The Oscar, also known as the Academy Award, is the most familiar award for achievement in motion pictures (Blanchard 392). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was established in Los Angeles in 1927, and it is the body behind the Oscars Awards. The awards grew from a mere mention in the Academy's list of aims, whereby the fifth paragraph stated that "awards of merit for distinctive achievements" will be issued (Blanchard 392). Perhaps one of the most anticipated factors of the annual award ceremony is the host's presentation and opening monologue. The host is typically a comedian, and Oscars hosts within the past five years have included comedians Chris Rock, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Seth MacFarlane, and Billy Crystal. The latter has notably hosted nine Oscars, most recently in 2012. For this paper, the performance of Chris Rock in 2016 and Ellen DeGeneres in 2014 as Oscars hosts will be compared.
The primary purpose of the Oscars host and virtually any award show host is to act as the crowd informant and entertainer. It is expected that the Oscars host will keep the crowd and viewers entertained while the show progresses through the different stages. There are numerous gaps between when awards are given and when different entertainers get onto the stage for their performances. The primary role of the host is to make this process as seamless as possible and ensure that the viewers are engaged in the proceedings during the entire period. The first chance that the host receives at accomplishing this task is the opening monologue. Gonzales observes that within the Oscars monologue, the host is expected to make people laugh, avoid being too offensive, stay relevant, name-drop celebrities, and most importantly, avoid being boring (Gonzales). This list shows that the main purpose of the monologue is to increase people's familiarity with the show, warm them up for the show's proceedings while touching on current and relevant issues that deserve mention. I will use Gonzales definition of the function of the monologue to define the thesis for this paper which is: the role of the Oscars host and their monologue will be considered adequately fulfilled if the audience is always engaged with the show and sufficiently humored by the host's monologue.
The most recent Oscars was hosted by Chris Rock, an African-American actor, comedian, and producer. He began his career in standup comedy, gradually making his way into film and television shows in the late 1980s. He, however, gained prominence after becoming a cast member of Saturday Night Live in 1990, a role he maintained until 1993. Since then, he has appeared in numerous films and television shows, with some of the most prominent including Everybody Hates Chris, Madagascar film series, Grown Ups, and Grown Ups 2. He has been nominated for and won several awards including three Grammys and four Emmys.
Ellen DeGeneres, an American comedian, producer, writer, television host, and actress hosted the 2014 Oscars. She is most famously known for her talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and the 1990s sitcom Ellen. Similar to most comedians, Ellen began her career in standup comedy in the early 1980s. Ellen is openly lesbian after coming out in 1997, a fact that led her to become the first openly lesbian actress to ply an openly lesbian television character. She has won numerous awards include 14 People’s Choice Awards and 13 Emmys.
The earlier mention of Chris Rock’s race is vital due to the nature of the jokes that he made. Amid clamor from people from minority communities, particularly the African-American community, that the Oscars were not diverse, Rock was urged not to host the Oscars. He took this as extra motivation to ensure that the topics of race and diversity and inclusion at the Oscars were a primary theme of his monologue and jokes. This is clearly seen in his opening statement where he refers to the Oscars as the “White People’s Choice Awards” (Lynch). He additionally mentions that he would have hardly landed the hosting job if the Oscars hosts were nominated. Chris also wondered why the racial inequality at the Oscars has only recently been pointed out. He mentions, through a joke, that back in the past, Black people “had real things to protest at the time” since they were “too busy being raped and lynched to care” about the Oscars (Garcia). Chris also makes a joke regarding the rate at which fellow African-American comedian and actor, Kevin Hart, currently features in new movies. He compares him to pornography stars, who he says don’t even churn out new movies that swiftly, a humorous fact especially considering the rate at which new porn films are released.
Unlike Chris Rock’s monologue, Ellen did not have a major theme to her monologue and jokes. She touched on a variety of issues and people including the weather, actors from foreign countries, top nominees, Hollywood narcissism, and the elderly. One of her jokes centered on actress Jennifer Lawrence, who had fallen on the way to receiving her Oscar award the previous year. The fact that Lawrence had tripped while getting out of her car that very night led Ellen to suggest that in her award should be delivered to her if she wins. Ellen also makes a joke playing on the similar pronunciation of the words Somalia and sommelier when referring to Captain Phillips Somali-born actor, Barkhad Abdi. The joke materializes when she asks “Who’s the wine captain now?” (Time). She also makes a joke on the elderly and their typically bad hearing, when she raises her voice when apparently talking to June Squibb, the oldest nominee at that year’s awards (Boone).
Cucinella observes that there are three theories of humor which constitute the foundational explanations of humor, thus uncovering what people find funny and why we laugh (5). These theories are the relief, superiority, and incongruity theories. The relief theory, in its simplest form, ties to the biological function of laughter, and it expresses a physiological perspective. As noted by Hadfield, the biological function of laughter and humor is to make light of serious situations, whence they act as relief from the strains of life (26). The superiority theory is based on the idea that people laugh because of feelings of superiority towards other people. In this way, laughter is used to express this superiority and therefore, used to exclude, bully, ridicule, as well as a social corrective or to strengthen group solidarity. As mentioned by Wahl, laughing at the follies of children, ignorance, or hostile laughter can all be explained from this perspective (314). The incongruity theory aligns with the cognitive view of laughter and humor. According to this theory, humor is an intellectual response to something that surprises, which comprises things that differ from the accepted pattern or norm. Therefore, behaviors, actions, and situations that are inappropriate, unexpected, or illogical will elicit laughter.
Applying these theories to the jokes made by Chris and Ellen, the following observations will are made. The first joke concerning “White People’s Choice Awards” can be considered a relief joke, since it relieves the audience from the reality of racial inequality at the Oscars. His joke concerning the timing of uproar against the Oscars inequality is also a relief joke. Even though many people took issue with this joke since it implied that the African-American community has no real current issues facing them, the joke highlighted the tough lives that African-Americans faced in the early and mid-20th Century. The joke about Kevin Hart can be regarded as incongruent humor since it is unexpected of any mainstream professional actor to feature in more movies than a professional pornography star, mainly due to the ease of making the latter films.
As for Ellen's jokes, the joke regarding Jennifer Lawrence can be considered a mix of superiority and incongruent humor. This classification is because part of the humor derives from Jennifer's misfortune, while part of it derived from the absurd suggestion to deliver her award to her. Ellen's joke about Barkhad being a sommelier is also categorized as incongruent humor since the only reason she says this is because he is from Somalia, which rhymes with sommelier. Her joke directed at June Squibb making fun of the hearing ability of the elderly is a form of superiority humor. Since only a minority of the audience comprised of seniors, this joke resonated with the younger people, who found humor in the plight of senior citizens.
Both Cucinella and Morreall note that humor has an important social function. Morreall notes that humor is primarily a social function, and one rarely enjoys a laugh in solitude (51). Cucinella observes that this social role of humor manifest in various ways, and can be used to achieve certain things. For example, humor can effectively be used as a rhetorical tool or to employ persuasive strategy (6). She also notes that humor is informative and forces both comedians and general society to perceive themselves and others more clearly, and become more open towards other opinions and worldviews.
The media response to both host performances was quite appreciative, although Rock’s performance seemed to receive more hype and applause. It is understandable why Rock's performance received more media attention and was highly anticipated since the racial inequality clamor before the Oscars had gained a lot of traction, and support from top film and television stars. Therefore, even as Rock himself acknowledged, his performance had a lot of people waiting. The fact that he lived up to the hype and delivered a hilarious, yet thought-provoking performance won the hearts many reporters who cast his performance in mostly positive light (Dockterman). Some sources however found that some parts of his monologue were out of taste such as when he inferred that only unemployed people quit and boycott (Wasow). Even though this critic agreed that Roc’s performance was good, he finds fault with some of the assumptions and inferences made. Therefore, this critic believes that an Oscar host should be entertaining, but should take care not to “cross the line”, which is something easily accomplished by DeGeneres, who is notably “not an offensive persona” (Paskin). The media reaction to Ellen's monologue was less enthusiastic to Rock's monologue, although some sources found her monologue entertaining and humorous (Fisher). Some authors, however, found her monologue dull since she spent a considerable amount of time in the audience "doing a lot of nothing” (Paskin). According to this critic, therefore, an Oscars host should spend more time entertaining the audience rather than wasting time interacting with the audience.
Blanchard, Margaret. History of the Mass Media in the United States: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Boone, John. Every Joke From Ellen DeGeneres' Academy Awards Monologue, Ranked. 3 March 2014. 12 September 2016. <http://www.eonline.com/au/news/516623/every-joke-from-ellen-degeneres-academy-awards-monologue-ranked>.
Cucinella, Catherine. "Introduction: The Funny Thing About Humor Is that it Is Really Really Important."Funny. Ed. Catherine Cucinella. Fountainhead Press, 2014. 1. <http://www.fountainheadpress.com/assets/funny_intro.pdf>.
Dockterman, Eliana. The 10 Most Scathing Jokes From Chris Rock’s Oscars Monologue. 28 February 3-2016. 12 September 2016. <http://time.com/4240618/oscars-2016-chris-rock-monologue-best-jokes/>.
Fisher, Luchina. Ellen DeGeneres Doesn't Disappoint With Oscars Opening Monologue. 2 March 2014. 12 September 2016. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2014/03/ellen-degeneres-doesnt-disappoint-with-opening-monologue/>.
Garcia, Patricia. Chris Rock's Best Jokes at the 2016 Oscars. 28 February 2016. 12 September 2016. <http://www.vogue.com/13408191/chris-rock-oscars-2016-best-jokes/>.
Gonzales, Erica. #THELIST: 16 OF THE BEST OSCAR MONOLOGUES. 25 February 2016. 12 September 2016. <http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/film-tv/g6906/best-oscar-monologues/>.
Hadfield, J A. Why Do We Laugh? A biological Approach to Humor and Laughter. LULU, 2009.
Lynch, Joe. Chris Rock Skewers Jada Pinkett Smith With a Rihanna Joke During 2016 Oscars Monologue. 28 February 2016. 12 9 2016. <http://www.billboard.com/articles/events/oscars/6890545/chris-rock-2016-oscars-monologue-opening>.
Morreall, John. "The Social Value of Humor."Funny. Ed. Catherine Cucinella. Fountainhead Press, 2014. 59.
Paskin, Willa. Ellen Was the Stephen Colbert of Oscars Hosts. 3 March 2014. 12 September 2016. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/03/03/_2014_oscars_host_ellen_degeneres_did_a_fine_job_but_train_wrecks_like_seth.html>.
Time. Oscars 2014: Watch The Best Jokes From Ellen’s Monologue. 2 March 2014. 12 September 2016. <http://time.com/11779/oscars-2014-the-best-jokes-from-ellens-monologue/>.
Wahl, Shawn. Persuasion in Your Life. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Wasow, Omar. Where Chris Rock Went Wrong in His Oscars Monologue. 2 March 2016. 12 September 2016. <http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2016/03/where_chris_rock_went_wrong_in_his_oscars_monologue/>.
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