If newly minted Oscar ceremony producer Brett Ratner is serious in his stated intent to make the show funny again, Billy Crystal has an emcee nomination: himself.
According to the Los Angeles Times' Awards Tracker blog, Crystal announced on Friday that he'd be willing to return to the Academy Awards podium for the ninth time next winter. He hasn't hosted since 2004, but he says his brief surprise appearance at this year's show, which was greeted by a 35-second-long ovation, has whetted his appetite to return.
Crystal's announcement poses a conundrum for Ratner and the Academy. On the one hand, they know he can do the job, but the telecast has tried in vain for years to attract a younger audience, and the 63-year-old comic is probably not the guy to do that. On the other hand, anyone young enough, funny enough and famous enough for the gig is likely to be too edgy not to bite the hand that feeds him or her. Who should land the job if not Crystal?
Crystal expressed his willingness to return to the Kodak Theatre during a question-and-answer session at a 20th anniversary screening of 'City Slickers' in Santa Monica. Despite the months of hard work involved in putting together the jokes and medleys for his Oscar hosting gigs (something he did eight times between 1990 and 2004), he said he felt the timing was finally right to get his tuxedo out of mothballs. "It got to be too much after a while and the sameness in my life. That's why I pulled back," he said. "And then when I thought I might want to do it again, they were on to other people. It's always fun. It's really hard, but maybe one or two more times? I don't know. They know where I am."
He discussed how much he enjoyed appearing on the Oscar show again this past February, when producers brought him onstage for a segment honoring the only person who has hosted more Oscar shows than he has. "They had called and said would you do this thing and honor Bob Hope and that was a kind of cool thing to do. I said OK. I did it, and people wanted to see me, they stood up, and I couldn't talk for about a minute [until the applause died down]. And, um, I got a little itchy. So we'll see what happens. I can't promise anything."
To some viewers, Crystal's appearance was a welcome respite from the work of the young first-time hosts, the overzealous Anne Hathaway and the zombiefied James Franco. Here, at last, was a seasoned pro, a star who could get the Oscar crowd in his pocket without seeming to try too hard, a performer who was clearly happy to be there. His presence, along with the Hope clip he introduced, reminded viewers of when the Oscars used to be truly funny.
To other viewers, however, there was something creaky and creepy about the segment, with the ghost of the eight-years-dead Hope returning via hologram to seize the spotlight from the living performers, and with Crystal throwing in his lot with the past instead of the future. In a year when the Academy was going out of its way to try to get young people interested, here were Gramps and Great-Grandpa telling you how much better things used to be in the old days.
Crystal can bring the funny, but perhaps not without a whiff of Metamucil. Same goes for such Crystal colleagues as Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin. Then again, the younger comics who have hosted Oscars in recent years (Jon Stewart, Chris Rock) cracked jokes that the Hollywood mandarins at the Kodak found insulting and greeted with stony silence. So going young and edgy doesn't necessarily work either. And going young and not-funny (Hugh Jackman, Hathaway and Franco) is, well, not funny.
Somewhere, there has to be a happy medium. Someone like Craig Ferguson, who knows how to be funny and hip without offending the people who invited him, as he proved at the White House Correspondents Dinner a couple years ago. Or Neil Patrick Harris, whose witty hosting gigs have enlivened just about every other awards show. But do either of them have the stature in the movie world to fit the bill?
As for Ratner, Deadline quotes him as giving a non-committal response to Crystal's offer, which he said he hadn't heard. "I'm really focused on finishing my film 'Tower Heist' right now," the director said. "I was told by the Academy that I don't have to make a decision until mid-September."
Should Billy Crystal host the Oscars again? If not Crystal, then who?
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.