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Built to Flail

Why hosting the Oscars or the White House Correspondents’
Dinner is a comedian’s nightmare

In London last week, Mr. Thomas Reay dropped his defamation suit against Ms. Louise Beamont, which Reay had begun last February. He was demanding £30,000 for “breach of privacy and data protection.” Usually in this sort of set-to, one’s sympathy tends to drift toward the doxxee, not the doxxer. But in this case, the plaintiff was the husband of the defendant. No, it’s not a case of revenge porn. Louise Beamont is a stand-up comic, and her ex was suing her for using their married life as material in her act.

Until Reay’s suit, one would have thought comedians bitching about their spouses onstage was settled law. If there were a magna carta of comedy, it’s in there. Certainly U.S. precedent dates back to that 1960s landmark, Fang v. Phyllis Diller, or the Jurassic Period’s “Take my wife . . . please,” Henny Youngman v. Humanity. Marrying a comedian once meant giving up all right to dignity. For readers too young for the oeuvres of Diller and Youngman, see Amazon’s hit series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, loosely based on the early career of Joan Rivers. The everything-is-material clause also extends to children, parents, in-laws, pets, and any amusing dates the comic might have once endured. As the saying goes, “nobody’s safe.”

This past year was a big one for comedy divorces. The Beamont case coincided with another high-profile split: that of comedians in general and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its once-coveted gig of hosting the Oscars. After news leaked a few weeks ago that the Academy was struggling to find a host for what’s now widely considered a lousy gig, comedian Kevin Hart took the job. Within days, he was forced out when the Twitter hivemind dug up a string of homophobic tweets and a 2010 routine from his Seriously Funny special riffing on the horror Hart assumes all straight men feel when they suspect their son might be gay. Hart offered an arrogant dismissal, basically saying that to bring up the issue at all meant you were the problem, not him. After he was swiftly cashiered, he did offer a somewhat sincerer apology.

For a long time now, the Oscars and White House Correspondents’ Dinner have been shows built to fail for comedians.

The Academy has not yet named a replacement, and some reports indicate that it might not bother to get a comic at all. That, too, was the recent decision of the White House Correspondents Association, which has also separated from comedy. The sponsors of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner announced they would be skipping their traditional political comedy monologue in favor of a speaker more in line with an Elks Club luncheon, Pulitzer Prize-winning Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow. Big surprise: President Trump has now hinted he will attend the correspondents’ dinner for the first time in his presidency. Trump, who was eviscerated from the WHCD stage in 2015 by President Obama, loathes comedy aimed in his direction as much as Mr. Reay does.

For a long time now, the Oscars and White House Correspondents’ Dinner have been shows built to fail for comedians—stacking the odds against them, then blaming them completely when they crumble on any number of levels. For comedians, these shows are underwater loans one should think twice about before taking, then a third time before turning it down.

Full disclosure alert: I wrote jokes for the 2012 Academy Awards hosted by Billy Crystal. I also rely on the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles to research a lot of what I write about comedy and film history for here and other places. As for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, more full disclosure: I tried to get hired more than once to write for hosts, but was turned down, embittering me in an unreasonably petty way toward the event and said hosts (who history shows all bombed without me). If these biases should make themselves apparent herein, so be it.

The WHCD and the Oscars are both industry shows. That is, they are meant to show off what each industry’s leaders regard as the best and brightest achievements within their field, hiring an agreeable court-jester to make sure an evening of housekeeping and pats on the back has a pulse. Both events are heavily dependent on celebrities in their audience, with the WHCD until recently attracting the president of the United States as a featured speaker.

It used to be that hosting shows like these were high profile, non-controversial jobs. You can credit Bob Hope with defining their tone. He hosted the Oscars from 1940-1943, skipped 1944, then hosted again from 1945-1947. Where was he in 1944? He hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner for FDR. Until Hope, the only comedian who had hosted the Oscars was Will Rogers in 1934. Hope set a pretty workable standard. At the Oscars, he made fun of acting as a profession, but not so much the actors in the room. He opened with a strong monologue and appeared throughout the evening for funny introductions or comments on the show. With that, he was done.

Hope’s 1944 White House Correspondents’ gags, seen here, are remarkably safe by our standards. But Hope’s era did not measure jokes by their sting. In a comedy world of Jack Bennys, Fannie Brices, and Grouchos, whose vaudevillian personas were politically oblivious, the fact that a clown like Hope could even talk about Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau or the Chicago Tribune’s right-wing bias against Mrs. Roosevelt’s My Day column—or that he made his own centrist politics known at all—was enough to get him noticed. In 1953, Mort Sahl changed the politically harmless outlook of mainstream comedy forever at San Francisco’s hungry i club with a much more pointed and specific political humor. You can still see him doing it, sixty-five years later, every Thursday here. Ever since Sahl, putting a comic in a room with politicians and their enablers has been a dare to draw blood.

At a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, speaking truth to power is easier than speaking truth to the power-adjacent.

But in the aggrieved age of Trump, no one’s a good sport about even getting scratched. After Michelle Wolf’s 2018 monologue, which roasted Sarah Huckabee Sanders in lieu of her thin-skinned troll boss, the WHCD decided against hiring a comedian. To be fair to Wolf, and her not at all out-of-bounds jokes, the Correspondents Association’s reversal on the comedy question came after years of uncomfortable nights in rooms full of journalists who first look over their shoulders to see if laughing at a joke is inappropriate or not. The audience at a Correspondents’ Dinner is nothing like the crowd in a comedy club. There, people sit in the dark, anonymously, drinking, and—most importantly—with friends.

No, the correspondents’ dinner is the opposite of any dictionary definition of fun. It’s an audience of compromised careerists—people who can’t afford to be seen laughing at anything that might jeopardize access to the White House or any number of newspaper gigs or cable news outlets. Typically, comedians don’t care too much about landing a segment as a terrorism expert on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer or an op-ed gig at some policy rag funded by a kook billionaire. But the crowd in that room sure does, and Blitzer and that kook billionaire’s otherwise unemployable stable of hacks are just two tables away. Nor do comics depend on someone as loathsome as Sarah Sanders to return their calls. (OK, they have their own world of slippery managers, producers, and fellow comics, who come close.) So, the correspondent diners feign outrage and indignation about jokes that a normal person usually forgets as soon as the comic sits down—or would, that is, if not for all the pundits the next day dragging, pillorying, and holding the comic up as a case in point about America’s discourse in decline.

In the past, George W. Bush put up with Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report era faux Fox persona roasting him to his face without a complaint, as every previous president had. At a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, speaking truth to power is easier than speaking truth to the power-adjacent.

At the Oscars, though, it’s the comedians who walked out, not the prestige-hungry governors at the Academy who can’t handle comedic truth. For the hapless comic tapped to host the Oscars, the whole project tends to blow up in their face every year like Wile E. Coyote opening a package from the Acme Novelty Co. Kevin Hart was a sideshow to the bigger problem: comics see this built-to-fail show as a no-win situation. Most years, the Academy hires a comedian and announces its star about three months before the broadcast. When the host is named, the Academy still does not know who its nominees are; the host is all they have to sell the show. For those three months, then, the comic—Ellen, Chris Rock, Steve Martin, whoever—is hyped the same way a host for Saturday Night Live is promoted relentlessly for the week leading up to Saturday night.

But at least SNL delivers a sketch comedy show on Saturday night (funny? well  . . . ). The Oscars don’t deliver. That Steve Martin show you waited three months for? He or any host only gets about fifteen minutes total to be funny during a three-hour broadcast. Provided, that is, we’re lucky, and it doesn’t go longer. To its credit, the Academy actually does want you to know who the editors and production designers and non-movie stars it nominates are, and it takes a lot of TV time to do so. Still, fifteen minutes of comedy is not much to carry a three-hour show.

The money isn’t that great, and it’s not even fun anymore.

Most of us get pretty bored after the first half hour, until the acting and directing awards show up at what feels like 2 a.m. The comedian’s big opening, often good, is the highlight of most Oscar broadcasts. Other live shows lead up to the best shot they have. Not the Oscars; they open with it, followed by hours of speeches of people thanking agents and high school drama teachers who believed in them when nobody else did, several ho-hum Best Song performances, and then the only real suspense before the final awards—who made it into the In Memoriam segment.

It’s still Bob’s show. And like any Bob Hope joke in 2018, it’s predictable. The only thing more predictable than a Bob Hope joke in 2018 are the next-day critics who go off on the comic as if the whole bloated spectacle were planned by the emcee. The jokes are picked apart, politicized, deemed alternately too mean, not mean enough and/or not all that funny anyway. Generally, years when popular movies are nominated tend to have better ratings. If the comic is lucky, it’s a Titanic year. If the comic isn’t lucky, it’s a Sundance year, and the ratings tank. The host is then treated like they’re the problem and not asked back, no matter how great a job they actually did. Jimmy Kimmel hosted for the last two years and did great. He should be doing it a lot more. But the ratings went down, and as if he’s making the movies the Academy nominates, they went looking for a new host. Now no one wants the job. Given how crazy successful most Oscar hosts are outside of that show, why would they? The money isn’t that great, and it’s not even fun anymore.

If you hire someone to be funny in an unfunny place, simple math tells you it’s not going to work. It’s probably best for these clunky shows to rethink their non-comedy agendas rather than blame comics for fixing the unfixable. Despite giving into Trump’s ego and its humorphobic audience, the White House Correspondents Association did the right thing. As Mr. Reay learned, if you don’t want to be embarrassed, offended, butthurt, or otherwise disappointed by comedians—don’t marry them.