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"So, what do you think of Jimmy Fallon hosting the Oscars?" a colleague asked me yesterday, when the news dropped that the Academy is wooing the talk-show host to take on the task of emceeing next year's Academy Awards ceremony, kicking off a discussion we wouldn't normally be having for a few months -- and sparking a potential political conflict between two TV networks in the process.
"Who's Jimmy Fallon?" I replied, before I could stop myself.
I was only half-joking. I know Fallon by name, and vaguely by indistinct face -- though I could well be thinking of Jimmy Kimmel instead. (If you put a gun to my head right now and asked me whether Fallon or Kimmel was the target of Sarah Silverman's famous "I'm Fucking Matt Damon" skit, I'd probably end up dead.) The online seepage of American pop culture has got me that far. But ask me what he actually does, what he sounds like, what his comic persona is, and I'll draw a blank. I've never seen him at work.
I know that might seem unfathomable to some of you. Saturday Night Live stars and late-night chat show hosts -- and Fallon has been both, I gather -- are uniquely treasured celebrities in the States, where their professional comings and goings and rivalries and faux pas are keenly and exhaustively tracked by media analysts and viewers, not all of them aware of just how parochial a fascination this is.
For by and large, these celebrities don't travel: here in the UK, for example, their shows, inevitably America-centric in their cultural and political concerns, aren't aired on any but the most obscure satellite channels. Twitter was aflame last year with Conan O'Brien's professional travails, Team Coco becoming an impassioned meme for many -- the rest of us just looked on in amused confusion. (We Brits were busy getting only a fraction as riled up about Dannii Minogue's unjustified ousting from "The X Factor." Who, you ask? Exactly.)
The same, perhaps more surprisingly, goes for Saturday Night Live, the work of whose regulars and guest hosts is routine water-cooler fodder Stateside, and a rather more specialized enthusiasm beyond those borders. A major figure like Tina Fey didn't exactly penetrate the cultural consciousness in my part of the world until her Sarah Palin impersonation went viral and she started headlining feature films -- even then, she's hardly a household name here.
All of which is why, when names like Fallon, O'Brien, Kimmel, Craig Ferguson (a Scot, yes, but one who hasn't been an overseas presence since his British TV career fizzled in the early 1990s) are advocated for Oscar hosting duties by readers and media commentators alike, I tend to shrug my shoulders. For all I know, any one of them could do an excellent job with the gig, whether I'm familiar with their work or not: you don't have to know a person, after all, to laugh at their jokes. But selecting one of them seems an oddly insular approach for a show that is watched by many millions internationally. The current line is that Fallon could boost the Oscar show's flagging ratings in the US, and I realize that's a priority -- but need that come at the global audience's expense?
The Academy has, of course, gone down this road before. Johnny Carson did the honors several times in the early 1980s -- a few years before my time, though I gather he was a popular choice. I do, of course, remember David Letterman's decidedly unpopular turn in 1994, when the Oscars sorely paid the price for their cultural myopia: his positively Dadaist barrage of misfired gags was only made more bewildering to my party of South African viewers by the fact that none of us knew who the hell he was. (I fondly remember my mom asking, "Okay, we know who Oprah and Uma are. When's he going to introduce himself?")
After several years of rotating names widely known to moviegoers around the world -- Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin, all of whom I think acquitted themselves well -- the Academy returned to the TV pool with Jon Stewart. Arguably better known to us foreigners than, say, a Letterman -- thanks to the extensively relayed political import of "The Daily Show" -- he was a sharp, urbane and not particularly beloved host: like Ellen DeGeneres in 2006, his didn't exactly put a foot wrong, but never quite overcame the faintly awkward sense that he was intruding on Hollywood's turf. (I had the same problem with Britain's Fallon/O'Brien equivalent, Jonathan Ross, hosting the BAFTAs for several years, except he didn't even have the good grace to be funny.)
Not knowing Fallon's style, I can't guess whether he'd fall into the same trap or not, however nifty his routine. But I do believe that the most consistent and comfortable hosts of my Oscar-watching lifetime have been ones already embedded in the film community: Steve Martin's wry irony, Billy Crystal's slightly cosier schtick, Whoopi Goldberg's more divisive but rewardingly game kookiness, even Hugh Jackman's jazz-hands showmanship. (He wasn't witty enough for my taste, but many disagreed.)
Lately, that formula has been going awry for the Academy: the seemingly can't-miss pairing of Martin with Alec Baldwin foundered as a result of the latter's visible stage fright, while Young Hollywood reps Anne Hathaway and James Franco proved every bit as mismatched as they looked on paper. In clock-ticking desperation, with wildcard choice Eddie Murphy opting out of the gig, they reverted to Crystal, a safe pair of hands that, it turned out, had been idle too long. His broad, spotty performance had a few endearing highs, but seemed both disengaged and dated: ratings crept up slightly, but one can't blame the Academy for sensing that the door had been shut on a certain model of Oscar ceremony.
It's not surprising, then, to see them switching tack and looking to Fallon to bring the "young, hip" audience quotient for which they so disastrously overshot two years ago. I'm not sure I have a better suggestion for raising ratings: speaking selfishly, I'd happily watch Martin cruise through it year after year, but I know most wouldn't.
I suspect the Oscars' status as a ratings titan is irretrievable, so perhaps a more radical conceptual overhaul of the show is required than a different breed of host -- perhaps the very concept of a host at all is something to which we shouldn't feel bound. Earlier this week, I was inspired by Danny Boyle's wild, woolly, multimedia-oriented Olympic opening ceremony to suggest that he direct the Oscars in a spiritually similar, if vastly downscaled way: if the Academy Award ceremony danced from one imaginative visual and sonic (dare I say cinematic) set piece to another, punctuated by star-studded award presentations, would we miss the odd bit of stand-up patter?
That, I realize, is an unreasonably vague and impractical pointer. But my sense is that, to withstand the shifting interests and attention spans of a global audience -- and distinguish themselves from any number of structurally similar awards shows -- the Academy should be thinking bigger rather than smaller. I'm not sure network TV comedians quite fit that brief -- particularly for an institution that, as such recent Oscar champions as "The Artist," "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire" have underlined, is not just about America anymore.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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