By EW Staff
Updated February 22, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST

No one knows the ins and outs of hosting the Academy Awards better than Billy Crystal. For the eight-time host, who will take the stage this Sunday to emcee Hollywood’s biggest night for the first time in eight years, the Oscars have always been deeply personal. “When I would first watch it—[at] 6 or 7 years old, watching on a black-and-white TV—I very rarely could stay up until the Best Picture award, so my mother would write down who won and when I came into the kitchen the next morning, the list of winners would be in my cereal bowl,” he tells EW in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview in this week’s issue. “It’s important that the show be good, and I take it really seriously.”

Still, when he makes his entrance for this year’s show, Crystal may not find that Oscar stage as cozy a place as he did 21 years ago, when he first took on the gig. Ratings for the telecast have steadily ebbed in recent years, complaining about the show has become a national pastime, and last year’s Oscars, hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco, were widely slammed as a clumsy attempt by the Academy to lure in younger viewers. Crystal says he knows how high the stakes are for this year’s show: “There’s a big responsibility to the job—I think more so this year because people were not happy last year,” he says. “I’ve got to deliver.”Crystal tells EW he first got the itch to return to the hosting gig during last year’s show, when he sat backstage and watched moments like actress Melissa Leo dropping the F-bomb go by without a single joke from the hosts. “They didn’t say a word!” he says, still sounding shocked. “That’s when I knew maybe I should come back. It’s fun to be out there when moments like that happen.” That’s not to say the hosting job is a cake walk by any stretch. “As a comedian, you have everything working against you,” Crystal says. “It’s like a bad seder towards the end: We’ve had plagues, we’ve had pestilence—and we still haven’t eaten. My opinion about it is you really have to want to be up there—and those who haven’t, you could tell they really didn’t embrace it the way you have to.”Some may see Crystal—who stepped in to replace Eddie Murphy—as a safe choice for Oscar host, but in the EW interview he pulls no punches. He shares his unvarnished feelings about the go-for-the-jugular hosting style of Ricky Gervais: “That whole concept of ‘I want to really go after people’—I don’t understand that. Is it a roast or is it an awards show?” He gives his contrarian take on the Academy’s obsessive pursuit of young viewers: “I say if there are young filmmakers making really good, strong movies for that age group—and not just vampire movies—[and those movies are nominated] then young people will watch. But, I mean, look at the nominees this year for Best Director: Woody is 76, Marty is 69. Those are the best films. Is Twilight a Best Picture?” And he reveals that, while he won’t make any jokes in the show about the controversial “rehearsal’s for fags” remark that led Oscar producer Brett Ratner to step down in November (“Rehearsals are for gags,” he says, deadpan), he does intend to use this year’s heated presidential campaign as fodder for comedy: “How funny are these idiots?” he says. “There will be something that will filter into it.”Despite the inevitable Monday-morning quarterbacking about the show and the hand-wringing over ratings, Crystal says he will have his own internal barometer of whether he succeeds as this year’s host. “There’s a younger audience—some of them will be seeing me for the first time. Hopefully, they’ll watch the show and they’ll say, ‘He’s really funny.’ That’s important to me.”

For more of our interview with Crystal — including the never-before-reported backstory on how he came to host this year’s show, his Oscar-watching ritual at home, and his thoughts on which movies should have gotten more Oscar love this year — pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands this Friday.

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