You know a cultural talking point has reached its peak—or, depending on the subject matter, its nadir—when it becomes the topic for a Saturday Night Live skit. That moment arrived for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this weekend as the show wheeled out a handful of celebrity impressions to parody the extremely belated search for next year’s Oscars host. (The question posed in the skit: “Who will risk everything for the chance to gain nothing?”) SNL host Matt Damon did a killer Matthew McConaughey impression; Aidy Bryant channeled Hannah Gadsby; Kate McKinnon nailed the voice and cadences of Michelle Wolf and Ellen Degeneres.
It didn’t have to be this way for the Academy. Certainly, there was concern that it hadn’t yet found an Oscars host when The Hollywood Reporter published a piece December 4 about the precarious, host-less situation—though the outlet did float the notion that comedian Kevin Hart was perhaps the best, and only, remaining choice. Then it all went downhill. Within 72 hours of the Academy announcing Hart as its Oscars host, the internet reminded everyone about the comedian’s very public history of anti-gay slurs. In lieu of apologizing—which the Academy insisted he do in order to retain hosting duties—Hart took to Instagram, saying that he loves “everybody,” without explicitly apologizing for his earlier remarks.
Hart was out about as fast as he was unveiled, and nearly two full weeks later the Oscars are still host-less with even less time to spare. The ceremony is in February, and an Oscars host would need time to prepare—to write, to rehearse, to make sure the ceremony moves as quickly and seamlessly as possible (though, of course, that never quite happens). Even if the Academy is still desperate to hire a host, we’re nearing the point where it’d be impossible for them to do so and still produce a competent ceremony. Variety reported last week that the Academy has considered moving forward without a host at all, instead providing “a bunch of huge celebs, something SNL style, and buzzy people.” In essence, it would be a lot like that SNL skit.
And you know what? Maybe that’s not such a bad idea. Thanks to an overreliance on the white late-night hosts, the awards show formula has been in need of a shake-up for years. The derivative nature of the proceedings—how many times will Kimmel make celebrities interact with regular people?—is certainly not the biggest reason awards show ratings are on the decline, but it’s not helping matters either. Furthermore, recent shows have even raised the question about how important a host actually is. When the “Weekend Update” tandem of Colin Jost and Michael Che handled this year’s Emmys, the opening bit saw the comedians cede the spotlight to other personalities from SNL, as well as actors like Sterling K. Brown. Che and Jost were more so emcees for the ceremony than the main attraction and made way for recurring bits by former SNL favorites like Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. Che and Jost were certainly not memorable, but they also weren’t a distraction. Sometimes, it’s better to be forgettable than memorably terrible.
A host can move the needle for prospective awards show consumers only so much; the flip side of streaming and having so many entertainment options available is the de-emphasis of live-event watching outside of sports and Game of Thrones. Like pretty much everything else, awards shows are becoming increasingly niche programming—meaning even a well-liked unifier like Ellen Degeneres isn’t going to reverse trends symptomatic of a larger cultural shift in entertainment. A host-less show, then, isn’t something to be feared; and it could be a major improvement—contingent on finding the right approach and participating parties, so as not to repeat the disastrous, host-free 1989 Oscars, which misused the charms of Eileen Bowman and a young Rob Lowe, among other stars. People from different but occasionally overlapping corners of the internet love Meryl Streep, Tiffany Haddish, and the nuggets sauce kid from Eighth Grade. Get them all on stage at some point in February!
There’s a sense that the Academy sees not being able to find a host as a sign of failure, and while it is somewhat of an ego killer, many of the factors contributing to the struggle—namely, the paradox of low TV ratings combined with heightened cultural awareness—are out of their hands. They might as well adapt instead of fight. While a host-free Oscars in 2019 would be less the result of an ambitious creative decision and more of a last-minute compromise to avoid a complete, embarrassing catastrophe, this year could be a major inflection point. If the host-less Oscars goes well, people will soon forget about the Hart fiasco and its messy aftermath, and, most interestingly, other awards shows may follow suit. And if it goes poorly, well, the show has survived much worse: Remember when it gave Best Picture to the wrong movie?