Hosting the Oscars is tough business (just ask James Franco, or David Letterman), and writing for them isn’t any easier. Scribes for the Academy Awards can’t just write about what they think is funny; instead, they’re forced to construct gags about movies that may or may not lend themselves to hilarity, and when you’ve got nominees like The Tree of Life, the jokes don’t necessarily write themselves. Also, instead of working with a cast of regulars happy to have a gig, Oscar writers toil for months to invent chemistry for a slew of celebs randomly paired together to present statuettes, many of whom only agreed to appear on the show because they want to promote their next movie. Despite the challenges, former Seinfeld scribe Carol Leifer seems to think it’s all worth it. She’s currently working on her seventh Oscarcast (and there’s no Bruce Vilanch to kick around this year), so we caught up with Leifer Wednesday for a quick chat about this year’s unique challenges, working with Billy Crystal, and what she does when a presenter just doesn’t want to make with the funny.
Did Billy Crystal’s late entrance into the show make things tougher this year?
Normally when Billy’s hosted the show – and this is my third time with him – he starts in September. I don’t know anyone who takes it as seriously as he does; he works so diligently on it. This year, with what happened with Eddie Murphy, [Crystal] came aboard later, but I think his game plan is always the same. He has, as part of his team, these guys who are joke machines in the best sense of the word. It’s no problem for them to write 50 jokes a day, and they’re good jokes. [Crystal] likes to cull through a lot of material, and he’s open to any idea. It’s great to have him back, because of last year and it being a little rocky, people are very comfortable with Billy Crystal. They know he’s going to come out and deliver a great job.
This year’s Oscar features a lot of smaller movies, many of which people haven’t seen or even heard that much about. Does that affect the way you come up with jokes?
No. It really doesn’t. Jokes are jokes. And you just write jokes around the movies that are out there. We’re not thinking consciously about small or big. We’re aware that a lot of people haven’t seen The Artist. But I’m sure they’ve seen commercials, so they know enough to know that it’s in black and white and that it’s a silent movie. Beyond that, you don’t really need to know much more.
Is there an upside to a lack of blockbusters?
What’s nice about this year, that’s different from some other years, is that there isn’t one movie that’s super-dominating like Lord of the Rings or Avatar. It’s good when the audience tunes in and they know it’s not going to be a sweep of just one movie.
Are you writing specifically for Billy Crystal? Or does he have his own, personal staff?
It’s two teams of people: one that works solely for Billy, and then more of a show team. I’m working with the show team this year. But the beauty of this week is that when the show starts to get up on its feet, it all becomes one big writing room, and we all participate. The people who’ve been focusing more on Billy give feedback on the elements of the show we’ve been working on, and vice versa. The two writing camps kind of become one.
What’s it like writing for huge movie stars? Are they picky about their intros?
It’s a mixed bag with celebrities. Some people I’ve worked with over the years are just so easy. You write something for them, and you get back via their reps that they’re happy with it. They come to rehearsal, they do it well, and then you see them in the green room before they go out, and they do a fantastic job. And then there are other people who can have problems with the copy. And we work on it.
Isn’t that annoying?
Honestly, my background is as a stand-up comic. I think that’s important with this gig. Because as much as I might be disappointed with the fact that someone didn’t love the first draft of something I came up with, it’s their ass out there in front of a billion people. You want them to be feeling good and comfortable. So I don’t have problems batting things around with people. A lot of times it’s fun because it’s with creative people I haven’t gotten to work with before. A couple of years Ben Stiller came in. And he’s always really involved with whatever he’s doing on stage. He really takes it seriously. And it’s very cool to work with a Ben Stiller, batting ideas back and forth.
What happens when a star really does push back on the jokes?
You know, it’s like, “Welcome to comedy writing.” That happens all the time. You write something and somebody doesn’t love it. I stopped taking it personally years ago, because it’s just part of the job. If it takes a few more drafts to get them where they’re feeling good, no problem.
Are you ever handed a pair of presenters and you think, “What the hell will this mismatched couple have to joke about?”
I’ve sometimes seen pairings of celebrities where I’ve thought, “How can you mine comedy out of this duo?” But when you have people who are game for anything, you can find something for them. The presenters are handed five or six things from different writers, so there’s not a lack of [choices] for them.
Are there certain stars that you know it’s not even worth trying to give them a joke, they’re just too serious?
Sometimes you have someone who is not really interested in humor. And you’re sort of glad they’re not.
Did you write on the show last year?
No, I did not.
So I won’t ask you a James Franco question then.