When the Academy Awards ceremony was first televised, in 1953, it ran for one hour and 32 minutes. By 2002, it had mushroomed to a record four hours and 20 minutes, making it even longer than your average James Cameron movie – and only slightly less inane. It has restrained itself a little since, but you should still expect this Sunday’s show to run to three and a half hours.
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The show itself has always been a self-indulgent, self-penned love letter from Hollywood to the world. But that’s not to say it’s without its charms. Sure, most of the acceptance speeches veer from the tedious to the emetic, but there has still been comedy gold in them thar Hollywood Hills – usually in the hosts’ opening monologues. In fact, the best way to watch any Academy Awards ceremony is to tune in for the intro, set the DVR and then come back later to watch it all with the fast-forward button never far from reach.
Your correspondent has combed through the video archive to find – hopefully – the funniest, most memorable moments at the Academy Awards. And if there was a Jewish angle, so much the better (and, Hollywood being Hollywood, usually there is).
Where else to start than with the man who hosted more Academy Award ceremonies than anyone else – Bob Hope. Some of Hope’s 18 turns are captured in this video clip, including the all-time classic line, “Welcome to the Academy Awards – or, as it’s known in my house, Passover.” Scroll through the first few minutes if you want to get to Hope himself. Otherwise, sit back and marvel at a bygone era when red carpets were simply things for actors to walk on and Botox was merely a potential cure for cross-eye:
If Hope symbolized a Hollywood that still told its tales in black and white, it was Billy Crystal who became synonymous with the Academy Awards of the 1990s and 2000s. During his nine times as host (between 1990 and 2012), his opening monologues were often more entertaining than the films they name-checked. The video montages in which Crystal spliced himself into the nominated movies quickly became the stuff of legend. Here’s his movie montage from 2004, including a great “Something’s Gotta Give” routine:
The real showstoppers, however, were Crystal’s opening monologues, with the stand-up-turned-actor the consummate Oscar showman. Any of his efforts is worth watching but ultimately his 1997 introduction is selected here. Watch Crystal confess that he has been digitally enhanced, to repair a “rough edit” at a religious ceremony soon after he was born:
Part of Crystal’s winning shtick was always the “nominees song,” with his “Prince of Tides” parody a loving send-up of Barbra Streisand and her ego – as its composer, Marc Shaiman, reflects here:
Shaiman also teamed up with Judd Apatow to write possibly the best Academy Awards ceremony song ever – 2007’s “A Comedian at the Oscars.” Any song with the couplet, “I’m going to lose 40 pounds to play Ralph Nader / I’m going to do that gay coal-mining film with James Spader,” is OK by me:
And, of course, it was a song performed by a Jewish singer that led to the most mangled Oscar introduction ever. Watch it and wince anew:
This year’s host, Neil Patrick Harris, has been airdropped into the Oscars in the hope that he can weave the same magic he did while hosting the Tony Awards in New York. He has appeared at the Oscars before, in a 2010 cameo. But for a better indication of what he can do, check out this Tonys number from 2011, “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore,” where he gets to deliver the line, “Well-to-do suburbanites, and liberal intellectuals / Although that group is only Jews and homosexuals”:
Anyway, back to the Oscars. Everyone’s other favorite Jewish host, Jon Stewart, had the misfortune of presiding over the least watched Academy Awards show of all time (back in 2008, when less than 32 million U.S. viewers tuned in).
It was their loss, because Stewart delivered a couple of killer performances. His opening monologue in 2006 was truly inspired, mixing politics and movies like no other emcee (“Björk can’t be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscars dress, and Dick Cheney shot her”). He also produced this gem referencing two of director Steven Spielberg’s films: “’Schindler’s List’ and ‘Munich’ I think I speak for all Jews when I say, I can’t wait to see what happens to us next!”:
His 2008 intro was also unashamedly political, feasting on the Democratic battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (“Normally, when you see a black man or woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty”):
Want something more contentious? Here’s a 20-second clip in which Steve Martin treads that fine line between knowing humor about Jews in Hollywood and anti-Semitism (it would have been funnier coming from Billy Crystal, but it’s still a lot less offensive than the Jews-run-Hollywood piece by Seth MacFarlane at the 2013 Oscars – we’d link to that, but we’re only concentrating on the funny stuff here):
Steve Martin actually proved to be an edgy, bite-the-hand-that-feeds host – the anti-Bob Hope, if you like. Here’s his first time, from 2001, in which he was funny, but Russell Crowe’s stony face when he became the butt of a joke is even funnier (remember the adage, Russell: Always be prepared to laugh at yourself; otherwise, you could be missing the joke of the century):
Martin topped that in 2003 when he seemed to insult pretty much every big-name actor in the auditorium, no matter what their religious persuasion. Particularly brilliant is the “What makes a movie star?” routine. You’ll have to put up with a few words of Spanish from a TV channel commentator and a dodgy recording in this clip, but it’s worth it:
Finally, we have to return to Billy Crystal, who always possessed the ability to make the evening feel like he was performing at a Greenwich Village comedy club. Before he started hosting, Crystal introduced a segment on tap-dancing in 1989 – in his own inimitable style. Stay tuned for the best “The Ten Commandments” impression ever:
The 2015 Academy Awards is on Sunday February 22.