a genuine industry party rather than an overly produced parade of mechanical self-indulgence (although there was inevitably some of that too).
Changing costumes and taking the stage after they both lost to Dunham, Fey hoisted her cocktail and said: "Congratulations, Lena Dunham, I'm so glad we were able to get you through middle school." Which would have been the best line of the night, had Poehler not decided to close the show by saying, "Thank you, good night and we're going home with Jodie Foster."
Beat that, McFarlane.
PHOTOS: 2013 Globes red carpet
LIST: Complete list of nominees
PHOTOS: Quotes from the stars