Why the Oscars should be all over Chris Rock

Chris Rock hosted the 77th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, 2005.
(Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Chris Rock’s Oscar-hosting stint in 2005 didn’t exactly pass universal muster. So it’s not likely -- in the jittery, offend-lightly world of modern awards-show hosting -- that he’ll be given the gig again any time soon.

But Rock’s appearance at Tuesday night’s National Board of Review prizes in New York, where he received an award for his new comedy “Top Five,” shows why that’s folly — or, at the very least, why producers need to work him into the telecast any chance they get. It’s easy this year, what with him directing a critically acclaimed movie and all.

Rock was already facing an expectation-laden crowd at the NBRs, his appearance having been unexpectedly teased to earlier in the show by award winner Scott Eyman (the critic said he was hoping everyone would cut 30 seconds out of their speeches so Rock could do 10 minutes). Rock took the stage and didn’t disappoint.

He immediately tore into one of the sacred cows of awards shows -- that the movies being honored (in this case, animated movies) are more than just entertainment but transcendent things, worthy of our finest platitudes and tuxedos. In particular, winners for “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “The Lego Movie” had just come off some self-serious speechifying, and Rock was having none of it.

“They all say: ‘We made something that was more than an animated movie.’ No you *#@! didn’t,” Rock said in his trademark high-pitched incredulity.


He continued: “I did ‘Madagascar.’ I cashed a check and got the ... out of there.”

The comedian hardly let up from there. He tackled the Sony hacking scandal: “Scott Rudin is not a racist. Scott Rudin hates everybody.” (Rudin, it should be noted, is Rock’s producer on “Top Five.”) He even took on his and Jerry Seinfeld’s idol, Bill Cosby, if in a veiled way, saying that Seinfeld, his pal who had introduced him at the NBRs, had “called me up after a comedian had died or went through a sex scandal and said, ‘We’re moving up the comedian legend ladder.’”

But the best thing Rock does is pull back the curtain on all these awards-show niceties, while fitting it all in nicely into an awards show. He did that again Tuesday, on the whole acceptance-speech convention to thank a crew. And the amazing thing is, he did it by Trojan Horsing it -- inside an actual statement of gratitude to his financier.

In offering that gratitude (to Barry Diller -- it just gets better), Rock said: “People say ‘We couldn’t have done this without this editor.’” Pause. “There are other … editors. ‘We couldn’t have done this without this DP.’ There are other … DPs.” We couldn’t make it, he continued, without people willing to write checks for millions.

The NBRs aren’t televised, which makes for a (slightly) more freewheeling affair. (To wit: Jon Stewart, another man not high on ABC’s call sheet, making dead-on Iranian hacking jokes.)

But Rock’s ability to call nonsense on every awards convention and its unpersuasive niceties was something he could do with ease even in the more formal confines of a televised show, and should do at the Oscars. He’s already been doing it all over the country. At a Variety event in Palm Springs on Sunday, he pulled back the veil on the whole rubber-chicken circuit.

“We’re out here for -- what are we out here for? The Variety Creative Impact Awards. But, you know, we’re trolling for Oscar votes. Let’s be honest. We gotta pretend like, ‘Yeah, I’m always out here. I like cactus. I’m out here.’”

It’s unlikely Rock will get an Oscar nomination for directing “Top Five,” and there’s no MTV-ish award for best comedy anywhere on the Academy horizon. Still, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron should find a way to get him into the show. Any way to get him in. Their predecessors found such a way in 2012 -- introducing the animated film category, in fact -- and even in those three minutes, Rock changed the oxygen in the room.

Film comedies and even dramas these days have gone meta. But awards shows have stayed stuck in a world long before all that, when we all have to pretend that all this talk of collaboration and love of cinema is exactly what it appears to be, and not a high-powered political (or student) election, with all the look-at-me ads and whisper campaigns attendant to it. This is a film year when Michael Keaton is receiving accolades for playing a version of Michael Keaton. It’s a really good time to have Chris Rock be Chris Rock.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT