When this year’s presenters gaze out at the glittering audience and into the eyes of 1 billion viewers, what they’ll actually be looking at is a TelePrompTer flashing lines written by Hal Kanter, 75 (producer of the 1968-71 series Julia), and Buz Kohan, 60 (former head writer of The Carol Burnett Show). Kanter is celebrating his 25th year penning patter for the Oscars, Kohan his ninth. During the telecast, they’ll sit backstage with host Whoopi Goldberg’s writing team, scribbling one-liners in case Goldberg needs any help sounding spontaneous. Two years ago, after Jack Palance performed a set of one-armed push-ups, Kohan and host Billy Crystal’s writing team made comedy history by feeding Crystal jokes about Palance’s astounding virility throughout the rest of the show. Entertainment Weekly met Kanter and Kohan one recent morning over coffee at the Academy’s production office in Los Angeles, where the venerable team was already busy scribbling presenters’ pithy remarks.
EW: So, how do you think Whoopi will do as host?
Kanter: When she won the award (for Best Supporting Actress in 1990’s Ghost), she handled herself beautifully when she accepted it.
Kohan: With dignity and charm and humor.
Kanter: And without saying ”motherf — -er.”
Kohan: Let’s hope that continues.
EW: Who was the best host?
Kanter: Bob Hope.
Kohan: Johnny Carson was excellent. He had irreverent respect. It’s a very thin line you walk. This is a serious event for some people and a campy event for other people.
EW: Who was the worst?
Kohan: There was one year (1983) when there were four hosts: Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, Richard Pryor, and Walter Matthau. I had written the opening number, called ”It All Comes Down to This.” They were all scared stiff, but ordinarily if you’re scared, then you put in the time and rehearse. They took the opposite approach. So Liza was forced to carry the number, Walter was singing in his own zone somewhere, Dudley was just trying to walk down these steps without falling, and Richard Pryor well, I think they told him the next day that he was there.
EW: What about the presenters? Name the three best.
Kanter: Jack Lemmon, David Niven, Jimmy Stewart.
Kohan: Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, John Lithgow — he was perfect. Glenn Close — she was lovely. She read exactly what was on the paper and made you believe it.
EW: What had you written for Richard Gere last year, before he abandoned it and started talking about Tibet?
Kanter: I don’t remember, but it was not about Tibet.
EW: Who else is hard to write for?
Kohan: There are some comedians who just won’t trust us.
EW: Like who?
Kohan: I don’t know. Robin Williams? (Looking around.) Who said that?
Kanter: I’ll tell you one, the late Marty Feldman. He wound up taking a fake Oscar and dropping it and stamping on it, and it broke. It was not funny.
EW: Don’t you hate it when surly young movie-star presenters roll their eyes at the script?
Kohan: Those are our favorite people, the ones who say, ”I didn’t write this crap.”
Kohan: The one thing we’ve learned is, cross talk between presenters rarely works. It rings false. If they have to look at each other, they’re not looking at the TelePrompTer.
EW: People go out there drunk a lot, don’t they?
Kanter: I know one person who had a little difficulty reading the prompter. He was president of the Academy that year.
EW: We’ve heard Whoopi is going to come out in whiteface.
Kohan: I think it’s a rumor.
Kanter: I don’t think that would be funny.