Forget Hollywood—The Oscars Are Late Night’s Biggest Night

The Academy Awards telecast is not a late-night show.

It only feels like it.

If not formally a late-night show, the Oscars are surely on late, often well past midnight on the East Coast. (Yes the show is starting at 7 eastern this year to try to break the late-hour curse. We’ll see what happens.)

But there is a genuine and direct connection to late night this year, as there has been in about a dozen editions of what is still the premiere awards show on television. The host this year is a card-carrying late-night star. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel will step center stage for the second year in a row and the fourth time overall.

If it feels like there must have been more appearances of late-night show stars as host of the Oscars than 12, it may because they have been among the most memorable players in the role.

Johnny Carson was closely identified with the Academy Awards show with five highly successful hosting gigs between 1979 and 1984. Jon Stewart was smoking hot as host of “The Daily Show” when he took on the chore in 2006 and 2008 and won plaudits.

And of course David Letterman gave a reluctant assent to hosting the Oscars in 1995, when he was at his high point in late-night popularity. His performance led to the worst reviews of his career, and years of on-air self-loathing about the night he tried a lame bit of business where Oprah Winfrey, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves were introduced to each other because they all had goofy names.

Though some of his other material worked, Dave kept coming back to the bit that night, which went over like the Hindenburg over Lakehurst, NJ. Letterman later told Scott Feinberg in the Hollywood Reporter that he quickly realized things weren’t going well. “I felt like, ‘I think someone’s perspiring in this suit. Oh, it’s me!’ ”

Letterman has said that he knew definitively that he’d face-planted when Steve Martin came out to present an award and said: “I really enjoyed Dave’s monologue,” and after a beat, “But then again, I really like cleaning up after my dog.”*

As for Kimmel, he faced perhaps the biggest fiasco (not of his own making) in the telecast’s history during his first hosting assignment in 2017. That was the year Warren Beatty was given the wrong card for Best Picture winner and mumbled something about Emma Stone (who had just won for Best Actress), then handed the card to Faye Dunaway who said the winner was “La-La-Land”— and the two of them went down in flames like Bonnie and Clyde.

The winner was really “Moonlight” and that film’s producer, Jordan Horowitz, had to hold up the winning card on camera and tell the “Moonlight” people they had really won.

If you’re an Oscars watcher you surely remember all that. Maybe you don’t remember it was left to Kimmel to try to explain the mess, which he himself was as befuddled by as everyone else. He later told Entertainment Weekly of sitting next to Matt Damon, anticipating a closing sketch the two had planned and thinking the host would have to go on stage and clear everything up. “And then I remembered: oh I’m the host.”

When Beatty tried to explain to the audience that he “wasn’t trying to be funny,” Kimmel said “oh you were funny.”

Because Jimmy is a TV host. He is accustomed to doing host-y things on television, like rolling with the unexpected.

This is obviously the best reason for the motion picture academy to turn to a late-night host to host the Oscars. Get a pro at hosting. The fact that Jimmy Kimmel happens to be the late-night host for the network that broadcasts the program, ABC, might also be a factor.

But that critique seems a bit unfair. ABC has been airing the Academy Awards since 1976. That means they recruited a host from NBC (Carson) five times; a host from Comedy Central (Stewart) twice, and a host from CBS (Letterman) once. And if Dave is to be believed (and why would he lie after flagellating himself for years over his 1995 effort?) the Academy and ABC came back twice to invite him to host. To which he said he responded: “What? Are you crazy? No!”

Jimmy Kimmel has had no “Oprah-Uma” moments in his three previous Oscar sorties. He has handled the show well, which has at least as much to do with his return this year as his network affiliation. This fourth appearance means only three people have hosted the show more often: Carson with his five. Billy Crystal (who surely could have been a late-night host) with nine. And the undisputed champ, Bob Hope, who did the job a staggering 19 times, 14 of them solo, starting back when it was a radio show.

I was not surprised Kimmel could handle this unwieldy and often thankless assignment, not after seeing him stand on a stage at an ABC “upfront” presentation (pitching new shows to advertisers) and lambaste the ad buyers for naively believing most of the shows they were being sold wouldn’t bomb, followed up by a thorough torching by Kimmel of own network.

This was 2004; Jimmy was 1.5 years into his late-night career, and ABC was then a last-place network. Kimmel compared network TV to high school, characterizing NBC as the rich kid whose Dad bought him BMW, while ABC was “the fat kid who eats paste.”

Cut to his closing remarks after last year’s elongated (as usual) Oscar telecast: “Thanks for watching. We now join ‘Good Morning, America,’ already in progress.”

You hire a late-night host, you get a late-night attitude. And almost always a better show.

*This is the joke Letterman recalled Steve Martin telling in a 2020 interview with The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg. In fact, a check of the tape shows that the actual joke Martin told was “I thought David Letterman’s monologue was really funny tonight. Of course, anything would have seemed funny following Arthur Hiller.” (Hiller, the Academy president at the time, spoke at the opening of the show.)


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  1. Tiny Schlauch says:

    He knew definitively that he’d face-planted when Steve Martin came out to present an award and said: “I really enjoyed Dave’s monologue,” and after a beat, “But then again, I really like cleaning up after my dog.”

    That was not the joke Steve Martin did. He said….I really enjoyed Daves monologue but anything is funny after Arthur Hiller.

    1. Jed Rosenzweig says:

      Thanks for catching this. Turns out the dog line came from Letterman himself, who, 25+ years later incorrectly attributed it to Martin. We’ve updated the story with a footnote.

  2. Fard Muhammad says:

    “Remember folks, in Hollywood, Oscar is king.” —David Letterman