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What Makes a Good Awards Show Host in 2018?

The job may seem ritzy, but it’s considered one of the hardest in show business. Here’s what to look for at next week’s Emmys.

Jimmy Fallon, Michael Che, Seth Meyers, Colin Jost, Andy Samberg, and Ellen DeGeneres, all wearing tuxedos Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To paraphrase a Zen koan, schmoozing ain’t easy. The task of making a three-hour statue ceremony entertaining is notoriously considered one of the hardest in show business. Like many complaints about Hollywood, it’s an easy one to downplay; at the end of the day, awards shows are about beautiful people congratulating each other in formal wear.

But once one accepts those distorted stakes, the cliché starts to make sense. When an entertainer takes the stage for one of these strange spectacles, they’re catering to two different audiences: the people in the theater, who have to feel appreciated to offer up the laughs the host is fishing for, and the people watching at home, who have to feel acknowledged to avoid the impression they’re watching a slow-motion back rub. An awards show has to be briskly paced, but comprehensive; clever, but sincere. It’s an evening-long straitjacket you need to make look like a tux. And that’s before one takes into account the plummeting ratings, which rationally correspond with the general decline of live television, yet motivate objectively wild decisions like inviting Sean Spicer onstage anyway.

This Monday, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” co-anchors, Colin Jost and Michael Che, will take their first shot at this balancing act. Unflattering Hamptons lifestyle stories (Jost) and a … loose social media presence (Che) aside, they are logical choices for the job. SNL’s cultural presence has faded post-election but remains robust, with 21 Emmy nominations this year alone, including one for Jost and Che as co-head writers. Several years into the job, the two have successfully established a consistent chemistry, with Jost playing the buttoned-up foil to Che’s cool kid. Plus, they’ll have some help: A pre-show Variety profile repeatedly mentions that power-producer Lorne Michaels, as well as SNL writers and headliners, will be there to assist Jost and Che.

As armchair pundits prepare to evaluate their rookie performance, though, it’s worth asking: What makes a good awards show host, anyway? The most memorable stints have historically been the ones that serve as negative examples: James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s repartee from hell; David Letterman’s death by a thousand self-deprecating remarks. Often, the strongest endorsement of a hosting performance is that people aren’t talking about it, reserving their ire instead for Modern Family’s 20,000th win. Out of curiosity, I revisited a wide sampling of awards shows, with a particular emphasis on the Emmys but with relevant examples pulled from other broadcasts where applicable. These are my takeaways; consider them a rubric, or maybe even a guide for any aspiring celebrity shepherds who happen to come across this piece.

Exist

This is, by definition, the lowest possible bar, and yet it’s one the Television Academy, in particular, has struggled to meet. No less than twice in the past 20 years have the Emmys forewent a host entirely: once in 1998, on NBC, and once more in 2003, on Fox. (The Grammys went with a similar strategy for most of the aughts, though the absence was less conspicuous since the Grammys are so much more diffuse, not to mention more of a televised concert than an awards show in the traditional sense.) It’s no coincidence that both these proceedings ended up on my colleague Andrew Gruttadaro’s heroic ranking of the 10 worst Emmys in history in the lead-up to last year’s show. They’re directionless, making up for the lack of an obvious focal point with a surplus of nostalgia (1998) or a surplus of pseudo hosts (2003).

Seriously, they brought in 11 people to do the job of one or two. This Jon Stewart bit is perfectly serviceable, and would have made for a fine show if its acerbic, intellectual point of view were sprinkled across the proceedings:

The same principle applies to this Conan O’Brien bit, with its meta twist on old-school showmanship:

But with nine more segments piled on top of them, even from the likes of Wanda Sykes and Martin Short, you can see how fatigue was all but inevitable. Indecision kills!

Be a Late-Night Host

Consider this a mea culpa. I’ve long found the trend in networks’ host selection to be dispiritingly conservative, defaulting as they have to whichever late-night figure on hand is best suited to the occasion. On most broadcast hubs, this narrows the list of candidates down to two white guys. Hence, song-and-dance man James Corden hosting the Tonys and the Grammys; smooth-talking Jimmy Kimmel hosting the Emmys and the Oscars; NBC tossing the Golden Globes like a hot potato between Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers.

Drafting from “Weekend Update” represents an expansion of the talent pool, but just barely; “Update” itself is a late-night desk segment within a late-night show, and the obvious model for subsequent mock-news series like The Daily Show. (It’s worth noting that Che is the first black major awards show host since Chris Rock in 2016.) The lone exception is Fox, which doesn’t have a flagship property like The Tonight Show to draw on, leading to the slightly more out-of-the-box choices of Andy Samberg and Jane Lynch the last couple of times it’s been up to bat — but given the impending Disney merger, that could very well change.

Hours of tape later, and I must admit my error: Nothing prepares an entertainer for ushering along a night of self-satisfied glad-handing than attempting to make celebrities look interesting in spite of themselves one to four nights a week. Ellen’s Oscar selfie is but a supersized version of the performative palling-around she does every day; Seth Meyers’s sharp-yet-smiling Emmy monologue could have easily come from behind the Late Night desk. It’s a shame that Conan O’Brien’s move to TBS means he’ll probably never get the chance to turn his two Emmy ceremonies into a hat trick, because no one blended “we’re all having a good time” with “NBC is dead in the water” better:

Nor are all hosting duties created equal. The aberration that proves both this rule and the previous one is 2008’s infamous five-way fiasco, which “recognized” reality television’s newfound prominence by having its most prominent faces embarrass themselves with a flat, too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen scenario. (“Popular film” Oscar proponents take note: Blatant, clumsy attempts to catch up with the times rarely go over well.) It’s possible that Heidi Klum, Tom Bergeron, Howie Mandel, or Jeff Probst could have managed on their own — but not likely, as fellow Outstanding Reality Host nominee Ryan Seacrest showed the previous year with an undistinguished showing and a poorly aged Jeremy Piven joke. The highest praise Jimmy Kimmel could muster when he presented the actual award was “sufficient.” He was being generous:

Get Personal …

Even Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, whose three-year Golden Globe run constitutes one of the most well-regarded — and, by white-guys-named-Jimmy standards, unorthodox — hosting stints in recent memory, had done time on “Update” honing their zinger delivery. But more than their comic timing or even their rapport, Fey and Poehler had something else working in their favor: They didn’t look like the typical awards host, and they embraced it.

Virtually all the most memorable moments of the Fey-Poehler Globes come from the two unabashedly inhabiting the perspective of middle-aged women in front of an audience palpably unused to hearing it. The Bill Cosby impression from 2015; the cracks at George Clooney’s and Matthew McConaughey’s expense in 2014; that first swipe at James Cameron and the immortal reaction GIFs it spawned. It’s amazing how well a half-decade-old routine has aged, and disappointing how few follow-ups it warranted in terms of handing the microphone to more nontraditional hosts. Imagine what Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf, or Hasan Minhaj could do in a similar position now that late night — outside of the Big Four, at least — is starting to look like the rest of the world.

There’s also something to say for addressing the elephant in the room, especially when they’re quite literally in the room. In the closing months of the 2016 presidential election, Kimmel interrupted an otherwise workmanlike show to make what now sounds like an eerily prescient declaration regarding Apprentice producer Mark Burnett: “I’m going on the record right now. He’s responsible. If Donald Trump gets elected and he builds that wall, the first person we’re throwing over it is Mark Burnett.” If there was ever a time to acknowledge the ties between politics and entertainment or throw bonhomie to the wind and actually say what one was feeling, it was then — and in just the right quantity to assure impact, too.

… But Not Too Pointed

As entertaining as Fey and Poehler’s potshots at the patriarchy — or refreshing as Kimmel’s political interlude — might be, there’s a reason they alluded to their predecessor Ricky Gervais as a cautionary tale. Gervais’s confrontational attitude started refreshing but quickly soured into tasteless jokes about Jodie Foster’s sexuality. Awards shows are a celebration, and although letting in the real world is sometimes necessary to give people permission to relax, relaxation is ultimately what they’re there for.

It’s the most special of special cases, but Ellen DeGeneres’s legendary post-9/11 show is the quintessential example, acknowledging a profound national tragedy but gradually working around to television’s role in ameliorating it. (“What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by a bunch of Jews?”) A less profound version of the same idea underscores Fallon’s buddies-having-fun musical opener from 2010, back when his let’s-be-buddies shtick read as endearing instead of cloying. It’s the Glee kids making nice with Jon Hamm!

More intriguingly, there are also the hosts who noticeably chose not to make statements when they very well could have, or were even expected to. In 1994, Whoopi Goldberg became the first woman to host the Academy Awards, a truly depressing statistic she barely addressed, as she declined to call much attention to her identity. There’s even a whole bit about confining politics to a token slew of slogans, the punchiest of which involves Lorena Bobbitt and Bob Dole:

Similarly, Chris Rock stepping up to the podium in the middle of an #OscarsSoWhite firestorm did not yield the blistering broadside some hoped for. (There was no protest in the ’60s “because we had real things to protest at the time.”) The problem lay less with Rock’s performance, apart from an iffy joke about accountants, than skewed expectations. The host is a temporary employee of the Academy, not a hired ombudsman, and that organization is looking for laughs and applause, not sober nods. The more the focus is on the nominees and their accomplishments, the smoother the show.

Speed It Up

According to Jost, Fey’s primary piece of advice to him and Che was to “keep it moving.” The bulk of a host’s performance rests on their monologue, just five to 10 out of 300-plus minutes of broadcast. After that, the host becomes less a performer than an accelerant, ideally hurrying the proceedings along by any means necessary, including making themselves scarce. Bits that drag, like that weird Neil Patrick Harris–Octavia Spencer act from 2015, bring the score down; bits that turn making time into part of the fun, like Jimmy Kimmel’s Jet Ski, are a bonus.

In the spirit of brevity, I’ll keep this blurb quick; in the spirit of the Emmys, I’ll single out this concept’s best execution to date: Conan O’Brien locking Bob Newhart in a box and threatening him with oxygen deprivation if things didn’t wrap up in three hours or less. The ceremony came in three minutes under time.