Lynette Rice
September 28, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

A few weeks ago, when the Academy announced that Jon Stewart would return as host for the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 24, 2008, Hollywood was a little perplexed. The last time Stewart emceed the event, in 2006, critics wrote off his performance as ”smug” and ”tiresome” and blamed the show’s poor ratings 38.9 million, the second-lowest viewership since 1987 — largely on him. Even Stewart himself seemed a little shocked to be invited back. ”I’m thrilled to be asked to host the Academy Awards for a second time,” he said in a statement. ”Because, as they say, the third time’s a charm.”

It would be — if anyone actually hosted the show three times anymore. Standing center stage at the Oscars used to be a prestige gig. Bob Hope emceed an astonishing 18 ceremonies. Billy Crystal presided over eight. Five-time vet Johnny Carson delivered opening-monologue bons mots like ”I see a lot of new faces, especially on the old faces” and was beloved for it. Today, asking someone to host the Academy Awards is like asking him to be a piñata at a 5-year-old’s birthday party. ”It’s a lose-lose situation,” says a source close to the Oscars. ”Ninety-nine times out of 100, critics are going to hate you. They want to hate you. They don’t like awards shows. The show is too long…and you were barely in it. I can’t believe anybody agrees to do it.” Today, the elegance of the Oscar stage is marred by slip-sliding ratings, relentless abuse from bloggers, and the pressure of knowing that a passel of FCC suits sits huddled around the censor button. In short, hosting the Oscars may be the most thankless job in Hollywood. ”Being married to Elizabeth Taylor used to have that distinction,” says veteran Oscar writer Bruce Vilanch. ”Now it’s hosting the Academy Awards.”

So why does anyone do it? Certainly not for the money. ”There’s no huge asking price,” says one network executive. ”They get paid [a fee] that, in their world, is insignificant.” Oscar hosts — like their counterparts at the Emmys and Grammys — rarely earn north of $15,000 plus expenses, and fees for their writing staff. Presumably, this pittance is worth it because it gives the host exposure to a global audience who will then go on to watch the host’s TV shows or buy tickets to his or her movies. Sadly, there’s little evidence that it works. The Academy boasts that the show is seen by one billion people worldwide. But only 100,000 new viewers tuned in to watch Jon Stewart on The Daily Show the year after he hosted the Oscars. (For those of you doing the math, that’s. 01 percent of the Oscar audience.) Sure, Ellen DeGeneres parlayed the goodwill she generated from hosting the 2001 Emmys into a successful talk show, but hosting the Oscars this year didn’t make her any bigger than she already was. And as David Letterman and Whoopi Goldberg can attest, the job is fraught with peril.

An Oscar host’s jokes must be ”inside” enough for the industry crowd sitting in the theater, and general enough to amuse the hordes watching at home. You have to be sharp without being cruel. Smart without being elitist. And walk an impossible tightrope between being too edgy and too nice. Stewart got slapped for sheathing his political sword. ”For people who watched him on The Daily Show, no, he didn’t do well, because he couldn’t give them what they wanted,” Vilanch says. ”But his show has a million people, as opposed to 38 million people [in the U.S.] who probably had never seen him before and thought he was very engaging.”

Even if the host manages to hit the right tone, there still may be trouble ahead. It turns out that Hollywood’s most beautiful people are a tough crowd. For one thing, an Oscar audience isn’t there to laugh. They’re there to win. ”They’re going to be really happy to see you for a minute and then it’s going to be, like, ‘Okay, could you just finish now? You’re in the way of my career,”’ Vilanch says. ”The most important thing to remember as the evening goes on is that for every winner there are four losers, and you’re just an obstacle between them and their revenge.”

Finding a host who can pull all of this off is so difficult that the Golden Globes (and occasionally the Grammy Awards) just skip the host altogether and have the performers do the talking. But that comes with its own dangers. (Not to pick on Elizabeth Taylor, but if you missed her struggling to announce Gladiator as a Golden Globe best-drama winner in 2001, consider yourself blessed.) ”These shows are live,” says the network executive. ”You don’t want to send some actor out there as a presenter looking like a deer in headlights.”

Or a lamb to the slaughter. Proving the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, Oscar hosts can pull off a gaffe-free show (thank you, Steve Martin) and still get blamed for its sagging ratings. In fact, viewership has more to do with the movies and stars that are nominated than anything that happens on the stage of the Kodak Theatre. When Titanic won 11 Oscars in 1998, the show drew a massive 55 million viewers. It has yet to regain that peak, thanks to an Academy pattern, in recent years, of nominating art-house films instead of blockbusters (The Lord of the Rings being the exception). Still, the hosts get dinged for the slump. ”It’s absolutely unfair,” says veteran Oscar producer Gil Cates. ”There are hardcore fans who will watch the Oscars regardless of who hosts, and there are fans who watch the show because they are invested in a certain film. That’s 90 percent of the reason why the ratings fluctuate. It’s got very little to do with the host.”

So why are folks like Stewart willing to step back into the buzz saw? Maybe it’s naive optimism. Maybe it’s masochism. Or perhaps it’s a sense of history and the pride of guiding the biggest awards show on the planet. Even with all the negatives, it’s still the Academy Awards, which draws an audience second only to the Super Bowl. You’re not gonna get that kind of gravitas hosting the Shatner roast on Comedy Central. ”It’s a badge of honor to get the Oscars,” says the source close to the show. ”You’re in select company. Everybody wants to be Johnny Carson.”

Stewart may not want to beat Carson’s record (or even try for that third-time charm), but chatting with EW after the Emmys — where he, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert brought down the house while accepting an award for Ricky Gervais — Stewart didn’t seem to realize that he’d just signed on for Hollywood’s most thankless job. In fact, he seemed kinda happy about it. ”I had a ball last time,” he says. ”It’s sort of like a week in Oz. I mean, it’s work, but it’s not digging ditches.”

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