A pan to inside the Shrine and the merciful end (for now) of the 2001 theme (Geddit? Geddit?) gives way to a sustained Suspenseful Chord and the hushed, reverent chanting of a choir of voices repeating, "Oscar night! Oscar night! Oscar night!" over and over and over. Because it's always important to drench the second-highest rated night of television of the year with the familiar musical cues of a traveling national tour of Pippin. Pan to the giant screen on the Oscar set -- a set ripped from Double Dare's Most Abusive Physical Challenge -- and a spacey backdrop on the monitor that looks like the opening credits to Third Rock writ large, punctuated with clips of happy Oscar winners throughout the ages. The 2001 theme kicks up again. I hate a lot of people who have won Oscars in the last ten years or so. We pan through the rest of space and come upon an unbelievably cheesy space set that at least reassures me and the rest of the sci-fi dorks that the set to MST3K hasn't been stripped down and sold for scrap metal. 'Cause that shit right there should be in the Smithsonian. And then, inexplicably, we're inside the International Space Station, where three astronauts (one of whom, I think, is Carrot Top) introduce a cardboard cutout of Steve Martin. Mrs. Top (Tom Servo and Crow float near her in silence) informs her colleagues to "get the ejection pod ready," which I wouldn't think was an acceptable use of humor if I were hovering hundreds of miles above the Earth's surface, but that's just me. Mrs. Top introduces our host Steve Martin, and we're back inside the Shrine, where the refreshingly non-Billy Crystal character strolls out to thunderous applause. And say what you will about his performance on this particular gig (which, comparatively, I thought was fine), the man's great. He's a writer and actor and, though I haven't seen him socially in a while, seems like an all-around nice guy. He's self-deprecating. He's ironic about Hollywood's raging self-love. He's gone gray naturally. People seem to like him. I like him. Russell Crowe does not like him. We'll get to that.
He opens with a joke about Afghanistan that I only get because Jon Stewart explained it to me very slowly on The Daily Show a few weeks ago, then moves on to the Hollywood humor of wondering, "When they asked me back in January if I would host the Oscars, the first thought that came into my mind was, 'Would there be enough time for my facelift to heal?'" A bit of clever visual juxtaposition cuts to a close-up of Michael Douglas, Jowly Joe laughing on the outside but his internal turmoil asking, "Can they do that now? Why, it's like living in the fuuuture! Note to self: find out if Steve's just kidding." Tax cut joke. Gays in Hollywood joke. The crowd applauds Ellen Burstyn. As well they should. "Please, hold your applause until it's for me." Heh. The following subversion is deployed: "Ellen Burstyn did something that not many actresses would do for a role in a movie. She made herself look thirty pounds heavier and twenty years older. And Russell Crowe still hit on her." Small laugh. Monitor shot of Russell Crowe looking stone-faced and unbelievably furious. The laughter grows immeasurably. A long riff on all of the perks of becoming "really famous" is way insider and LA, and no one on this coast cares. To wit: "People say to me, 'Steve, you're a Hollywood actor. You must be so separated from the world. How do you keep in touch with ordinary life?' Well, it is possible and it can be done. Like, the other day, I was having dinner at my house with Mel, Julia, Tom, and Gwyneth." It's a fine premise, but it's belabored for sixty subsequent hours. Mel, Julia, Tom, Gwyneth. At his house. For dinner. The top mast of the U.S.S. Punchline fades into the haze, dips below the horizon, disappears from sight, and is never to be seen again. Still, if this were seven of the last twelve years right now, Mr. Saturday Night would be a mere third of the way through an opening song-and-dance montage, horribly rhyming "Jerry Maguire" with "Spenser For Hire," and I would be underneath the couch, whimpering. This right here is the least of all evils. Hell, this isn't even really that evil. Louis Gossett Junior fails to understand a joke about Crouching Tiger until he realizes he is on camera, and then proceeds to find the joke quite amusing indeed. A Dude, Where's My Car? joke hits, and a joke about taking a nine-year-old to see Gladiator evinces a smile even from Aussie McCrankybloke, relieved that it isn't about him sleeping with Ellen Burstyn. Or maybe he's glad that no one's wrapping up a jaunty ditty in which "Crouching Tiger" and "That Rod Steiger" form some unholy rhyming couplet reunion or how "Erin Brockovich" could "Act like such a…witch!" and I become really glad for the very existence of Steve Martin all over again.