When the news was announced that Jon Stewart would be hosting the Oscars this year, it forced a small reckoning. Stewart's heroic status among lefties has been troubling me for a while. It's not that I don't think Stewart is funny. I've been a fan since he was stuck hosting Short Attention Span Theater with Patty Rosborough. Watching him struggle to find a vehicle—through terrible talk show after terrible film role—was frustrating, but the righteous popularity of The Daily Show was vindication. Except...
Am I the only one who cringed at the self-satisfaction that crept into The Daily Show during and after the 2004 election? It's hard to blame them—every non-Bush voter in the country was looking for something to numb the sting. Stewart and his staff of fake news reporters were only too happy to oblige, offering easy laughs at the expense of Bush and his staff of fake statesmen. And while there's no harm in laughing, Daily Show laughs have a way of leaning on liberal reflexes. Stewart is better than that; you can see him resist his audience's congratulations. Furthermore, the spin-off The Colbert Report, which is both funnier and smarter than its predecessor, has put Stewart and co. back on their toes.
So what has any of this to do with the Oscars? Not much, except insofar as Stewart's selection as host, along with his primacy on the late-night airwaves, puts him in the company of the late, great Johnny Carson.
Carson hosted the Oscars five times between 1979 and 1984. The run is unremarkable in comparison to Bob Hope's 18 years as emcee. However, Hope was about as funny as a raped baby. Jon could do worse than to look to Johnny for inspiration. Since watching old Oscar broadcasts is sheer masochism, I recommend Stewart pick up a copy of the three-DVD Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection. As per the box, there are 30 years, 4,000 shows, and 25,000 guests worth of pickings from Carson's reign as host of The Tonight Show, and the seven-hour assortment offers an excellent window into the talents of the greatest TV host of all time. His instant wit and easy charm with guests are already legendary, but seeing 30 years in concentrated form—particularly when he interviews old people (like the lady with the potato-chip collection)—is stunning. He never once condescends. And if the monologues and sketches are frequently lousy (you won't need more than a few minutes of Art Fern or the constant Reagan impressions, though Carnac the Magnificent is still funny), Carson's silent asides straight into the camera (which Stewart has since appropriated) more than make up for the fact. If Carson's brilliance can be distilled down to one skill, it's the ability to preside—to know when to recede and when to step up (watch him play straight man to Albert Brooks's inept ventriloquist, for example), when to shine and when to disappear. Jon Stewart is very, very funny, but Johnny Carson will always be the master.