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Published: Tuesday, 3/1/2005

Rock tones down his edgy banter

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Host Chris Rock received a standing ovation for just showing up to host the Academy Awards, and he promptly asked the audience in attendance to "sit your asses down."

That's probably not the sort of language past hosts - including Billy Crystal and Steve Martin - would have used, and that was by design.

The edgy comedian/actor was a conscious choice by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to create buzz and juice ratings for the awards telecast. In the past, Rock hosted awards shows on MTV, which ABC and the Academy no doubt hoped would mean the Oscars would draw more of the younger viewers most prized by TV advertisers.

Without a popular movie frontrunner, like last year's Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Rock became the Academy's calling card to get viewers to tune in to eventually see Million Dollar Baby win the best picture trophy (and three other awards).

Rock took some swipes at Hollywood stars and himself, but elicited more chuckles than belly laughs.

"The only acting at the Oscars is when people act like they're not mad they lost," Rock said. "When Halle Berry won the Oscar, Nicole Kidman was smiling so wide, she should have won an Emmy at the Oscars for her great performance. If you would have done that in the movie, you would have won an Oscar, girl."

Many of Rock's jokes poked fun at the gulf between the entertainment choices of black and white consumers.

"We have four black nominees," Rock joked. "So it's kind of like the Def Oscar Jam."

In one sketch, Rock went to a nearby Magic Johnson-owned theater and interviewed African-American moviegoers who had seen none of the Oscar-nominated movies, but were fans of action-adventure movies, horror films and White Chicks, a 2004 comedy that starred Marlon and Shawn Wayans as black FBI agents who go undercover as two white hotel heiresses to foil a kidnapping plot.

In his opening monologue, Rock also took some swipes at President Bush, mock praising him for getting re-elected the same year the deficit ballooned.

"Just imagine you worked at The Gap and you're closing out your register and you're $70 trillion short," Rock said. "The average person gets in trouble for something like that. Not Bush."

Not everyone appreciated Rock's sense of humor. Sean Penn, taking the stage to present the award for best actress, went out of his way to praise fellow actor Jude Law as one of Hollywood's finest - apparently offended by Rock's earlier comments jokingly suggesting that Law was heavily overexposed as a screen performer.

Picking Rock also had the added advantage of courting coverage of an already controversial TV arena: the live telecast. Ever since Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, network award shows have come under increased scrutiny for fear any profane language or video make it into living rooms across the country. To prevent that, the Oscars aired with a 5-second delay, much to the dismay of producer Gil Cates who, before Oscar night, called it "a terrible idea, but it's ABC's network."

The Motion Picture Academy succeeded in its effort to find a younger audience - but perhaps at the expense of the country as a whole.

A total of 41.5 million viewers tuned in Sunday to watch Million Dollar Baby take the Oscar for best picture. That's down 2 million from last year's show, which honored "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," according to Nielsen Media Research.

ABC undoubtedly hoped for better, after preliminary figures released earlier Monday from the top 56 markets were the strongest they were in five years.

The drop in total viewership was an indication that this year's Oscar ceremony was more popular in the big cities than rural areas, more so than an average Academy Awards, said Larry Hyams, vice president of audience analysis and research for ABC.

Oscar ratings were up from last year among viewers aged 18 to 34 - a prime target for the advertisers who pay millions of dollars for time on what is traditionally the year's highest-rated program after the Super Bowl.

Hyams attributed the boost in young viewership to Rock.

"The academy made a concerted effort to go in a different direction and try to appeal to a younger audience with the Academy Awards, and it appears they have succeeded," he said.

It was the 12th time since 1990 that the Academy Awards drew an audience of between 40 and 46 million people, according to Nielsen. The peak during that stretch was the "Titanic" year of 1998 with 55.2 million, and the low point was 33 million in 2003, when "Chicago" won.

Rock said backstage after the Oscars that he hoped to do it again, although "who knows if they would want me again."

He attracted plenty of pre-Oscars publicity, including speculation about whether he would make jokes at the expense of President Bush (he did) or test ABC censors with curse words (he didn't).

"Put it this way, I don't curse in front of my mother," Rock said. "And my mother was front and center, you know, right in my view. So I could never curse in front of Rose Rock, so why would I do it on television?"

lion Dollar Baby take the Oscar for best picture. That's down 2 million from last year's show, which honored The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, according to Nielsen Media Research. ABC undoubtedly hoped for better, after preliminary figures released earlier yesterday from the top 56 markets were the strongest they were in five years.

The drop in viewership was an indication that this year's Oscar ceremony was more popular in the big cities than rural areas, said Larry Hyams, vice president of audience analysis and research for ABC.

However, Oscar ratings were up from last year among viewers aged 18 to 34.

The Blade wire services contributed to this report. The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.



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