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Hostess with the Mostest

Every year before the nominees are announced, the host for the Academy Awards ceremony is chosen. It’s always a big deal to those of us who love Hollywood’s biggest event, and the Academy and the show’s producers are always tight-lipped about the decision-making process.

The short list of capable hosts sits at three now: Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and newcomer Steve Martin. Martin did a great job last year, and we can only hope that he’ll put on his dancing shoes again.

Crystal is the old master, with eight shows under his belt. But poor Billy’s burned out, and while he is the favorite of many, the guy can’t do it every year. No doubt the pressure to top himself is too much.

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So Whoopi’s our girl this year, and everyone will be anxiously waiting to see what she does. She’s done it before (it’s her fourth time hosting, no less) and we all enjoyed ourselves; no one got hurt. While she doesn’t have Billy’s high-voltage energy or Steve’s sublimely dry wit, her casual, everywoman’s humor may serve the show well, given recent events.

Still, the question remains. What is it about playing host to the world’s most prestigious award show that excites us so? And what makes a good host, anyway?

The answer is simple: It’s a party, and you can’t have a good party without a great host. So take note, you aspiring Whoopis and Billys and Steves: here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to be a great Academy Awards host. And remember…make it funny.

Get in the mix

The Academy Awards aren’t just one big star-filled party; in actuality, they’re a whole horde of parties. Movie folks–from fans to aspiring actors to studio heads–throw parties in honor of the telecast. Thus the show’s host, in a way, ends up co-hosting all of those Oscar parties around the world.

It’s difficult to find the perfect entertainer with the right mix of qualities. First, the host has to be comfortable when the spotlight is on. Second, it certainly helps if he or she knows most of the people at the party. Johnny Carson was a great Oscar host because almost everyone at the show had taken a turn on his couch. It was his job to put stars at ease; they felt comfortable with him.

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Third, the host’s job is to make everyone feel welcome, and he or she should be able to connect with everyone in a good way. Being funny is all well and good, but making fun of people’s names for your own amusement is not the hallmark of a good host. You wouldn’t do that at your own Oscar party!

(Isn’t that right, Mr. Letterman? Don’t call us, we’ll call you.)

Entertain us

We all know awards shows can be very boring. They’re full of celebrities wearing fab clothes you could never afford and talking at the camera about nothing. On the other hand, the Academy Awards can be fun, interspersed with song and dance numbers to enjoy (or laugh at). Best of all the show typically starts with the host’s opening monologue or some staged bit that gets everyone laughing.

Which is why it’s no coincidence that the best hosts have all been stand-up comics. (Hey, performing at the Oscars is just like doing a comedy act, right? The only difference is that it’s the entertainment industry’s biggest event of the year and the audience is nearly every important person in Hollywood, is all.)

A good comic has not only a routine, but also the ability to improvise if the moment calls for it. Who can forget Billy Crystal wisecracking about Jack Palance after he dropped onstage and gave the world twenty?
Whoopi’s quips and double entendres of years past have kept the party lively.

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Give a stress lessen

Comedy is the key to hosting the Academy Awards because it releases tension, of which there’s plenty to go around at the ceremony. Most of those who aren’t nominees are friends, relatives or business partners of nominees. That makes the room one edgy bundle of energy.

That’s why the comedy can’t cut too deep. A good host has to walk a fine line; gentle jabs at one’s peers are OK, but a full-on roast won’t do. The person at the podium should know when to back off, and when to change the subject completely.

For your consideration…imagine you’re a nominated actress.

You’ve been starving yourself for three weeks so that you can fit into a gown that took you way too long to pick out.

You had two vodkas in the limo, and endured the gauntlet comprised of Army Archerd, a scary Joan Rivers, a battalion of faceless journos and the shouting paparazzi, all while wearing a pair of shoes that must have been designed by the Marquis de Sade.

Halfway to your seat you bump into Oliver Stone and suddenly have a diet pill-and-vodka hallucination in which Stone turns into one of the Orcs from The Lord of The Rings. You scream, and beat him with your tiny gold clutch.

Gosford Park‘s Maggie Smith snaps at you to calm down. You do, and sit down too fast. The blood rushes from your head, and you start worrying that if you don’t win tonight, you’ll lose that great hooker-turned-heart-surgeon role to Julia Roberts and end up having to do infomercials to pay the mortgage.

Then you notice that Jack Nicholson is squinting in your direction. Why doesn’t he quit staring? If he doesn’t stop it right now, you’re going to leap over three rows of seats and rip that smirk off his face with your rhinestone-encrusted, French-manicured fingers.

You’re hyperventilating. Your eyes cross. Your fingernails become claws. The moment before you take a flying leap at Jack, Whoopi struts out in a witch hat and makes a comment about Russell Crowe’s magic wand.

You laugh. Your eyes focus. Your breathing returns to normal, and you realize that you’re going to make it through the evening without killing someone.

Comedy is the grease that keeps the evening moving. Laughing people are happy people. It doesn’t matter if those people are in the new Kodak Theater in Hollywood or in a humble little apartment in the city of your choice. A funny host makes for a good party.

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