It is difficult to host the Oscars. You have to be funny in front of an audience (both the one at home, but especially the one in the seats) that takes the night very seriously. Plus, the show is four years long, with unavoidable, undeniable lulls when the less high-profile awards are given out, which means the host needs to break that up while somehow not seeming like they are adding to the length. It’s why the hosts of the Golden Globes and the Independent Spirit Awards tend to be funnier — the awards matter less, the show is shorter, and the audience has easier access to booze. The task was made even harder this year by the climate, with Trump in the White House and Time’s Up pins on practically every lapel. Simply put, Jimmy Kimmel, as a disciple of David Letterman (who famously bombed when he hosted), had to try to figure out how to be irreverent during the absolute most reverent Oscars*. His solution was a Jet Ski given out to the winner with the shortest speech.
Before we get to if it was funny, let’s discuss how it worked. It was stupid. Like in a good way. In a Letterman way. A stupid thing when everyone has serious faces on is always going to be at least a little funny. Also, it’s built on an absurd premise — people worked their entire lives to win this little statue, but when presented with it, they’ll forgo making the most of their moment to win something completely unimportant to them. And, of course, at its core it’s a joke about how the show is too long, that old so-and-so of Academy Awards ceremony jokes. It’s a safe bit — even safer than pointing out the oldest nominee is in fact very old — but a necessary one, since everyone is thinking about it, and you can either puncture the tension balloon or struggle under the weight of it. So, when Kimmel first introduced the premise, I laughed. Then I thought, it’s doomed.
This is nothing against Jimmy Kimmel or the whole Jimmy Kimmel writing staff. It’s just that I had flashbacks to Neil Patrick Harris’s magic trick from when he hosted, in which he said he put his predictions in a briefcase before the show that he then, in turn, put inside a clear box, so that at the end he could open it and see he got it all exactly, magically right. There are some obvious differences between the two. Namely, Harris wasn’t technically doing comedy at all — he was trying to do magic. No offense to magic, which is very cool (don’t put a hex on me, magicians), but this audience barely tolerates comedy, so it’s hard to get them to care about feats of trickery. There are some structural similarities in that they are both essentially playing with time, hoping to be funnier (in a I can’t believe he’s still doing this way) or more suspenseful (in a what’s in the box!? way) as more time passes. Of course, time was not on NPH’s side because the initial idea never connected. As the show went on, NPH kept on bringing up the briefcase in a case and it became deeply annoying. Eventually, the whole thing felt self-serving, like he wanted to impress all his new famous friends with his special talent. It didn’t work.
Kimmel, meanwhile, had a solid starting point, so it came down to escalation. (Kimmel was never going to do full-on anti-comedy, where the escalation was going to be no escalation and just pointing to the Jet Ski or his stopwatch over and over.) First, about 25 minutes into the ceremony, they brought Lakeith Stanfield out, saying if people went over, he would re-create his titular Get Out scream. A gutsy move considering the deference to that movie, but it completely worked because of Stanfield’s twitchy performance. Then, about an hour later, Kimmel literally upped the stakes by saying the winner would not only get the Jet Ski, but also a free trip to the Lake Havasu Days Inn. This was even more Letterman-y than the Jet Ski part — upping the stupidity tenfold — and really funny. (Also a bit classist!) And that was it. There was another two-and-a-half hours left. (Kimmel himself moved on to having celebrities surprise people in a movie theater.) Occasionally, for the rest of the night, which I imagine was the hope, the Jet Ski was brought up in the speeches. Unsurprisingly, the best version was Jordan Peele who, as a way of quieting the standing ovation he received for winning Best Original Screenplay, said, “You guys are gonna mess up my Jet Ski.”
In the end, essentially all the Jet Ski did, albeit effectively, was replace what would’ve been a “Show’s already running long enough” joke. Finally, after The Shape of Water won Best Picture, Kimmel announced that Phantom Thread’s costume designer, Mark Bridges, was going home with the Jet Ski, rolling him (and Helen Mirren) in for all to behold. If I were to categorize the reaction, it wasn’t so much laughter as it was, “Okay!”
And, honestly, that’s not bad. You can’t expect people to die laughing about a joke that takes four hours to pay off when they are busy watching the prettiest people in the world talk about how good movies are. After Seth MacFarlane hosted the Academy Awards in 2013, he compared the gig to the Kobayashi Maru, the Star Trek training exercise meant to test how a captain responds to a no-win situation. Does this mean we should grade Oscars hosts on a curve? Yes. Definitely. It’s an unwinnable situation. Jimmy Kimmel didn’t win, but he didn’t lose either. He did something that was not boring or off-putting, and someone got a Jet Ski who previously didn’t have a Jet Ski. Did it work? Will the shape of water soon be an arc of white mist, left in the wake of Mark Bridges’s wave shredding? If so, yes. Congratulations.
* Even more reverent than the year The Revenant was nominated.