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Television show falls victim to format, again

Dale Roe

If you were expecting something wild and crazy, you were probably disappointed.

Academy Awards co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin got off some good lines at the expense of the assembled, along with a healthy dose of good old-fashioned self-deprecating humor, but brought nothing new to the relatively brisk and amusing proceedings Sunday night.

But the truth is that there's only so much an Academy Awards host can do without completely deconstructing the format and starting over, and that's just not going to happen. There are always tweaks — this year the producers axed the live performance of nominated songs, perhaps a response to the doubling of the number of Best Picture nominees. That change, Martin said, left all of Hollywood asking, "What's 5 x 2?"

The show started with the best actor and actress nominees on stage, followed by the obligatory song-and-dance number. But in a surprise move, the song-and-dance man was Emmy Awards host Neil Patrick Harris. Perhaps unwisely against a backdrop of famous silver-screen duos — Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis — Harris performed a number explaining the presence of dual hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin with the refrain "no one wants to do it alone." The song allowed Harris to poke fun at his agent, and the ribald lyrics included a reference to "dropping the soap."

The song led to Martin and Baldwin descending from the rafters and jogging to the edge of the stage, hand in hand. Baldwin gave Martin a glowing introduction listing his many talents and accomplishments, to which Martin deadpanned, "And this is Alec Baldwin."

The duo looked over the crowd, pointing out various celebrities and taking good-natured shots at them. Martin singled out Meryl Streep, noting her record number of nominations. "Or as I like to think of it," he said, "most losses." He added that anyone who works with the actress has the same two comments: "Can that woman act, and what's up with all the Hitler memorabilia?"

In shades of David Letterman's Uma/Oprah debacle, Martin poked fun at one celebrity's name. "There's that damn Helen Mirren," he said. "That's Dame Helen Mirren," Baldwin replied. Other monologue targets included Toyota, the preponderance of Jewish people in the auditorium, Baldwin and Martin's advanced age and "Avatar" (the hosts put on 3D glasses to look at director James Cameron).

The pair had an easy banter that was more entertaining than I had expected it would be, if just as unsurprising. Nonetheless, it turned off some viewers who replied to a query on the duo's performance I sent out on the social media site Twitter. "I think they're so bad its funny," one reply read. "So mission is somewhat accomplished."

Another had already given up on this year's broadcast. "That opening monologue was painful to watch," he wrote. "Painful enough that it made us change the channel."

Others were more forgiving. "I think they know their place — they are simply a little comedy burp during the ceremony, they are not the show."

"They're doing well," another tweeter replied.

But post-Johnny Carson Oscars hosts often get trashed (eight-time host Billy Crystal excluded). Letterman, most famously, but even such lauded comics as Chris Rock and Jon Stewart had rough outings. In their separate appearances, the pair tried to take the Hollywood crowd down a peg and, while it may have been appreciated in living rooms across the country, the reception in the room was decidedly chilly.

There are always highlights — those bits destined to be talked about the next day, e-mailed and scoring tons of YouTube hits. This year's winner of my "Most Likely to Go Viral" award is Ben Stiller's presentation in the Best Makeup category. The comic entered the stage in blue makeup, costumed as a character from much-nominated "Avatar." He pointed out that the bit seemed like a better idea in rehearsal, especially since the film was not even nominated in the category.

"After I announce the winner, I will try to stand as far away from them as possible so as not to demean their moment of triumph," Stiller joked.

A touching John Hughes tribute was introduced by a where-is-she-now Molly Ringwald and "Ferris Bueller" star Matthew Broderick, who called Hughes "a friend, a mentor, and one of the funniest human beings I have ever met."

The tribute included clips from Hughes movies such as "The Breakfast Club" and "16 Candles," followed by personal remembrances from stars of Hughes films including Jon Cryer, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy and Macauley Culkin, who still looks to be 9 years old.

A tribute to horror films was less effective. It's hard to build the essential element of suspense with a series of three-second clips.

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923