Veteran Oscar Writer Buz Kohan on Infighting, Coddled Hosts, and Stiff Presenters

Buz Kohan at the 2012 Writers Guild Awards at the Hollywood Palladium on February 19, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Buz Kohan. Photo: Jesse Grant/Getty Images

Most years at the Oscars there are two sets of writers, one deputized by the host for his or her material (for talk show hosts like Jon Stewart, it’s often their in-house writing staff), while another staff hired by the producer works on the telecast’s meat-and-potato intros (this is where you’ll find Bruce Vilanch and his T-shirts). For twenty Oscarcasts since 1976, veteran TV scribe Buz Kohan (father of Will & Grace co-creator David Kohan and Weeds’ Jenji Kohan) has been a recurring fixture in the latter writers room. (He’s also done time on the Emmys, Tonys, and multiple old-school variety shows, from 1977’s Ann-Margaret: Rhinestone Cowgirl — featuring Perry Como and Minnie Pearl — to 1987’s Andy Williams and the NBC Kids: Easter in Rome.) As we approach this weekend’s ceremony, we decided to check in with this veteran (who has this year off) to get his perspective on life as an Oscars writer, from whether there’s tension between the host’s cabal and the producer’s crew, to his observations on how hosts succeed and fail.

How did you get into writing for the Oscars?
I have a masters in composition from the Eastman* School of Music. So when I started working with the Oscars, they knew that I was musically trained, and my first job was writing those opening numbers that everybody seems to hate in retrospect. But they served a wonderful purpose: They opened the show!

Carson never sang, right?
No. I did the fiftieth one with Debbie Reynolds [“Look How Far We’ve Come” 1978]. But I guess the one that was really kind of good was the Donald O’Connor one [“Dancin’ on the Silver Screen,” 1980, 52nd Oscars]. It kind of resurrected his career at the time. It was gonna be Gene Kelly and he backed out at the last minute and Donald filled in and did a lovely job.

Why did Gene back out?
Gene wasn’t that young then. And he was very protective of the legend, and I just think he felt he couldn’t do it justice.

When can you start writing jokes? As soon as the nominees are announced?
Well, there are two sets of writers: The host’s writers and the show’s writers. And rarely do the twain meet. In other words, Johnny Carson had his writers and they did all his material, and Billy Crystal had his writers, and Whoopi had her own writers, whoever did it had his or her own writers. And we would do the rest of the show. Occasionally some of the hosts would be much more amenable to contributions from us.

How long have the two staffs been separate? Did even Bob Hope have his own staff?
I never did the Oscars with Hope, but I assume yes. I worked with Carson, and Carson always had the Tonight Show writers do his stuff. And he was always open during the show to our suggestions, but not before. Everybody was open when the show was on. But before the show, it was two separate rooms, two separate groups. We were not unfriendly, but there was little interaction between the two staffs.

Did the in-house staff ever feel condescended to by the host’s staff?
It wasn’t even that. It was just, they were so protective of their quote-unquote star, and I don’t think they wanted to be shown up! And I guess they thought, We’re the funny guys and you’re the straight boilerplate guys. But I worked with some of the best writers in the history of television. Like Hal Kanter, who just passed away this year. He was just the most brilliant writer, in any category.

Was there any crossing back and forth between the two staffs?
I don’t want to give him any more publicity than he already gets for himself, but the real crossover was the starfucker Bruce Vilanch. We would hire him and then he would ingratiate himself with whoever was the host. He would be zipping back and forth, bowing a lot. More recently, there was a fellow named Jon Macks. Jon Macks writes for Leno’s Tonight Show. He’ll turn out ten jokes in a minute, give him a topic. The people who were hosting knew of Jon Macks and his ability to do that. So they would avail themselves of him much more readily than me or Hal.

Are there stars who would get too picky about what you would write for them?
It used to be, way back in the dark ages, you were able to talk to the star ahead of time. There would be direct contact at some point, whether it was at the dress rehearsal, or the week before or the month before. Or you’d try something out on them or they’d call you when they got their copy. And they’d call you directly. I remember Tom Hanks calling and saying, “This is fine, can I just change such-and-such?” So that was the relationship between the writers and the presenters. And then somewhere along the line the power structure changed. For a while it was the agents and managers. And then even they took a backseat to the PR people! Then you’d have to deal with [PR] and they’d say things that were so annoying like, “He wouldn’t say that!” Well, then why don’t you have him call me and tell me himself? “Well, he’s busy!” So they became the main source of interference. And I don’t think the power structure has changed that much since.

Do the writers get frustrated when a star tanks their intro?
Sure. There are plenty [who have], but I don’t want to get into that. There are certain people comfortable doing comedic material. There are others who are extremely uncomfortable being themselves, especially [people who work] in the movies, you know? I’ve done The Tonys, The Grammys, The Emmys, The People’s Choice … I’ve done almost every awards show. And the ones that seem to fare the best are the performers at Tony Awards, the legitimate Broadway stage actors. For one thing, they’re used to memorizing their lines instead of reading them off a prompter. So they do spend a little more time preparing their material. And perhaps they’re a little more used to being themselves.

I suppose method guys stink at delivering light comedy line readings.
Some of them are wonderful actors but they’re just uncomfortable being themselves. I’ve dealt with him so many times, but it’s painful watching Robert De Niro be Robert De Niro on camera.

Can you name a host who was open to working with the show writers?
Steve Martin. He was so available. A lot of them played it so close to the vest that on dress rehearsal you wouldn’t hear the monologue. Nobody was ever privy to the monologue or the opening number. But Steve would wander around the halls of the office, gather ten or fifteen people and say, “Come on in here for a minute, would you please, and let me try these out on you.”

So what works with the Oscar crowd?
Take-off work. Billy Crystal always scored big with the big musical number that were a take-off on films. That always worked well. Insults really don’t work that well at the Oscars for some reason. Putting down Hollywood. Ricky Gervais would die a horrible death at the Oscars.

Was Carson the best host?
Carson was terrific, because the awareness [a host needs] is that it is not your show. It is the Oscar show. It is buoyed up by and brought down by tradition. And there are certain things that you cannot tamper with. In other words, I did it [in 1995,] the year Letterman did it. He was superimposing the Letterman show on the Oscars. He was the one who decided that he was gonna do stupid people tricks and pet tricks and stuff that he was sure of. He was that unsure of the audience and the venue and he was a New York performer and this was Hollywood. And it is an awfully tough audience because they’re not there to laugh at jokes, they’re there to find out who won or lost.

So what did Carson do right?
Carson was always very prepared. He had his monologue, he had his moments, he had the spots that he was going to do. He was also very adept at capturing a situation that wasn’t written. He was able to pick up on a situation and ad lib, because he had 30 years of experience doing that five nights a week. And also there was nothing angry about him. He had no axe to grind. He knew where the joke was, he knew how to tell the joke without hurting anybody’s feelings. There was no vitriol there. It was a party and he was in charge of the party. And he knew that people were not there to listen to jokes about Hollywood. There was a race going on!

Why is the Oscars so much different than the Globes?
The Globes is a very loose room: it’s in a hotel and they’re drinking booze while it’s going on. And everybody kind of knows the show itself is a joke: Eighty-five people decide what’s good and bad. So there’s a looseness that’s going on there that you don’t find at the Oscars. The Oscars are serious business, boy! Billions of dollars on the line. It can mean many millions of dollars to the picture or the artist that wins the Oscar. If you win a Golden Globe it doesn’t affect your worth a nickel.

So the host needs a little gravitas.
Or taste. At least taste. Don’t try and hurt anybody. It’s not what it’s for. It’s not for you to score.

Were you bummed out that Eddie Murphy didn’t get a chance to host?
No. I worked with Eddie once, I think on the Emmys. And I did the Sammy Davis 60th Anniversary Show, which he hosted. But Eddie, I don’t know how he would’ve done, to tell you the truth. I was there when Chris Rock did it. And once you take away a comedian’s strengths, once you put him in an element that he’s not familiar with, and you curb his natural ability to scrape the bone, you put him at a disadvantage, you know? And I think Eddie would’ve had a similar problem.

Did you interact much with Chris Rock when he hosted?
No, very little. The one incident I had with Chris, it was during Michael Jackson’s trial. I was close to Michael. We had written songs together: I wrote “Gone Too Soon,” which he recorded. And I’ve known and worked with The Jacksons and Michael since he was 12, when I wrote the first act for the Jackson 5’s first special. And Michael had called me that afternoon and said, “Please ask Chris not to make fun of me. Would you do that for me?” I said of course. So I went to Chris and said, “I just got off the phone with Michael and he asks that you don’t make fun of his situation, because it’s not a fun situation for him, and he’d really appreciate it.” And Chris said okay, and he didn’t go there, as I recall. Which was very much to his credit.

How do you think Billy Crystal will do in his return?
He’ll do just fine. He might be a little rusty! But I’m sure Billy will do just fine. I think the last show I did with Billy [in 2004], he wasn’t scoring really. And I had done Bob Hope’s 90th birthday party, and Hope had done the show more times than anybody —

Nineteen times.
Okay. And Hope was in the audience! And I knew Bob, I had worked with him, and I said to Billy, “Bob Hope is in the audience, and if you acknowledge him as the master, as the one who did it more than anybody, and let him stand up and take a bow, you’re going to get everybody on your side.” And he did! So Hope stood up and took a bow and that was fine. Anyway, at the end of that show, I came out on the apron of the stage, looking for my wife who was in the house somewhere. And Hope comes walking right up the edge of the stage where I was standing. And he looks up and he says to me, and this is after a 3-hour-and-20-minute show, he says, “Buz, how are ya!” I said, “I’m great, Bob. And you?” He says, “Fine. Say, are you coming back for the second half?” To this day I don’t know if he was kidding or not.

A lot of people go years between Oscar hosting gigs, but Billy hasn’t been in anything for a while.
There you go. That’s the point. I know [producer] Gil [Cates] used to go to him every year and ask him if he wanted to do it. He was always one of the top three to be the host. And I guess it’s like the Gene Kelly syndrome: I want to be remembered for what I was, and I don’t want to take a chance with the legend.

So when a performer’s been on the bench, how does he get his chops back? Will he do some surprise stand-up performances or something?
He might. They used to do that. They would go to South Beach somewhere on a midnight show and try some stuff out. He has his staff that knows his rhythms, but it’s the ability to roll with something that’s unprepared that makes a performance. Like the Jack Palance one-armed push up, we had lines ready for him for the rest of the show. Billy was good at that.

Jon Stewart seemed to be pretty good at improvising on stage too.
Absolutely. I love Jon. I love his show and I watch his show four nights a week. And he was terrific and very humble and had the sense not to pull a Letterman. He was very respectful of the show. The problem there is when you get a Billy Crystal, who’s not too much involved [with other projects] and who knows about the gig two months ahead of time, he starts working then. Stewart is in New York doing four shows a week on his show, which is very demanding, and he comes out like the week before. Only because they closed down his show for the week was he able to come out and spend some time. But you’re at a disadvantage if you can’t hang around and see and feel what’s going on in town. If you’re not able to know the town and hang around the offices and get a feel, it gives you less of an opportunity to score. But I thought Jon did alright.

Anne Hathaway and James Franco didn’t really work. Is there anybody out there that you think deserves a chance?
No. If you threw a name at me I would give you an opinion if I thought he or she could do it.

Jimmy Fallon?
Yes. Eventually. You see, Jimmy doesn’t have — you gotta remember this is an international show, with a billion people watching. Out of that billion, maybe ten million know who Jimmy Fallon is, even. So that starts you to a disadvantage worldwide. When I started out, there were thirteen different variety shows on the air. Who’s going to carry a variety show today? There’s no training ground anymore. You have to train somewhere else, come in, spend some time, get the ground rules down, know who your audience is, put your ego away for the night, be a charming, wonderful, warm, humorous, tasteful host, and then watch the next morning when they say you did a shitty job. It’s a murderous, thankless task.

*This post was corrected to show that Buz Kohan attended the Eastman School of Music.

Veteran Oscar Writer Buz Kohan on Infighting, Coddled Hosts, and Stiff Presenters