Forget the Mixed Reviews, Neil Patrick Harris Bombed as Host of the Oscars

The veteran awards show host delivered a tone-deaf, disrespectful performance.

Just imagine the audience in their underwear. Or the host of an awards show, in this case.
Just imagine the audience in their underwear. Or the host of an awards show, in this case. –John Shearer/Invision/AP

Neil Patrick Harris hosted the Oscars last Sunday, and he’s been getting mixed reviews. Some outlets are lauding his performance, while others say he bombed.

He bombed. Which is surprising, given the personal brand he’s built as the “guy who hosts award shows.’’ He could fill the Dolby Theater with the praise he’s garnered for hosting the Emmys, the Tonys, and the TV Land Awards. He’s a charmer, and he was supposed to be charming at the Oscars.

The job of the Oscars host is to guide the television audience through one of Hollywood’s most self-referential evenings. He or she has to strike a balance between respecting the work that’s being honored and understanding that the whole spectacle and pageantry of the evening is inherently ridiculous.

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In fairness, Harris started out strong. That opening song-and-dance number he performed with Anna Kendrick and Jack Black was endearing, adorable, and fun to watch. Probably because Anna Kendrick and Jack Black are endearing and adorable, but also because Harris knows a thing or two about musicals.

That opening led directly to the best supporting actor award, and that’s when he started to falter.

He picked on people

Harris hummed the theme to the Farmers Insurance commercials immediately after J.K. Simmons delivered a powerful acceptance speech for his performance in Whiplash.

Yes, Simmons appears in the Farmers Insurance commercials. But for the host to bring up the most inconsequential work of an actor during the most consequential moment of his career wasn’t funny, it was belittling and mean.

The joke would’ve been inappropriate in that instance no matter what, but Simmons hasn’t enjoyed the same level of fame that Harris has. In fact, Simmons has been “that guy’’ from “that movie’’ for most of his career. And so have many other actors.

Harris once again singled out the individual rather than the industry when he approached David Oyelowo, who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. It was a surprise to many that Oyelowo wasn’t nominated for best actor.

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As Harris began to speak to Oyelowo, the audience cheered. Harris said “Oh, sure, now you like him.’’

But by making Oyelowo, an individual, the subject of his quip, Harris made the problem smaller than it really is. The Academy’s persistent diversity problem is larger than one guy not getting nominated for one award.

He didn’t make fun of himself

If Harris was going to make fun of other people, he also needed to make fun of himself; after all, the host is as much a part of the movie business as the nominees. He should have taken that into account. Self-deprecation earns the host the goodwill he or she needs from the audience to be able to tease others.

But Harris never earned it. He appeared onstage in only his underwear, which one could argue was an attempt to do so (and a reference to best actor nominee Michael Keaton, who does something similar in Birdman). Harris stood there in a pair of tighty whities and said, “Acting is a noble profession.’’

It got some laughs, but Harris is 22 years younger than Keaton, so the bit came across as more of a “I know, I know, I’m in great shape, right?’’ moment than it was “Hey, I’m humiliated in front of millions of people!’’

He didn’t read the room

But Harris’s biggest failure—apparent throughout the evening—was that he didn’t honor the basic rule of improvisation, which is that you listen to what’s going on around you. This became glaringly apparent when he said, “It takes a lot of balls to wear that dress’’ in reference to a ball-covered shawl worn by Dana Perry, director of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.

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On its own, that was one of Harris’ better jokes of the night. But it came right after Perry—whose film was about a crisis hotline for suicidal veterans—dedicated the Oscar to her son, who killed himself in 2009.

Perry herself said she thought the joke was funny, which is great; at least she wasn’t offended. But to many viewers, the comment was tone-deaf and stripped the moment of its poignance.

If Harris paid a little more attention to what was going on around him, he probably would’ve done a better job. Instead, Sunday was an uncomfortable Oscar evening. As Thumper’s old adage goes, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.’’ For Harris, the occasional silence would’ve been an improvement.

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