The loss of the Oscars’ latest host is, on the one hand, just another mishap to add to the list. From 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite to 2017’s wrong delivery of the best picture award, the ceremony now seems like a particularly slow bloopers reel. Yet the loss of Kevin Hart — who quit after old homophobic tweets resurfaced — is also a sign of something else. The fact that no one has replaced him, and that it’s difficult to think of many people who could, or would, reveals a much a deeper malaise: a scary loss of nerve across showbiz’s top-tier events.
Within weeks, the Super Bowl half-time show will air. In the past, the American football final has been an epic showcase for the likes of Madonna, Prince and Beyonce, a 20-minute, legacy-defining megamix. This year, though, with Rihanna and Cardi B having turned it down in solidarity with the activist NFL player Colin Kaepernick, we will be left with the hardly epochal sounds of Maroon 5.
A certain blandness seems to threaten all proceedings. Earlier this month the Golden Globes made do with the anodyne pairing of Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh as hosts, while the White House correspondents’ dinner — historically a raucous roast for America’s political class — has now asked a historian to host April’s televised event after the comedian Michelle Wolf was deemed to have taken last year’s proceedings too far .
And now, for the first time in 30 years, the Oscars look set to have no official host. It’s rather worrying, not least because the last time this happened, in 1989, an infamous debacle ensued — a strange opening number involving Snow White, Rob Lowe and a rendition of I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.
“It feels like a failure, and an ominous sign of our inability to sustain any kind of shared stage,” says Spencer Kornhaber, a pop culture journalist for the Atlantic. “No one is able to step up to the plate and just tell some jokes and get out of the way.”
This confusion is one place where the Oscars can claim a type of relevance, although not the type it wants. As its TV audience has dwindled, the Academy has tried to shake things up by hiring a variety of “edgy” hosts. Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Seth Macfarlane, the bizarre pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway: you can’t say they haven’t tried. But the reception has been lukewarm.
The list of potential hosts is always short, points out Seth Abramovitch of the Hollywood Reporter: “They typically struggle to find someone because there isn’t a lot of upside to it, they want someone of a certain stature, the show is on ABC so it can’t be someone from a competing network, and they want someone with a wide variety of skills — but primarily being a comedian. And there’s just so much at risk.”
At first, Hart seemed the ideal host, especially as he was one of the few who had actively campaigned for it. Yet his uncovered tweets from 10 years ago created a furore.
Not that it’s unclear why Hart had to go. But there remains the fundamental problem that any compere is expected to be edgy, but not too edgy. There’s a line, but no one quite knows where it lies. Perhaps the clearest example is Ricky Gervais’s stint at the Golden Globes, which drew both cackles and gasps when he did three in a row from 2010-12 (and again, less controversially, in 2016).
Gags about Angelina Jolie’s brood of kids or Robert Downey Jr’s stints in rehab delighted some and disgusted others. “As much as I dislike Ricky Gervais, there was something kind of fun about his run,” says Abramovitch (who found Samberg and Oh “completely forgettable”). “I think that era is over — people are too sensitive now. But the danger of it was fun.”
The loose expectation of an awards host is to act as a court jester among showbusiness royalty, poking fun at their foibles. The problem is that these events thrive on a sense of their own prestige, so it doesn’t do to jest too much. And this is the age of “wokeness”, where people — particularly that crucial younger audience — are more conscious of gags revolving around gender, sexuality and race.
“I think it’s a generational thing,” says Abramovitch, who is 46. “With my generation, it was still OK to poke some things, and the millennial generation are a lot more sensitive.”
When causing offence is almost inevitable, it takes a strong stomach to want to give it a go. In Britain, even the dependable Bafta hosts Graham Norton and Stephen Fry have landed in hot water for jokes deemed too rude. Perhaps it just shows that you can never please everyone, and possibly also that camp — such a good way of saying naughty things politely — cannot cover for every sin. Nevertheless, the UK’s culture wars still seem less savage than in America, where things have ramped up since a certain reality TV star was elected president in 2016.
This attitude applies to everything from the Super Bowl to the Oscars to the White House correspondents’ dinner: Trump’s persona is anti-establishment, and there’s nothing he loves more than blasting a Hollywood system that long mocked and ignored him. His disputes with the NFL, for instance, which is in dispute with the footballer Kaepernick, who in turn is regularly attacked by Trump, is a perfect storm of sports, race, showbiz and politics.
The Super Bowl has always had a problem when its performers get too racy — consider the vitriol around Janet Jackson’s 2004 “wardrobe malfunction”. Where awards ceremonies struggle with humour, the half-time show struggles with the typical rock’n’roll tropes of sex and rebellion. Yet it’s striking when a superstar like Rihanna decides she would rather pass on a TV potential audience of 150 million. There is a whole other fanbase she would rather speak to; and that reminds us just how fragmented the cultural conversation has become.
Which leads us to the White House correspondents’ dinner, a more niche event already widely begrudged for its tuxedoed cosying-up between Washington’s political elite and the fourth estate. Yet its dilemma could be the most telling. Last year Wolf took the traditional “roast” brief of the host seriously, giving Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, a thorough going-over, as the subject sat through it stony-faced. (Trump boycotts the dinner.) Wolf got a pasting, which has left many bemused. “They threw her under a bus,” says Abramovitch.
In the Trump era, though, many feel exhausted and trapped: hit back harder and you are just entrenching yourself; don’t hit back at all and it’s a type of appeasement. What should be simple entertainment is now anything but. Perhaps the greatest story showbiz likes to tell is that we’re all one big happy family. In today’s vituperative climate, that’s a story no one wants to tell or hear.