Jon Stewart stepped quite handily from the intimate Daily Show studio into the Oscars' massive Kodak Theatre: Full of just the right amount of sarcasm (''I can't wait till later when we see Oscar's salute to montages,'' he crowed after the 47th uninspired movie-clip collection) and self-effacement (he got a dig in at his ''fourth lead'' appearance in Death to Smoochy right out of the gate), Stewart seemed both incredulous that he was there and, refreshingly, like he was actually enjoying himself.
Making the Oscar telecast palatable is a feat all the more impressive considering the guy didn't have much to work with. Clip-reel salutes to biopics, ''issue'' movies, and noir films were stunningly flat the largest portion of sympathy goes to poor Jake Gyllenhaal, who was forced to rustle up enthusiasm for a montage about...let's paraphrase it as ''big movies that should not be seen on DVD.'' (There was one decent montage Stewart's collection of unintentionally homoerotic scenes from Westerns, in honor of Brokeback Mountain.)
Amid the snoozy telecast of safe wins and safe speeches, there were a few of the usual moments of Oscar awkwardness: mic hogs who yammer until the orchestra plays them off; winners who try to walk off stage in the wrong direction despite those Amazonian models intent on herding them the other way. Pure Rob Lowe-and-Snow White dance-number silliness, though, was in scant supply the show was too bloated in self-importance this year to bother much with frivolity. The closest thing to jaw-dropping ridiculousness was the interpretive dance that was going on slowly in the background while Kathleen ''Bird'' York performed the theme from Crash. Racism's many evils apparently include zombie-like sauntering.
The biggest problem with the telecast was that, aside from Stewart and Oscar winner George Clooney who seems to be the new Jack Nicholson go-to guy for good-natured mugging very few people seemed to be having fun. When rap group Three 6 Mafia won the Oscar for Original Song, their exuberance prompted Stewart to remark: ''How come they're the most excited people here tonight?'' Luckily, Stewart deftly made up for the staidness in the theater, ribbing Clooney (''How much more can he have?'') and conductor Bill Conti, and deploying some great gags that were pure Daily Show, like the fake campaign commercials for nominees: ''Keira Knightley Acting While Beautiful.'' But he also divorced himself enough from his usual format to feel like a bona fide, charming Oscar host one of the best in recent memory. Bring the guy back next year, and let's hope his audience is energized enough to deserve him. Stewart: A-