16 Years Later, Defending David Letterman’s Notorious Oscars Hosting Performance

In more ways than one, David Letterman couldn’t win at the 67th Annual Academy Awards. He was there as a host, not a nominee, which meant he couldn’t win literally, but unrealistic expectations made winning in a figurative sense all but impossible. And so at an event where almost no one left victorious, the biggest loser of the night wasn’t even nominated.

Johnny Carson’s impending retirement in the Spring of ‘92 triggered almost instantaneous speculation over whether Jay Leno or Letterman would emerge as heir to the Tonight Show throne. To the bewilderment of Letterman, and against the wishes of Carson himself, the NBC brass went with Leno. The debacle had left Letterman’s ego in tatters, but his newfound vulnerability had endeared him to folks who’d otherwise find his schtick unappealing. Suddenly the guy everyone loved to hate was now who everyone hated to love. America’s Smartass had inexplicably become America’s Sweetheart.

Two years later, the love affair reached its apex as he first strutted out onto the Shrine Auditorium stage sometime around 9pm EST. The ensuing three and a half hours, the most watched since Carson hosted 11 years prior, is considered the most notorious hosting performance in the history of The Oscars, if not all award shows.

Critics had a field day. The New York Times entitled its review of the broadcast, “The Winner Isn’t David Letterman”, a sentiment echoed by Variety’s equally unkind recap and many other entertainment news outlets. And the critical ill will it received in the days following has not wavered in the decade and a half since: Time Magazine’s March 2011 list of the 10 Worst Hosts ever put Letterman at #1, and an Entertainment Weekly poll asking readers to rate Anne Hathaway and James Franco’s much maligned performance included the option:  “Bad — David Letterman has some new competition for Worst Host Ever.”

The fallout was felt in the following days, weeks, and months, disproving the maxim that no publicity is bad publicity. A 1996 Rolling Stone cover story cited multiple sources, including former Late Show executive producer Bob Morton, who intimated that the previously untouchable Letterman was no longer immune to criticism, and had a large part in ending his late-night ratings dominance since taking up residence at the Ed Sullivan Theater.

To his credit, Letterman himself has proven to be willing and able self-deprecator. He announced during his first post Oscars Late Show that he “had no idea that thing was being televised,” joined Billy Crystal two years later to lampoon himself, and has made it an annual recurring joke whenever Oscar season rolls around. He even joked about it as recently as earlier this week, saying that the jihadist death threat he’s received is because of the 16-year-old Oscar hosting performance.

The evening’s most maligned joke was also its first, as Letterman giddily introduced Oprah Winfrey and Uma Thurman, presumably on account of their unique first names. (Note: Wikipedia’s claim that a similar joke was done before, by Woody Allen, is half correct. A similar joke was made, but it was by writer Thomas Meehan, in 1962 New Yorker piece, “Yma Dream”). But in retrospect, the “Uma, Oprah” joke, and its subsequent call-backs, seems less like a bit and more like Letterman’s attempt to firmly supplant his tone and sensibility during the show’s infancy.

Letterman maintains his trademark irreverence throughout the monologue; he informed the crowd that not all losers would go home empty-handed, since each Best Actress nominee will have the chance to sleep with screen legend Anthony Quinn. Quinn was 80 at the time. Even an undeniably poor joke about re-titling Interview With The Vampire for New York audiences was qualified as Letterman’s attempt to say “Bite me” to an audience in the millions. The most positively received joke of the monologue — and the evening, for that matter — comes towards the end, with Dave’s presumption that the title of the nominated film Eat Drink Man Woman was also how Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Maria Shriver out on their first date.

This appears to be the most oft-used complaint, that it was essentially an episode of The Late Show, except in L.A and on a Sunday. It’s not without its merits. There was a Top 10 list and Stupid Pet Trick, after all. But the same critics were also quick to point out that the snail’s pacing and often flat production numbers have marred almost every Oscars broadcast, regardless of host. Even decidedly unflattering articles from Variety and Rolling Stone still managed to cite at least seven bits or jokes that worked, and the scathing The New York Times review ultimately conceded, “Mr. Letterman did have his characteristically on-target moments.”

It’s true that the host underperformed, and the show was a bore (So much so that Jamie Lee Curtis declared at the show’s halfway point that The Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards had so far been a more enjoyable experience). But it’s one thing to be a bad host, it’s another to be the barometer against which all other bad hosts are measured, and I think ultimately the criticism had more to do with the Oscars, and Hollywood itself, than with Letterman.

It’s noteworthy that in addition to being the highest rated broadcast since Carson’s, Letterman was the first host since his former lead-in to not have had a viable film career, as sandwiched between the two included the likes of Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal. Crystal’s hosted the Awards more than anyone save Bob Hope, and it’s with good reason that he’s often cited as one of the show’s best. The Hollywood film industry is a community of which Billy Crystal is undoubtedly a member. The actors and actresses in audience are his friends. Crystal-hosted Academy Awards have the feel of a company outing, and when Crystal pokes fun at an actor or Hollywood, it’s done with the air of a good natured ribbing amongst colleagues.

For whatever it’s worth, Letterman is no Billy Crystal. He’s snarky and cocksure, his ties to the film industry are tangential at best; He’s never starred in a film, much less been nominated for one. Having a show based in New York City means Hollywood comes to him. It’s telling that the first laughs of the night came when Letterman said, “I won’t lie to ya, I’m very, very excited.” Letterman didn’t care whether he was beloved, and everyone knew it.

And whether they’d like to admit it or not, it seems to me that Hollywood hated Letterman because they felt disrespected, that he failed to rise to the occasion of the Oscars or meet their standards. A perfect example can be found in the NY Times review: “Glamorous people waiting for awards announcements aren’t terribly interested in New York City cabdrivers or stupid-pet tricks.” But outside and internal opinion of the Academy Awards, Hollywood, and the film industry itself, has changed considerably in the decade and a half since. The sheen of glamour and unironic self-importance is essentially gone, scrubbed away by, among other things, a terrorist attack and two simultaneous wars. In 2011 the question of whether or not an Oscar host rose to the occasion would be supplanted by the question of whether or not the Oscars is an occasion that needs to be risen to. I think most people would agree it isn’t.

In 2010, Letterman went on The View and confirmed that he’d been asked by the Academy to return as host. Assuming this is true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, I’m not surprised. Letterman’s post-modernist performance was precisely what the Academy has hoped to achieve in recent years, to varying degrees of success.

Time has proven that both Letterman and the Academy did get it right in 1995. They were just 16 years too early.

Conor McKeon is a writer living in Brooklyn… New York.

16 Years Later, Defending David Letterman’s Notorious […]