Following Sunday’s Primetime Emmys, it shouldn’t take more than a few days for each and every one of us to forget who hosted the proceedings (it’s Jimmy Fallon, by the way). But that isn’t always the case. While quite a rare feat, there have existed memorable hosts in the annals of awards shows. Here are the best of all time — and, of course, the worst.
We’re not gonna feign nostalgia for Hollywood’s Golden Age, the good ol’ days of Bob Hope hosting the Academy Awards on an almost annual basis; we weren’t around for it, nor have we purchased the Oscars-ceremony box set or interrogated Gramps on the minutiae of Hope’s hosting performances. But the numbers don’t lie: He has hosted almost 25 percent of the Oscar ceremonies, by far more than anyone else, so a LOT of people must’ve liked what he was doing.
Carson certainly had a knack for making hosting seem like an absolute piece of cake — as seen during his three decades on The Tonight Show — and that’s precisely how he came off during his four consecutive Primetime Emmy gigs in the early 1970s (he had once previously co-hosted). It was an unsurprisingly seamless transition for the iconic presenter, who had the same everlasting impact on awards-show hosting as he did the late-night variety. Hence his record-setting tenure as the go-to Emmys host … and go-to Oscars host a few years later.
Much like her non-awards-show résumé — which includes films, sitcoms, a talk show, and a spot on American Idol’s judge panel — Ellen has pretty much done it all when it comes to emceeing ceremonies. She was charged with the not-so-cushy task of hosting the Emmys two months after 9/11; the results were often hilarious without abandoning appropriate sensitivity and perspective, best summed up by this line: “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?” In 2005, the Louisiana native hosted TV’s biggest night following yet another national tragedy: Hurricane Katrina. And two years later, she ably handled the Oscars, and in so doing became the first openly gay or lesbian host in the event’s history. (She earned an Emmy nom for the performance.) And those are just the three ceremonies that stand out!
As 21st-century awards-show hosts go, O’Brien and Stewart are more or less one in the same: self-effacing, unconventionally hip, just offbeat enough and altogether rock-solid. Conan was nothing short of outstanding during his two turns hosting the Emmys, in 2002 and 2006 (he co-hosted in 2003), while Stewart has adeptly emceed both the Oscars and Grammys — and when his first time hosting the latter ceremony didn’t start off so well, he characteristically acknowledged it, mocked it and moved on, to hilarious results. Stewart, especially, was able to essentially wink at how ridiculous the whole affair was — without necessarily deriding it outright.
Be it the Oscars or Emmys, the no-host thing never works. EVER! People tune in, in large part, to see how the host fares and how he will differentiate the show from the previous year, regardless of the result: spectacular failure, with its palpable A-list-audience awkwardness, is often as entertaining as flawlessness. But when there is no host, a necessary element is lost, supplanted by merely more celeb presenters who would be part of the show anyway. Awards shows need an anchor. Perhaps the only thing worse than no host is …
The Frightful Five
Probably the worst idea of any part of any awards show ever came during 2008’s Emmys, and it lasted the entirety of the telecast. Somehow, someone, somewhere thought that five offensively unfunny (yes, including Howie Mandel) host/presenter types would equal one entertaining collective. Expectedly, it failed unlike anything before, and almost everyone who took the stage — including members of the quintuplet themselves (Mandel, Ryan Seacrest, Heidi Klum, Jeff Probst and Tom Bergeron) — acknowledged just how dreadfully conceived AND executed the plan was.
A droll, irreverent, sandpaper-dry sense of humor doesn’t quite work when it comes to hosting awards shows, as it turns out — especially when, well, it’s just plain not funny. Such was the case of David Letterman’s lone turn as host of the Academy Awards, in 1995. Two words: Uma, Oprah. Cue the dead silence from the star-studded audience — and the bewilderment of TV viewers. At least Letterman has been able to poke fun at the disaster ever since.
Neil Patrick Harris: He can do it all — sing, dance, act or go semiserious. It’s no wonder the Tonys snatched him up from free agency, but it is a wonder that the Emmys let him go after the success that was 2009’s ceremony.
Billy Crystal: OK, fine — he had his moments, and his hosting monopoly (eight Oscar ceremonies over a decade and a half) is impressive, but … were we really the only ones more annoyed than entertained?
Bryant Gumbel: The fact that Bryant Gumbel actually hosted the Emmys in 1997 is still the only thing funny about him. That and the word ‘Gumbel.’ Maybe producers thought audiences would laugh at the repetition of it?
Chris Rock: He knows how to work a room, just not one whose audience consists of the most famous people in the world. We’re big fans, but the Jude Law cheapies during the 2005 Oscars were a bit gratuitous.