11. Steve Martin/Alec Baldwin
It made sense in theory. Why not bring together the two most iconic non-Timberlake “SNL” hosts—one of them a two-time Oscar host, the other an Oscar nominee experiencing a career second act as a sitcom star—especially since Baldwin and Martin had just costarred together in “It’s Complicated?” But the result was a mishmash, with Martin’s lackadaisical delivery playing awkwardly alongside Baldwin’s antic energy. (The “30 Rock” star looked visibly nervous at times.) The ring-a-ding-ding jokes didn’t help: ”And over here is the “Inglourious Basterds” section… and over here are the people who made the movie” Heyoooooo!
10. Neil Patrick Harris
“What’s in the box?” That’s the question Harris hoped you were asking watching the 2015 Oscars. The How I Met Your Mother star was practically a professional host by then — four Tony awards shows, two Emmy nights, the much-anticipated Best Time Ever. But despite a musical number showing off his stage talents, Harris mostly stumbled on the Academy stage. On Reese Witherspoon: “This next presenter is so lovely, you could eat her up…WITH HER SPOON.” After Best Documentary Short Subject winner Dana Perry got played off in the middle of a tribute to her late son, Harris quipped: “It takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that.” As an Oscar host, Harris proved a spiritual sibling to his A Million Ways to Die in the West director Seth MacFarlane, a Broadway bro with a love of crass humor. Throughout the night, he kept pointing to a mysterious magical box, promising to open it at the end of the night. It was a long joke without a punchline.
9. James Franco/Anne Hathaway
The Academy tried the cohosting gambit again the following year, this time with relative toddlers James Franco and Anne Hathaway. An attempt to grab the semi-mythical Youth Demographic, the pairing backfired almost immediately when it became clear that the hosts were barely in the same universe. Franco was deep into his grad school-frequenting meta-moment and seemed to be not so much hosting as deconstructing the “hostness” of hosting. To counterbalance, Hathaway brought enough energy for five hosts. It was sort of like watching a supernova explode next to a black hole: Catastrophic, but oddly fun.
9. Whoopi Goldberg
The first woman to host the Oscars solo, the beloved EGOT winner headlined the show on four separate occasions. But the two tiers of Goldberg’s particular approach to the Academy Awards was established early and repeated often: Mix inoffensively back-slapping ”rude” humor with finger-wagging self-aggrandizement, and mix with costume changes, costume changes, costume changes! In hindsight, the best elements of Goldberg’s humor — her conversational style, her willingness to say pretty much anything — never manifested themselves in her outings as host.
8. Jon Stewart
Stewart and his “Daily Show” team practically defined an entire decade of comedy, crafting a hybrid form of crusading cerebral cynicism and influencing a whole generation of comedy writers and politically minded youth. So it seemed likely that Stewart could be the second coming of Johnny Carson, Oscar-wise: A beloved late-night host who could serve as the Academy de facto host for years to come. That didn’t happen. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Stewart’s two outings as host, but there’s also nothing particularly… well, particular about them. In an interview with fellow host David Letterman, Stewart would describe their problem with hosting the Oscars ceremony thus: “At some level, deep in our hearts, we think it’s stupid.” Stewart’s problem might have been that he didn’t let that sensibility shine through enough.
7. David Letterman
Letterman usually gets a bad rap for kickstarting his monologue with the non sequitur “Oprah-Uma” gag. But there are two important things you don’t know about that gag: (a) It’s actually funny the first time he says it (with the final punchline: “Have you met Keanu?”) (b) It’s just the beginning of a searing monologue that mixed lofty cinephile snark (an Anthony Quinn joke!) with lacerating inside-baseball industry humor (jabs at the founding of over-publicized mega-company DreamWorks SKG) and just plain old stupid-smart humor. Referencing the nominated film “Eat Drink Man Woman,” Letterman deadpanned: “That’s how Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Maria Shriver out on their first date.” It’s only gotten more timely!
6. Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlane certainly left his mark on the Oscars—though no one ever really figured out exactly what kind of mark that was. The animation uber-producer/fratboy auteur/Big Band enthusiast transformed the Oscar event into a navel-gazing celebration of Seth MacFarlane, with musical numbers and a bizarre extended Shatner cameo and plenty of outcry-ready douchebag jokes that ran the gamut from “naughty” to “salacious” to outright offensive. But give MacFarlane credit: His Bob-Hope-as-a-spoiled-12-year-old persona was a genuinely transgressive departure from the typical putting-on-airs host mentality. And his aggro-act did result in some good zingers: “Hollywood shattered box office records with $10.8 billion in domestic sales. In fact, studio accountants have never had to work harder to prove nothing made a profit.” The Academy’s choice to recall Ellen Degeneres as MacFarlane’s successor actually speaks to just what an effect the “Family Guy” guy left on the Oscars…even if all he accomplished was dragging the event down to his level.
5. Chris Rock
Another host who gets an unjustly bad rap, Chris Rock seemed to surprise the Academy by doing exactly what everyone expected Chris Rock to do: Scorch the earth. The comic launched with a high-energy free-association tirade that included a dig at the titles of black movies (“‘Barbershop:’ That’s not a name, that’s a location!”) and a blessedly non-preachy Bush joke (featuring a lengthy tangent about GAP going to war with Banana Republic). But Rock is most remembered now for taking a swipe at Jude Law, who was coming off of a proto-Chastain year that saw him perform in six films. “He’s in everything!” Rock said. “Even in the movies he’s not in, if you look in the credits he made cupcakes or something.” But to quote Homer Simpson: That Jude Law rant was funny because it was true. Sean Penn angrily defended Law later in the ceremony. Surely, anyone who can make Sean Penn angry is doing their job right.
4. Billy Crystal
Crystal is indisputably the defining Oscar host of the modern era. He set the standard: A little casual and a little formal, and he’s gently sarcastic without being even remotely mean. He’s a host that everyone of all ages from anywhere can enjoy. Which is also a kind way of saying that Crystal is the most inoffensive choice. In recent years, the revolving door of hosts—and a few flat-out dull pairings—made viewers nostalgic for the Crystal years. So anticipation was high when he returned for his ninth go-round in 2012. Unfortunately, Crystal’s reheated-Catskills routine felt crusty at best, lazy at worst. Sometimes, the ’90s are best left in the ’90s.
3. Hugh Jackman
If we were to spend decades chemically breeding the perfect Oscar host in a top-secret subterranean laboratory—combining the class of Johnny Carson, the throwaway charisma of Billy Crystal, the dancing ability of Fred Astaire, the charming anything-but-American accent of David Niven, and the matinee-idol good looks of Cary Grant—you still couldn’t come close to building anything better than Jackman, who infused his awards with boundless energy. Jackman’s parodic song-and-dance number was simply the best opening sequence in recent Oscars history. He has never returned as host and doesn’t seem interested, but his Oscar gig looks in hindsight like a stealth teaser for his always-sold-out Broadway show.
2. Ellen DeGeneres
The brilliance of DeGeneres’ stint as host is that she came off like the anti-Rock—all effusive, chatty charm—while fitting in a nonstop array of darkly sly jabs. To Peter O’Toole: “Congratulations on your eighth nomination! You know what they say: Third time’s the charm!” On her childhood goals: “Most people had a dream of winning an Academy Award. I had a dream of hosting. Let that be a lesson to you kids out there: Aim lower.” DeGeneres also successfully turned the show into her own little playhouse, whether she was hitting the aisles to give a screenplay to Martin Scorsese (“It’s a cross between “Goodfellas” and “Big Momma’s House!'”), vacuuming the floor underneath the front row as part of her hosting duties, or breaking Twitter with a star-studded selfie. She also fired off one of the great and most honest one-liners in Oscar host history: “Let’s be honest. It’s not that we don’t have time for long speeches. We don’t have time for boring speeches.”
1. Steve Martin
Put Martin on stage by himself, and the result is pure fizzy perfection. Years before he became a profuse Tweeter, Martin filled his Oscar gigs with nonstop throwaway gags: “Julia, I miss your phone calls. But it seems like ever since you got caller ID, you’re never home.” The modern Oscar hosts are mostly split into two distinct groups: Outsiders poking fun at insiders, like Letterman, Stewart, and Rock; and insiders cheekily poking fun at themselves, like Goldberg, Jackman, and Crystal. Martin’s genius was that he somehow combined those two distinctive vibes, turning his hosting gigs into a performance-art portrait of a barely self-aware narcissist.