It was bound to happen eventually. Neil Patrick Harris, the man who can host anything, finally stumbled.
Obviously, it’s a thankless job. Academy Awards hosts have the impossible task of impressing millions during a nearly four-hour slog of a ceremony, which has only gotten more difficult in recent years as the snarky crowds on Twitter sharpen their knives in advance. However, some thought Neil Patrick Harris — with tons of hosting experience on his résumé — would finally be the person to conquer this goal.
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As it turns out, not so much. While Harris does a great job hosting the Emmy Awards, the Tony Awards and even the TV Land Awards, the Oscars proved to be too much of a monster for even NPH to tame.
It wasn’t a James Franco situation — Harris really tried. You don’t attempt a “Birdman” parody like this if you’re not trying.
The overall problem was that Harris as host was just okay. Occasionally, he was even good. But the Oscars require way more than that to make an impact. Here’s what didn’t work:
* The wealth of puns and silly jokes fell flat.
“The subject of ‘Citizenfour,’ Edward Snowden, could not be here tonight for some treason,” Harris said after the film won for best documentary feature, followed by eye-rolls everywhere.
“This next presenter is so lovely you could eat her up with her spoon,” he said gleefully before introducing (you guessed it!) Reese Witherspoon.
Or: “Welcome back to the Oscars. Or as I like to call them, the Dependent Spirit Awards.”
* Audience interaction needs to actually be about the audience.
There’s a reason Ellen DeGeneres’s world-famous selfie went crazy viral last year — it featured tons of unlikely stars all together in one photo. While clearly a gimmick, it was still intriguing. However, Harris’s audience gags were all really about him, such as the “joke” that he forced David Oyelowo to read (to prove all jokes were better in a British accent). Or making Octavia Spencer watch over that mysterious lockbox all night, which wasn’t quite worth the payoff for his “magic trick” where he predicted all of the night’s big moments. Oyelowo’s reaction summed it up:
* Make fun of the celebrities — they can take it!
“Often the only jokes that work on Oscar night are general swipes at the wealth and hype that the event represents,” wrote Post TV critic Hank Stuever. It’s true — though NPH got in a dig at Oprah being a gazillionaire, he didn’t really go after anyone in particular. (Save for suggesting the ridiculous $160,000 gift bags contain makeup, shoes and “an armored car ride to safety when the revolution comes.”) We’re not suggesting he go all Ricky Gervais, but some light mocking of celebrities goes a long way.
* And if you’re going to go with insults, go all the way.
Seth MacFarlane was memorable because although he was terrible, he committed to the offensive jokes. NPH started off topical, opening the show with “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — sorry, brightest,” taking a dig at the lack of diversity. But after that, it was all rather tame — even his joke about “American Sniper” Chris Kyle’s 160 kills, “or as Harvey Weinstein calls it, a slow morning” fell flat.
* Read the room.
Clearly, NPH was busy backstage and didn’t hear producer Dana Perry’s acceptance speech for documentary short, when she mentioned her son’s suicide. NPH got up on stage and immediately made fun of her pom-pom gown: “It takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that.” The terribly timed joke went over just about as well as you would expect. Quick reaction is always the mark of a good host, but so is realizing when things just took a somber turn.
Still, it’s Neil Patrick Harris — so at least we got an entertaining opening number.