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Can Chris Rock deliver high ratings and good reviews as Oscars 2016 host?

The Oscars: Only one choice to host awards: Chris Rock
Chris Rock
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Shortly after they were officially hired to produce the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, David Hill and Reginald Hudlin met to discuss what’s inevitably the biggest and most difficult decision: Who’s going to host?

One name and one name only came to mind. And lucky for them, Chris Rock decided to accept a job that many have turned down over the years.

“He was our first and only choice,” says Hudlin, on a break from shooting the upcoming CBS comedy “Angel From Hell.” “From the minute we sat down together, it was, ‘We want Chris.’ And not just for his incredible sense of humor, but the intelligence behind it. That’s what’s really required of the job, a guy who understands every aspect of the movie business and has the ability to be razor-sharp funny, right in the moment." 

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Rock’s second stint as host had been predicted as a strong possibility since the film academy hired Hudlin and Hill to produce the show. Hudlin worked with Rock previously, directing the pilot episode of Rock’s TV show “Everybody Hates Chris” and the 1992 film comedy “Boomerang.” Hudlin also produced the academy’s Governors Awards last year, where Rock was on hand to pay tribute to Harry Belafonte.

The academy will hope that Rock can deliver better reviews and, more important, higher ratings than this year’s show. The 2015 telecast’s audience dropped nearly 15% from the previous year, with host Neil Patrick Harris struggling through a sluggishly paced evening. In 2014, the Ellen DeGeneres-hosted show, with its star-studded selfie that temporarily disabled Twitter and other interactive skits and bits, drew an average of nearly 44 million viewers.

Rock’s previous stint as Oscar host produced a wide range of reactions, with USA Today crowning him “one of the worst hosts ever,” while Roger Ebert praised a “home run” opening monologue that was “surprisingly pointed, topical, and not shy of controversy.”

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“Humor as ever is subjective,” Hill notes. “It’s like figure skating.”

When Rock last hosted the Oscars, he made history of a sort. It was the first time an Oscar presenter felt the need to issue a rebuttal of the host’s monologue.

Rock had made a running joke about actor Jude Law’s then-ubiquitous presence in Hollywood. “Who is Jude Law?” Rock asked. “Why is he in every movie I have seen in the last four years? Even if he’s not acting in it, if you look at the credits he makes the cupcakes or something.”

Later in the ceremony, Sean Penn, presenting the lead actress Oscar, felt compelled to defend Law. “Forgive my lack of humor,” he harrumphed. “Jude Law is one of our most talented actors.”

Safe to say then that Penn wasn’t consulted on bringing Rock back?

“I’m positive now that if you checked with Mr. Penn, he would have realized that Chris was making a very droll joke about Jude Law,” Hill says.

The divisiveness illustrates the no-win nature of the hosting job. The rigid format — 24 award categories, 24 speeches, 24 opportunities for long-winded winners to be played off the stage — limits a host’s ability to affect and shape the show.

It’s widely regarded as one of the toughest gigs in Hollywood.

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“It’s such a thankless job,” comedian Sarah Silverman told The Times, adding that she’s surprised Rock agreed to host. “Steve Martin did so well that one year. And he told me he had so much fun — until he made the mistake the next day of looking at what people had to say.”

There is evidence that Rock has honed his skills since last hosting the Oscars, in 2005. Last year, with his acclaimed comedy “Top Five” arriving in theaters just as awards were starting to be handed out in earnest, the 50-year-old comedian made the rounds on the trophy dinner circuit.

Rock rarely disappointed during his time onstage, lampooning the season’s empty rituals and rampant self-importance. Hoisting his own prize at the vacuous Hollywood Film Awards, Rock emoted, “All my life, I’ve dreamt of getting one of these, like everyone else in the room. I can’t believe this day has come!”

Then there was his Governors Awards appearance, honoring Belafonte.

Rock killed it in his brief remarks, giving a shout-out to academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (“It’s nice to see a black president that America still likes”) and, noting Belafonte’s efforts in voter registration during the civil rights era, adding a topical zinger, “Thank God no one’s trying to stop people from voting now!”

Rock also appeared in January at the National Board of Review dinner, where he mocked producer Scott Rudin and some of the evening’s self-important speeches.

Said Rock: “They all say, ‘We made something that was more than an animated movie.’ No, you ... didn’t. I did ‘Madagascar.’ I cashed a check and got the ... out of there.”

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Rock’s hiring continues the academy’s push toward diversity. Earlier this year, the group invited 322 people to join, its largest class ever, with more than 23% of the newcomers being people of color and more than 28% being women. The academy hired a black producer (Hudlin) for its show and will honor Spike Lee at the Governors Awards next month.

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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