Academy Awards Broadcast Was a Comedy of Errors and an Error of Comedy
There was a great industry joke lobbed at the Hollywood awards machine by the short-lived but loved TV cartoon 'The Critic.' The joke featured a Midwestern farmer and his boy spotting a plane headed to Hollywood.
"Yep, son," the wide-eyed farm says with a big pitchfork in his all-American paw, "on that plane are the people who fill our lives with blockbuster movies, moronic situation comedies, awards shows where awards shows win awards. Get my gun, boy."
If the 82nd Academy Awards takes home an Emmy or even a nomination for their television broadcast, just about every middle American farmer with a sidearm will land on a terror alert watch list and every first class flight from New York to Hollywood will have to divert over the Gulf of Mexico in order to avoid the inevitable strafe of gunfire from America's heartland.
The entire affair just felt contained, as if the producers and directors wanted to make sure that not a single moment of the evening went off the script. And when you have that many screws holding together something as big as the Oscars, a few of them are bound to loosen, fly off and hit someone in the eye.
The whole broadcast was a night of a thousand bloopers, minus Dick Clark and Ed McMahon. Lights didn't get placed on parts of the audience in the opening monologue, so you couldn't see the punchline target's reactions. Tapes weren't cued up, so you had minor but noticeable moments such as when Sandra Bullock realized she was still on camera and had to read the nominations aloud.
The worst of them all was during the traditional "In Memoriam" montage. The camera starts with a wide shot of the screen and singer James Taylor belting out a sweet tune to an opening image of the late Patrick Swayze. Then two other figures appeared on the screen but you couldn't read who they were because of the white text on a white background, so some of them got missed and weren't even recognized, except by a few film buffs and their grieving families. It didn't even acknowledge this mistake in the rest of the broadcast, so two very hard working people missed their remembrance for their lifetime of achievement.
These mistakes overshadowed some of the small noticeable changes and laughs that made the first half of the evening go by faster than normal, only for some of the bigger nominations to have long-winded introductions that ground the whole thing to a halt. The sheer number of technical errors, gaffs, boo-boos, mistakes and just flat out screw-ups became the leaks in a ship that tried to run tighter than it should.
Everything was over-scripted, from the jokes down to the few comedic awards speeches (although Stanley Tucci deserves praise for his very funny and heartfelt homage to human Oscar nomination machine Meryl Streep), so that nothing offensive, disagreeable or mildly bleepable could leak out over the airwaves and infect the ears of small children who are smart enough to go to bed early on Oscar night in the first place.
Some of the opening jokes were funny, since Steve Martin knows how to deliver a punchline better than anyone in the biz and Alec Baldwin clearly had some fun bouncing ribs off each other's dueling egos. The two had some zany short sketches that spoofed 'Paranormal Activity' and the Snuggie that left me wanting more. Neil Patrick Harris' surprise opening number was incoherent at times thanks to bad sound, but he has an untapped wealth of energy that can make even the most callous heart crack a smile just by being in the room.
Ben Stiller had probably the biggest laugh of the night as he walked in dressed as one of the 'Avatar' characters, complete with a long tail and yellow eyes that looked like the world's most uncomfortable pair of contact lenses. It was planned to be a dual skit with Sacha Baron Cohen that fell apart before the broadcast, with Cohen sporting a pregnant Na'vi costume that would have had me pouring soap in my eyes for a full week.
The comedy, however, suffered because it all felt so scripted. The entire broadcast was on a short leash with a shock collar that went off anytime anyone on stage had even a remotely dirty or offensive thought. Live TV used to have the air of dangerousness to it, but recent events have struck fear into the hearts of broadcasters and now every live event has more industrial strength nets beneath it than Marlon Brando doing a trapeze act on 'Circus of the Stars.'
The best moments of Oscars past were those that happened off-the-cuff and without rehearsal. They happen every year whether the Academy wants them to or not like Steve Martin's hilarious joke about Michael Moore's anti-Bush acceptance speech and Whoopi Goldberg's interaction with the audience, even the ones with the poorly pronounced curse words. It even sneaked across the safety fence this year when producer Elinor Burkett pulled what's already being called a "Kanye" from director Roger Williams as they accepted their Best Documentary award. (Read the reasoning behind that tense moment at Salon.com).
Stopping those moments is impossible and attempting to prevent them is futile. The best television doesn't come from rehearsals, something the crew behind the Oscars clearly didn't put any effort into in the first place.