And the loser is ... when award show hosts tank on stage

The backlash surrounding comedian Sebastian Maniscalco’s performance as VMAs host puts him in good, or rather bad, company

While MTV is no longer the vanguard of youth culture, the channel has gone to great lengths to keep their annual flagship event, the Video Music Awards, reflective of and subservient to young audiences. Which made it so baffling when they announced that this year’s ceremony, which aired this past Monday’s night, would be hosted by stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco.

Though Maniscalco’s rise to fame over the last year has made him arguably the biggest name in comedy at the moment, he’s also a Gen-Xer whose material is aimed directly at members of his and his parent’s generation making him an odd choice to center a show aimed and teens and tweens around. (An older millennial myself, I’d never heard of him until a few months ago, when my father suggested I check him out.)

No surprise, it did not go well. The disconnect between host and audience was painfully obvious within the first couple seconds of Maniscalco’s opening monologue, kicking off with a corny joke about his mother’s Italian cooking. Things got worse from there, as the comedian tripped over his lines and botched his blocking, before launching into a scolding lecture leveled against the youngsters in the audience. He hit the standard points every two-bit reactionary does: safe spaces this, trigger warnings that, participation trophies, etc.

While the online backlash has been depressingly predictable – those expressing offense at the notion they’re too easily offended play right into Maniscalco’s hands – it hasn’t made his performance look any better, and his turn as emcee is certain to go down as one of the worst in recent memory. But Maniscalco can at least feel secure in the knowledge that when it comes to hosting award shows, he’s hardly the first person to tank it.

Joanna Lumley, the 72nd Baftas (2019)

Prior to last Monday, it looked as though Joanna Lumley was, to use awards show parlance, a shoe-in for Worst Emcee of the Year. While this past February’s BAFTAs didn’t inspire any cultural outrage, her jokes – including one about Steve Coogan getting her into a dress and Spike Lee’s BlakKklansman winning best picture at “the Klan Film Festival” – were met with even more hostile silence than Maniscalco’s.

Kevin Spacey, the 71st Tony Awards (2017)

It’s not just hindsight that makes disgraced actor Kevin Spacey’s hosting of the 2017 Tonys so regrettable. Even at the time – five short months before numerous allegations of sexual assault emerged – Spacey was savaged over his mugging performance, which included bad impersonations of Johnny Carson, Bill Clinton, Bobby Darin (who you’d think Spacey would be too embarrassed to play again after his disastrous 2004 biopic of the singer) and his own House of Cards character, Frank Underwood.

Steve Harvey, the 64th Miss Universe Pageant (2015)

Steve Harvey naming the wrong winner during the conclusion of 2015 Miss Universe contest was immediately recognized as “the worst mistake in TV awards show history,” a designation it still holds. Not even the best picture muck-up during the 2017 Academy Awards could compare to the devastation that the comedian/game show host/relationship advice huckster inflicted upon Columbian contestant and eventual runner-up Ariadna Gutierrez, who saw her life-long dream come true, only for it to be ripped away a few moments later.

James Franco and Anne Hathaway, the 83rd Academy Awards (2011)

The decision to have Anne Hathaway and James Franco team up as hosts for the 2011 Oscars was a blatant attempt to appeal to a younger audience. However, no one took into account how random the pairing was, nor did they recognize that both actors had been in the public eye so much during that time that they were experiencing heavy backlash (though said backlash looks quaint now compared to what was in store for Franco). Still, it might not have been so bad if Hathaway and Franco displayed any trace of chemistry, or at least brought the same level of commitment to their roles, but neither was the case.

Hathaway strained through the material at a manic pace, while Franco came off as detached at best, disdainful at worst (you’d think it would be impossible for a man dressed up like Marylin Monroe to come off as smug, but credit where it’s due, he found a way).

They’ve each since admitted what a mistake the entire thing was, in ways that continue to reflect their disparate attitudes (as well as industry double standards): Franco’s shrugged the entire night off, while Hathaway continues to eat crow.

Norm MacDonald, the 6th Annual ESPY Awards (1998)

Let’s get this out of the way: describing Norm MacDonald’s hosting of the 6th annual ESPY awards as a disaster is not the same as saying he did a bad job. There’s a reason footage of the Canadian comedian’s opening monologue – in which he made relentlessly off-color jokes about Hideki Irabu, Charles Barkley, and, of course, OJ Simpson – has become such a cult favorite: it’s as hilarious as it is brutal.

When the camera pans to the audience, the look on the faces of Ken Griffy Jr. and Charles Woodson, among others, betrays not annoyance or offense, but cold fury and utter disdain (the only reception more hostile than this was when Norm performed at the White House Correspondence Dinner the previous year).

It’s a disaster, yes, but at least its a glorious disaster.

David Letterman, the 67th Academy Awards (1995)

Late Show host David Letterman’s infamous opening monologue for the 1995 Academy Awards doesn’t initially seem deserving of infamy – the first few minutes of jokes are entirely forgettable and inoffensive.

However, as the program progresses, Letterman keeps returning to an annoying joke about how Oprah Winfrey and Uma Thurman’s first names are phonetically similar. It’s not a bit intended to draw out the audience’s patience either, he really just can’t let it go.

It doesn’t help that the rest of his 11-plus minute monologue is filled with jokes that wouldn’t have passed muster with Leno, and by the time he wraps things up, it’s entirely obvious why that year’s Oscars are looked on with so much disdain.

Chevy Chase, the 60th Academy Awards (1988)

Chevy Chase is almost as famous for burning bridges as he is for any of his major roles in film and television. This has been the case since he first broke out in the late 70s, so it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that he’d bring his notorious antagonism to his duties as Oscar host in 1988 (though to be fair, he hosted the year prior and did well enough to be invited back).

Chase comes out the gate swinging, welcoming everyone by announcing “Good evening, Hollywood phonies!” Such open disdain could have made for great entertainment, or at least a refreshing and honest change of pace, but unfortunately, the rest of his opening monologue was filled with awkward jokes (something he attributes to the writers’ strike happening at the same time), rushed delivery, and dare I say phony excitement over that year’s crop of films.

It’s a wonder anyone thought Chase was the right man for the job at the time, and no wonder he was never asked back.

Jerry Lewis, the 31st Academy Awards (1959)

Speaking of final indignities suffered at the Academy Awards, by the time Jerry Lewis hosted for the last time in 1959 (alongside five other co-hosts) he had already done so on two previous occasions. But none of his experience prepared him for the disaster that awaited him on the night in question. Producer Jerry Wald kept cutting segments in order to streamline the show, resulted in a huge mix-up: the best picture winner was announced with 20 minutes of airtime left (imagine that – an Oscars ceremony that runs short … the mind boggles).

Lewis had to improvise for the remaining one-third of an hour. His solution was to bring a couple dozen of the night’s winners and nominees on stage for a giant waltz, while he alternated between leading the orchestra in a rendition of There’s No Business Like Show Business and cracking jokes to the camera. Some of his cracks got legitimate laughs, but watching the footage, you can tell how manic and desperate he is, and how deeply uncomfortable the people on stage are.

It’s unfair to blame Lewis for any of this – if anything, he should be praised for salvaging the broadcast to the best of his abilities. Still, it remains one of the biggest disasters in awards show history, and the rubber-faced funny man was the face of it. There’s no business like show business, indeed.


Zach Vasquez

The GuardianTramp

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